Yes, I would certainly agree that it is important that we carry the fight to the BNP at a local level and work to root out racial hatred at the grass roots of local communities. And yes, I would also agree that the abandonment of what were once Labour’s heartlands, the one-time traditional white working class communities, by not only the Labour Party (in Parliament) but by the political mainstream in general has certainly contributed considerably towards the BNP recent, if still very modest, electoral successes.
What the far-right has understood very well, but which has escaped the political elite due to its electorally-driven preoccupation with the linterests of predominately middle-class voters in the 100 or so key marginals which determine the outcome of general elections, is that the economic changes that Britain has experienced over the last 30 or so years, and particularly in the ten years of the present Labour government in which ‘globalisation’ has been ‘king’, is that in times of change there are both winners and losers. The social conditions that have long been the natural breeding ground for support for extremist political ideas, and particularly for fascism, remain in effect today much as they were in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and 30s. Unemployment, low educational attainment, lack of economic opportunity, all these serve to breed disaffection and stoke the fires of alienation, creating fertile ground in which fascism can flourish, given that one adds only a bit of populist rhetoric and a convenient scapegoat to the mix. In the late 1920s, that scapegoat was the inscrutible, untrustworthy and avaricous Jew, today its the similarly inscrutible and yet, in popular myth, substantially more threatening Muslim who fulfills the appointed role as both the eneny at the gate and the enemy within.
The more things change, it seem, the more they stay the same, at least superficially.
What bothers me, though, about the stance taken by both Jon and Mike is not that they are particularly wide of the mark in their diagnosis of either the problem or of its general symptoms; they’re not. Rather, what concerns me is that neither appears to have too much to offer by way of treatments for the ‘disease’ of racial prejudice but for the tried and trusted (and tired) methods of yesteryear.
Jon appears to imply that what is required from the current government is a volte face and a return, at some small level, to party’s traditional role as champion of the working classes; although I may be doing him rather a disservice here as the apparent oversimplicity of his arguments may well more a product of the manner and form of their presentation than any lack of foresight and serious thought on Jon’s part. His position is also redeemed considerably, in my own estimation, by his open acknowledgement of the unhelpful effects of the government’s ongoing obsession with being seen to sport the shiniest and most pristine set of jackboots of any current political party:
“We have to be honest in saying the debate over the veil, talking tough on immigration and race or the language used in the ‘war on terror’ does not reassure people but actually makes the situation worse.
“It creates fear, tension and suspicion. It divides communities and plays into the hands of extremism.”
Neverthelss, the impression one still gains (perhaps unfairly) it that of a belief that if only the prodigal Labour Party can but find it in themselves to return to their traditional home then those former supporters who have been seduced in its absence by the fascist interloper will naturally slaughter the fatted calf, revert to past alliegances and return to the comfort of the fold.
There may be some small element of truth in such a view and yet one cannot feel entirely confidently this will be either as straightforward, succesful or even as desirable as, at least superficially, is being suggested. The communities we are talking about here are those that, at one time, cleaved most strongly to what can rightly be called ‘Old Labour’, which contrary to popular myth, sat on the right-wing of the party of the time and not the left and which was never quite so enlightened in its view of the politics of race (or gender for that matter) as some would prefer to think. A restoration of the old ties that once bound the party closely to such communities may serve to treat the symptoms of the problem and drive the racist attitudes one finds to be widespread in such constituencies but it is doubtful that this would actually root out those attitudes and values – at best one might hope, perhaps expect, to apply sufficient ‘peer pressure’ to drive those values back underground.
Meanwhile, Mike’s suggestion is that old staple of the left, a new anti-fascist coalition/alliance – stop me if you’ve heard this all before:
What Britain needs is a broad anti-fascist coalition, a new coalition of the willing. This broadest possible coalition against the BNP must be constructed nationally, regionally and locally. It needs to involve trade unions, black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, faith groups, lesbian and gay groups and every other community threatened by the rise of the far right.
I guess we can infer from this that Mike has given up on the existing anti-fascist coalition, Unite Against Fascism, in light (perhaps) of Searchlight’s withdrawal from the organisation last year amid all the usual disagreements over tactics, claims of ‘unauthenticity’ and the suggest that UAF has effectively become little more than another arm of the Socialist Workers Party.
