Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Where now for anti-fascism?

Posted by Left Luggage on July 5, 2009

Following the initial attempts by mainstream anti-fascists to spin the European election results, are there any indications that lessons have been learned from BNP’s victory?

There are differences in the strategic approaches of Searchlight and Unite Against Fascism, but in the past, mainstream anti-BNP campaigns have shared a number of features. What are these features, and are they still intact following the Euro elections?

1) “Denying them the respectability they crave.”

This element of the strategy is aimed at those who might be tempted to vote BNP – presumably those on low incomes, who hold hardline anti-immigration views and who are disenchanted with establishment politics. The goal is to put off potential BNP voters by creating the impression that the Party is “beyond the pale” of what is respectable. Elements of this strategy include emphasising the “Nazi” pedigree of certain BNP leaders, listing BNP members’ criminal convictions and arguing that they’re somehow trying to “take advantage” of the democratic process in order to undermine it. To the degree this tactic is successful, it has the useful side effect of legitimising arguments for legal restrictions on the BNP. If they are not a “normal” political party, there is no reason to extend to them the rights enjoyed by other parties. This argument for legal restrictions is often referred to as the “No Platform” argument (although militant anti-fascists might protest that “no platform” means something quite different).

In the case of UAF, all three elements of this strategy appear to have survivived the Euro election car crash in tact, judging from the interview SWP and UAF leader Martin Smith gave to Channel 4 News. Searchlight, however, seems to have abandoned this strategy on the grounds that the BNP has already achieved respectablity. The organisation’s founder, Nick Lowles, admitted:

We also have to accept that the political landscape has shifted. Searchlight comes from a proud tradition of No Platform, a belief that fascism should not be allowed to air its politics of hate publicly. We have always opposed legitimising fascism through public debate and where fascists try to incite hatred within communities through provocative marches and actions, we have backed mobilisations against them.

While I still adhere to this in principle I also believe that we have to accept a new reality. Firstly the BNP has MEPs and whether we like it or not Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons will appear more regularly on television. No platform agreements between political parties were already breaking down before the election, with only Labour holding to them, and this process is likely to quicken now.

Although Searchlight seem to have quietly shelved “No Platform”, there is no sign that UAF will do the same. The group’s main constituent organisation – the Socialist Workers’ Party – hinted at its intentions with a passage in its open letter to the Left:

The Nazis’ success will encourage those within the BNP urging a “return to the streets”.

This would mean marches targeting multiracial areas and increased racist attacks. We need to be ready to mobilise to stop that occurring.

The BNP’s “real aim” (so the SWP story goes) is not to win elections, but to use street violence to foment racial tension. Therefore, it should be treated as a Nazi criminal conspiracy rather than a political party. Tactics appropriate for dealing with a rival party (refuting your opponent’s arguments and trying to convince people of your own worldview and arguments) are pointless because they do nothing to stop the BNP achieving its real aims. Instead, our focus should be on the street-level activities of the far right. Its public marches should be robustly countered with “shows of force” that will demoralise the fascists. A glance at UAF’s “events” page shows how the group’s activities revolve almost entirely around demonstrations and rallies.

It is easy to see how this narrative aids SWP recruitment. It offers impressionable middle class students the prospect of regular, high adrenaline confrontations with the fascists, rather than the less glamourous task of tackling the BNP politically in working class communities where they are successful.

It goes without saying that these tactics, and the view of the BNP that underpins them, are completely wrong-headed and indeed counter-productive. But since they are so useful as recruitment tools for the SWP, and as a way of side-stepping the challenge of opposing the BNP politically, they will probably be around for some time to come.

2) “…to unite the broadest possible spectrum of society to counter this threat.”

The above is from the “about us” section of the UAF website. To unite the overwhelming majority who are not attracted to the BNP seems uncontroversial. As we’ve noted previously, research indicates that the BNP is so disliked by a large majority of the population that even those who share many of the Party’s views on policy are put off from voting for it. However, there are a number of problems with the way “broad-based anti-fascism” works in practice.

Firstly, opening up anti-fascist campaigns to “all those opposed to the BNP” in reality means “those with the greatest interest in opposing the BNP, and those who are most passionately opposed.” Politically, this means Labour, who risks losing some of its core supporters to the BNP. Socially, it means liberal sections of the white middle class as well as politically organised groups of black and Asian people.

