Posted by Left Luggage on May 5, 2009
This week, the mainstream and Left media have spent of lot of time covering the exploits of the British National Party. In June, the far right have their best ever chance of gaining a seat in the European Parliament, and with it hundreds of thousands of euros to fund the BNP’s activities.
Gone are the days when the liberal left attempted to deal with the rise of the BNP solely by painting them as criminals, sociopaths and “Nazis”. This strategy – developed by groups like Searchlight and the Anti-Nazi League – is still sometimes deployed, but anti-fascists now generally agree that the causes of ultra right growth must also be addressed.
ANL founder and former New Labour minister Peter Hain is frank about the scale of the threat posed. He begins his Guardian article by warning: “Unless the rest of us get our act together, the British National party could easily win three seats – and quite possibly six or more – in June’s European elections.” By “the rest of us”, Hain seems to mean liberal and decent-minded members of society from across the political spectrum, who should come together to stop the poisonous minority of fascists leading sections of the unwitting public astray. Hain does depart from liberal orthodoxy by referring to some of the underlying social causes of the BNP’s rise:
With unemployment and job insecurity rising, some major construction sites appearing to bar local unionised labour, and affordable housing in short supply, there are classic conditions for the BNP’s racist and fascist politics to thrive.
However, later in the article he suggests that the campaign against the BNP should be orchestrated by the Labour Party, which is partly responsible for creating the lamentable social conditions Hain refers to.
Hain’s article is contradictory throughout. He mentions the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when anti-fascists prevented Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts marching through London’s East End, as an example of how to fight the BNP, but ignores the fact that the Cable Street demonstration was organised by working class activists rooted in community campaigns. By contrast, the kind of groups Hain advocates we support today, such as Unite Against Fascism, have a largely middle class membership and few links to the communities where they campaign.
The fascinating report for BBC Radio 4 into the BNP Euro election campaign sheds some light on the reasons for the BNP’s rise. The journalist interviews voters in a working class area of inner city Manchester and sees how resentment over gentrification and unemployment is pushing former Labour voters into the arms of the BNP, who skilfully exploit concerns over social issues. Local BNP activists interviewed claim they want to tackle crime, tidy up the area and restore civic pride. They do not dwell on “race”, but instead emphasise the kind of social problems that any good, left wing community campaigner would seek to address. The concerns of local people are counterposed to that of an uncaring “elite” and a “totalitarian” EU.
The BNP claim that it is fighting a political establishment intent on crushing it is fuelled by the hysterical media reaction to the slightest hint of BNP racism. Socialist Worker jumped on the bandwagon this week, citing an internal BNP document (leaked by Searchlight to the BBC radio programme just mentioned) as evidence of the BNP’s “Nazism”. The author hopes that the document, in which the BNP urges its activists to refer to non-white Britons as “racial foreigners”, will set back the Party’s efforts to become a “respectable mainstream party”. In fact, it could be argued that the BNP wishes to be seen as radical rather than respectable, and that condemnations from the political elite and the media help reinforce that perception.
Also in SW this week, the paper takes the opportunity provided by the Ian Tomlinson affair to address the role of the police. The article, which reads a little like a leftwing version of a Newsround bulletin, outlines the relationship of the police to the people:
We are told that the police exist for our benefit. They are said to protect us from crime and are supposed to respond to all people throughout society equally – unless you fall into the “criminal” category.
The police uphold “law and order”. But this role doesn’t work in everyone’s interests – it backs up some people much more than others. The law and order that the police protect is that of the rich and powerful. These are the people who own and control the resources of society – the factories, call centres and businesses.
The implication of this is that the police should be abolished, and will be after the revolution. Unlike blogger A Very Public Sociologist, the author does not address the question of what can be done in the short term to force the police to serve working class communities. Nor does she countenance the idea that there might be public support for the existence of a police force due to widespread fear of crime. As we have pointed out, such an approach leaves the Left dangerously out of touch with the views of working class people.
David Osler addresses the failure of the Left to engage with ordinary people in a post on his blog. Like ourselves, he laments the fact that the opportunity presented by the recession is likely to be missed because the Left is no position influence the political agenda. Osler questions both the priorities and the strategies of the Left:
Most socialist groups became sects in the full sociological meaning of the term, and to question a closed belief system was automatically equated to heresy. Tendencies that once – and quite rightly so – derided student vanguardism and guerillaism as ‘substitutionist’ fell foul to analoguous elephant traps, relating primarily to anti-capitalist youth and the bourgeois and clerical layers of religious minorities rather than the organised working class.
Osler’s conclusion, in which he stresses the need for the Left to “intellectually regenerate”, is said by the author of the Directionless Bones blog to overemphasise the role of ideas and neglect material and organisational factors.
… instead of/as well as ruling parties and their ilk having nice ideas, there must be a social force outside of politics that has the strength to revolutionise society. By ’strength’ I mean, the capacity to begin running society in its new form.
We don’t think it is quite that easy to separate the battle of ideas from the battle of forces. By formulating a coherent ideological position that builds on existing common sense notions among working class people, it is possible for the Left to increase its strength and that of the working class.