And therein lies the problem that almost routinely afflicts such coalitions for the best intentions that are expressed at the time of their formation. Invariably they attract some whose concern for the own ideological purity and authenticity outweighs the practicalities of working together to carry the fight to the far right with the result that members of ‘coalition’ end up spending more time attacking each other than they do the BNP; meanwhile everyone else exits stage left (or right depending on their personal proclivities) to the tune of that old left-wing classic, ‘One Trot Party’…
One Trot Party sitting in a hall. One Trot Party sitting in a hall.
And if one Trot Party should have a nasty squall, there’ll be two Trot Parties sitting in a hall…
(Repeat ad infinitum to the tune of ‘Ten Green Bottles’)
Unless one constructs a coalition that excludes those groups that have a noted propensity for engaging in in-fighting, which is most of them, then one has little prospect of keeping such a coalition on track and focussed on its real objectives for long without someone walking out in a huff and slating the rest of the coalition for failing to live up to their principles and yet if one does exclude the perennial ‘splitters’ then the coalition find itself under concerted attack for its lack of inclusivity.
Such a coalition is a good idea in principle, but only worth pursuing if one has first mastered the art of herding cats.
What is to be done? (I’m sure that’s been said somewhere before…)
Well, lets make a start (at least for now) by acknowledging right from the outset that the biggest obstacle facing Labour members is…
…other members of our own party, and specifically the current Labour Government.
It is all very well trying to combat the malign influence of the far-right at local level but such efforts will ultimately count for nothing if the current government persists in undermining those efforts by its shameless and unprincipled pandering to the prejudices of the right-wing press.
We cannot effectively counter the growing appeal of the far-right so long as the government persists in allowing its policies on law and order to be driven by the editors of the Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail.
How can we possibly hope to counter, for the example, the pernicious effects of the BNP’s constant stream of anti-Muslim propaganda, while working the doorsteps of local communities, if the people we’re talking to are sitting down to watch news broadcasts and hearing what often amounts to little more than a watered down version of the BNP’s ‘message’ from the likes of Tony Blair and John Reid.
We can’t. Its a simple as that.
If we are to make any inroads into this at all, we have to begin by reminding our elected representatives in Parliament that they have responsibilites beyond those of simply screwing as many votes as possible out the combined readership of the Sun, Express and Mail and that one of those responsibilities is to take an open, public stand against the borderline (and sometimes not so borderline) excesses of the right-wing press, even at the expense of getting the occasional uncomplimentary headline.
It’s now a little over three weeks since, on the back of some very basic research, I was able to demonstrate that a story that appeared in the Sun in early October, which claimed that four Army Officers had been prevented from moving into a house in Windsor after serving in Afghanistan as a result of the house having been vandalised by a local ‘Muslim gang’ was a complete work of fiction, at least insofar as the Sun’s claim that Muslims were responsible for the attack on the property. I also, at the time, e-mail the journalist listed as the lead reporter on the story, Julie Moult, to make her aware that there was no evidence to support the Sun’s Muslim ‘angle’ and suggested that she might consider either retracting or amending her original story.
To date, I have received no reply from the reporter in question – not that I expected one anyway – and the story, which still appears on the Sun’s website, has not been amended to reflect the fact that the local police in Windsor have discounted, entirely, the suggestion that the attack on the property in question was either racially motivated or the work of a ‘Muslim gang’.
Stories like this one are precisely the kind of thing that Labour politicians, and particularly Ministers, should be not only be picking up on but using as a means of taking precisely the kind of public stand against media excess that I advocated above. What better way to call out a newspaper for printing stories that amount to no more than trenchant xenophobia than by exposing them also as having lied to their readers at the same time.
(This is also why, in the process of writing this piece, I’ve decided to forward both these comments and those I wrote a few weeks ago regarding the Sun to Jon Cruddas in the hope that he may find them of use to him).
Against the background of a Labour government that, for all that it castigated the Tory Party for the obvious xenophobia of it’s ‘it not racist to talk about immigration’ posted campaign at the last general election, has done little else but talk about immigration in broadly the same terms ever since, the idea that the recent growth in support for the far-right can be effectively combatted by action at grass roots level is little more than a sick and rather tawdry joke and will remain so until the government wakes up and starts to take ownership of, and responsibility for, the effect that its own naked and transparent pandering to the xenophobic values of the right-wing press are having in affording the BNP and its odious propaganda and undue and underserved legitimacy.
Until that happens, the best we can hope to do at local level, is try and stop the cancer of fascism spreading any further than it already has, but root it out completely? No chance.