One way of drawing on the support of such groups is to “swamp” the BNP vote in elections by maximising the turnout among people certain not to vote BNP. This was the strategy used on the Isle of Dogs, after the election of BNP councillor Derek Beacon in 1993. The following year Beacon’s vote rose – but not as much as the anti-BNP vote, as Asian voters turned out in large numbers.

Another manifestation of this tactic is the use of large anti-fascist carnivals. UAF organised a Love Music Hate Racism carnival in Victoria Park, Hackney, days before the Mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections in 2008. The 60000-strong audience was young, ethnically mixed, and very unlikely to vote BNP. Four days later, the BNP won its first seat on the GLA thanks to thousands of votes from white working class people in Barking, Dagenham and Havering.

Clearly, the drawback to this approach is that it makes no attempt to engage with the growing minority who do support the BNP. It also guarantees that anti-fascist campaigns are organised and staffed by people with no connections to the communities where the BNP are winning votes. Groups of young, middle class students knocking on doors in post-industrial Northern towns are unlikely to have a positive impact, and may well reinforce the perception among potential BNP voters that anti-fascists are social and cultural outsiders. As Searchlight now admits:

Class politics exists but not as we once knew it. The Labour Party, in line with many other centre-left parties across western European and Scandinavia, draws the bulk of its support from the middle class, public sector workers and minority communities, especially in the big cities. The BNP, on the other hand, is the voice of a section of the white working class, particularly in those areas of traditional industry that have experienced the greatest economic and social upheaval over the past twenty years.

Nick Lowles now advocates that anti-BNP campaigners “build alliances within the community” rather than bus in liberals from elsewhere. Indeed, since 2005, when the BNP got 19% of the vote in Barking and Dagenham at the General Election, Searchlight has talked about the need for anti-BNP campaigners to match the concern the Party shows for local “bread and butter” issues. And yet elsewhere on Searchlight’s website, we see evidence that they intend to persist with attempts to mobilise the anti-BNP majority. They urge readers to sign a petition stating that the BNP “does not represent them”. This can only be a tool to mobilise those who strongly oppose the BNP, since it cannot hope to have any impact on those who are tempted to vote for the Party.

One reason Searchlight is unlikely ever to  fully embrace an anti-fascism rooted in working class community politics is that it has consistently refused to advocate support for any other party than Labour. In order to gain the trust of working class people, a local anti-BNP campaign would have to tackle the problems local people felt were most pressing. This, in turn, would involve opposition to the Labour Party, which in most far-right growth areas is blamed for contributing to many of these same social problems.

3) Taking the politics out of anti-fascism.

Perhaps the most significant defect of mainstream anti-fascism is the way it refuses to take on the BNP politically. Due to the need to maintain support from across the political spectrum, the politics of mainstream anti-fascism is defined by what it is opposed to, rather than what it supports. In practice this means anti-racism or simply anti-“extremism”. Such a stance inevitably becomes a defence of the liberal democratic status quo. The Commune recently reported on a TV appearance by UAF’s Weyman Bennett, in which he criticised the BNP on the grounds it would not be able to “restore the system to equilibrium” following the recession. 

The SWP leaders who back UAF would argue they support a “twin track” strategy – campaigning against fascism through single issue anti-BNP groups, and providing an alternative to the establishment parties through their political work. The counter-argument is that by joining UAF or Searchlight campaigns, socialists are spending valuable time that could be devoted to patiently building support for a progressive working class alternative.

Since without single-issue anti-BNP campaigns both Searchlight and UAF would be out of business, we can expect them to continue to make the argument for the “twin track” strategy. Searchlight are at pains to insist on such an approach in a recent article:

The BNP success has led some to argue that we need to politicise anti-fascism, even to offer a political alternative to the BNP. While there are clearly public policy failings and a democratic deficit, it is not our job to fill this void. We must leave that to the political parties, old or new.

To justify this position, Searchlight refers to a YouGov poll that shows BNP voters have much more reactionary views on race and immigration than the average voter. These results show that while a Left alternative to the BNP might “might peel off some BNP supporters who feel economically marginalised, it will not in itself address the strongly held racist views of many BNP voters”, argues Lowles. These must be countered through specifically anti-racist campaigns that “dispel racist myths”.

