Lessons from the elections
Posted by Left Luggage on June 9, 2009
As predicted, the British National Party picked up its first seats in the European Parliament yesterday. With 6.2% of the vote, they won more than five times as much support as the best placed Left challenger. No2EU performed disasterously, and suffered the humiliation of getting 20,000 fewer votes than Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. Bob Crow’s platform barely managed 1% of the vote.
Add to this another strong showing from UKIP and the surprise success of the English Democrats (who won the Doncaster mayoral election and polled at over 2% in the Euros), and this was a very bad election for the British Left. The combined UKIP, BNP and English Democrat vote was 25%, compared to just under 11% for the Greens, No2EU and the SLP.
There are, however, no limits to the capacity of liberals for denial over the failure of the campaign against the BNP. Both Andy Newman and Respect Party Leader Salma Yaqoob in part blame No2EU for taking votes from the Greens in the North West. Others, such as Searchlight’s Sonia Gable, chose to concentrate on the fact that the numerical vote for the BNP fell. Perhaps most ludicrously, blogger Sunny Hundal argues on The Guardian‘s site that the BNP’s success is actually a good thing because it allows us to “expose them in a different way”. He reassures us at the end of his piece:
Most people have enough contact with someone of an ethnic minority to know how stupid racism is. That personal knowledge will always override whatever the BNP says.
All of this is rather like pointing to the fact that 700 people survived the sinking of the Titanic while ignoring the 1,500 that drowned. It is true that the Greens might have beaten the BNP in the North West had No2EU and the SLP not stood, but not if the English Democrats had similarly stood aside for the BNP. It’s also true that the BNP vote fell, but this is hardly surprising given that turnout declined by 4% nationally. The proportion of the vote the party got was up by 1.2% from 2004, when the Party got its best ever vote in a national election. Since then, the BNP has survived Nick Griffin’s trial for incitement to racial hatred, the leaking of its membership list online, the continued growth of far-right rival UKIP and a national anti-BNP campaign supported by the Daily Mirror. While the Party did not win the 12 seats some predicted a few weeks ago, it would be fair to say they have done well in difficult circumstances.
Will the election of two BNP MEPs force a rethink of anti-fascist tactics? The evidence at present is not encouraging. The reponse from some liberals was to propose legal repression of the BNP on the grounds that its constitution violates anti-disrimination law. Apart from doing nothing to address the underlying causes of BNP support, as well as fuelling far-right claims of a liberal anti-BNP plot, legal measures against the BNP risk handing increased power to the state, which could in future be used against the Left.
Searchlight and Unite Against Fascism both seem intent on persisting with the tactic of trying to direct the forces of mainstream liberalism against the BNP. Searchlight has launched a petitition stating that “the BNP do not represent Britain”, while UAF organised a demonstration today with a similar message.
In so far as there is any thinking behind these tactics at all, the aim must be to portray the BNP as outside of “respectable” politics. To a degree this makes sense. As we reported recently, research suggests that people have a far more negative perception of the BNP as a party than they do of its policies, suggesting the idea that the BNP is “unacceptable” stops many people voting for it.
The problem, however, for those on the Left is that any mainstream, broad based campaign against the BNP becomes at the same time a campaign to defend the status quo. While the BNP clearly finds the campaigns against it frustrating, it relishes its image as an “outsider” party fighting the corrupt elite. The following, from an article on the BNP website, is a typical statement:
So of course they all stand in opposition to the BNP. Not just the Liblabcons and the mass media, but the entertainment industry too, business and trade union leaders, and church and academic leading lights. They all put aside the differences they feign for our attention and unite to oppose the BNP.
We must be doing something right.
Most on the Left now agree that the way to undermine the BNP’s efforts to appear radical is to present a genuinely radical and progressive alternative to the established parties and the BNP. Hopefully the Left also now realises that it is far easier to cobble together an alliance of tiny socialist groups than it is to make an impact on the national political scene. Various attempts to present a batch of left wing policies to the electorate have been made over the last ten years, and none has received a vote that could not be dismissed as a statistical error. The fact that A Very Public Sociologist felt No2EU would have had a successful election if it beat Respect’s 1.5% of the vote achieved in 2004 tells us something about the success of the Left’s efforts over the last decade.
We and others have written at length about where the Left has gone wrong, but we can learn some lessons from the BNP. After its success on the Isle of Dogs in 1993, the BNP took the strategic decision to abandon squaddism and constant confrontations with the Left, and start the long road towards electability. The first stage of this process involved taking very simple steps to build the trust of communities in areas where the Party thought they could win support. This has long been underway in Stoke on Trent, where BNP deputy Simon Darby says one of the BNP councillors “walks around all day with his garden tools doing old people’s gardens.” Through the process of slowly winning support, the BNP has fine-tuned its ability to link popular concerns to its nationalist politics. Current campaigns include the “Save the Great British Pub” campaign, as well as the now infamous “British Jobs for British Workers” campaign, whose title was stolen by Gordon Brown and later used as a slogan by some of the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikers.
No doubt the BNP leadership would be happier discussing international Jewish conspiracies or the superiority of the white race than protesting the sell off of independent pubs, but they recognise that this would be lunacy, given contemporary political culture and the nature of British society. Very few voices in the Party are heard arguing that this represents a betrayal of nationalist principles. Rather, this strategy is seen as articulating the BNP’s politics in a way ordinary people can relate to.
Until the Left begins to grapple with and provide answers to the everyday concerns of ordinary people, rather than simply presenting a radical wish list that bears no relation to the way most people view the world, there will be many more elections where we are forced to look on as the BNP benefits from voter discontent.