What the YouGov survey results actually seem to show is that BNP voters are disproportionately working class, feel particularly hostile towards the political establishment and articulate their social grievances in terms of race. As Searchlight acknowledges, reactionary views on race have become so embedded that they are part of the culture in some working class communities. Roger Hewitt’s excellent study Routes of Racism showed how this process happens. He found that racist views among young people in South East London were sustained through a worldview that saw white working class people as victims of unfair treatment. He argued that the way to deal with this kind of “social racism” was to disrupt the “route” these racist views took. In practical terms, this meant tackling the causes of peoples’ grievances and helping to construct non-racist explanations for unfairness.

This is not simply a matter of chanting “unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration/ bullshit, come off it/ the enemy is profit!” as the SWP are wont to. It will involve painstaking community work, and it must involve concessions to the way people in areas at risk to the BNP see the world. More urgently, it will require socialists to leave the safe world of liberal anti-fascism and begin to put down roots in working class communities.


10 Responses to “Where now for anti-fascism?”

  1. Waterloo Sunset said

    Good analysis and one I’d broadly agree with. Some points that spring to mind, in no particular order.

    1. While the political bankruptcy of mainstream antifascism is the main problem, we need to be realistic about the militants as well. While Antifa’s approach to this election wasn’t anywhere near as bad (as at least they didn’t line up with the establishment), their anarchist fortune cookie sloganeering (“Don’t vote! Organise!) did no good at all from what I can see. I’m coming more and more to the view that, while they’re very good at fighting the NF/BPP sideshow, Antifa simply aren’t suited to countering the BNP in the current climate. I suspect that’s why they’ve ended up in the political deadend of attacking BNP members at home.

    2. Whether the “Anybody but Nazi” of the UAF or the overt support for Labour from Searchlight, this particular tactic is a real problem for the working class focused left. It’s allowing the BNP to present themselves as the radical alternative by default. And it’s getting antifascism seen as a politically mainstream movement, in the very same communities where the BNP are getting a foothold through presenting themselves as anti-establishment. Searchlight providing handy photo opportunities for Gordon Brown might please their allies in the Labour party, but as a tactic it’s utterly disasterous.

    3. I think the “Not in our Name” petition is even more dubious than you suggest. It’s not just that it won’t have any effect on the BNP’s target audience. It’s telling people considering voting BNP because they feel alienated from the mainstream that they don’t matter anyway. That’s quite possibly going to make BNP activists out of BNP voters.

    4. We need to drop the Nazi tag. Whether the BNP are ideologically Nazi at their core is really just a matter of academic debate currently. I’d see them as more of a euronationalist fascist grouping in the style of the FN, but some would disagree. But even if I’m wrong on that, the blunt fact is that BNP voters have been told that they’re Nazis and it isn’t having an effect, for whatever reason.

    We need to downgrade the “BNP as criminal organisation” theme as well. In many of the areas we’re talking about, at best, people don’t see a criminal conviction as a big deal. And, at worst, it actually reinforces the “BNP as radical alternative” meme. That’s mostly. There’s certain crimes we should still be focusing on. Paedophilia being an obvious one. While not charged, the fact that Collett was hitting on underage girls should be used far more widely in campaigning.

    5. However, we should also recognise where the BNP is currently vunerable. The first is class. At the moment, there isn’t a major class issue like the Poll Tax. If there is, the BNP may have problems. They’re walking a bit of a tightrope between trying to appeal to disillusioned working class people and the well-heeled Colonel Blimps in the rural areas they target.

    We also need to shift away from the liberal antifacist tactic of presenting it as a case of ‘everyone’ (for which read the political mainstream) against the BNP. Instead, we actually need to be making clear that the BNP aren’t a real alternative to the establishment parties. A close eye needs to be kept on things like expenses claims, BNP councillors not doing their jobs etc. And much more of a focus on the past records of BNP candidates who’ve defected from a mainstream party, in particular, past support for anti-working class policies in parliment.

    • Hi Waterloo Sunset,

      Thanks for the comment. You make some good points, which I’ll address using your numbering.

      1. I don’t know much about Antifa but I agree that they certainly don’t seem to have a clue how to deal with the current threat from the BNP, which is clearly political rather than physical. It seems to me that the members of AFA / Red Action who took the decision to follow the BNP away from the streets and into the electoral arena were right to do so. The NF and other miniscule groups who have stayed with street level politics are completely irrelevant, and the same applies to any group that is obsessed with them.

      2. Totally agree.

      3. Ditto. It’s difficult to imagine that Searchlight’s organisers don’t anticipate these problems. As I said in the article, I feel the real motivation behind the petition is to attempt to recruit middle class liberals appalled by the BNP victory.

      4. Agreed. I don’t think the “Nazi” label was ever used as an analytical term to describe the BNP’s politics, but as a scare tactic. As such, it insults the intelligence of would-be BNP voters. That’s apart from the other downsides you mention, which I agree with you on.

      5. Again, agreed. As AFA put it, using a slightly clumsy phrase, we need to “out-radicalise” the BNP. The problem is that the BNP have had an easy ride, in the sense that very few groups have taken them on politically and addressed their policies honestly. The tactic has mostly been to smear them, which gives the impression that there’s no answer to their politics.

      Again, thanks for the comment.


      • Paul B said

        A useful article by LL and a well presented demolition of the current approach of the middle class left which carries more than an echo of IWCA thinking and approach.

        Could I ask LL what it is doing about “leaving the safe world of liberal anti-fascism and begin to put down roots in working class communities” Is LL a group/organisation/is it doing work in working class communities or is it something else?

      • Hi Paul,

        Certainly most of us are involved in community politics, but we’re not a community group. Our aim at the moment is to try and convince those who see themselves as “on the Left” or call themselves “socialists” that the Left’s current approach is counter productive.

        In doing this, we hope to make some links with groups and individuals who share our views on the way forward. In fact, we’re already making some progress in this respect.

        As individuals, we are trying to further our involvement in community politics – especially in London, where some of us are based. Ultimately, we’d like to do whatever we can to help create links between the various groups and individuals involved in working class community politics.

        And yourself?



      • Paul B said

        Quite similar as you ask – been heavily involved but became disgusted and horrified with the middle class ‘left’. Militant/SP in my case. Remained active however in trade union work and organising and also anti fascist work for some time. Also based in London.

        I look forward to the development of the site and wish you luck in your efforts to convince the ‘left’ of the error of their ways. You will need it 🙂

  2. Duncan said

    The Nazis’ success will encourage those within the BNP urging a “return to the streets”.

    Who exactly are these people? I mean, that just isn’t true and the person writing it must know it isn’t true either.

    In fact, electoral success shows that the strategic decision of choosing to focus on elections was the right one not continuing low level street confrontations with opponents.

    • Hi Duncan.

      Yes, I can’t imagine anyone who knows anything about the BNP thinks they are about to “return to the streets”. To do so would be to throw away all the gains they have made in the last 15 years. That line is mainly for the benefit of excitable students, I feel. It also justifies the SWP’s refusal to engage with the BNP politically, as I said in the article.

      Thanks for the comment.


      • Harry White said

        However, that’s not to say that some former (?) BNP members aren’t going down that path – for example, Chris Renton in whose name the English Defence League site is registered appears on the leaked BNP membership list. The EDL have recently had outings in Whitechapel, Wood Green and Birmingham.

    • antigerman said

      Duncan: completely agree.

      However, oddly, there seems to be quite a lot of talk about right-wing “violent extremism” from the mainstream media recently. I was in a meeting last night where a copper spoke about this as a priority in London, and see this at the Telegraph:

  3. Paul B said

    Harry, be careful not to over estimate EDL or what their miniscule presence means. They are a mix of internet loons and bored football hoolies looking for a ruck essentially (no doubt some of them are fascists, but some of them are also black footbal firm members/hangers on too if the composition of the mob involved in the Luton events are typical).

    It is imperitive that our energy and resources are not denuded in a pointless battle with nutters looking for a ruck, who are going nowhere fast. We can leave that to others I would suggest.

    It is inevitable that in their doomed attempt to respond to the recent success of the BNP that the ‘left’ will pretend that the far right can be countered by mobilising to stop marches and the like. However, the BNP would be insane to abandon their current tactics which are working and return to marches and ‘well aimed boots’ which didn’t. The BNP are not insane.

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