BEN TURLEY looks at some of the social and political roots of the BNP’s success in northern and midlands towns, and offers some suggestions for how they should be tackled in the future.
The local council election results on 1 May 2003 confirmed the BNP as a significant electoral force in some northern and midland towns, particularly Burnley, Halifax and Stoke-on-Trent. For those of us who live on or near the epicentre of this political shift, the tremors are still being felt. Understanding the phenomena, and how it differs from the rise of the National Front in the mid-1970s, is vital if we are to protect liberal democratic society from further damage. It is not my intention to give an authoritative statement on the reasons why the BNP has emerged as a new political force, but to provide ‘my take’ on what has happened in the hope that this may lead to further discussion and, ultimately, a more effective strategy to deal with it.
In a previous article, I outlined the socio-economic and cultural context in Halifax where I have some direct experience of the BNP’s rise (see Democratic Socialist, Winter 2002/03). I do not intend to repeat myself now except to point out that, as a rule, the BNP currently appear to be gaining support in medium sized towns which are still scarred by industrial decline, and which, if they are anything like Halifax, are deeply parochial. In addition, confining my observations to Halifax, the Labour movement as a grassroots political force has almost disappeared. Trade Union membership is very low and, although there is still some engineering and textile manufacturing, the majority work in retail, business, financial services or for small building, plumbing, joinery and electrical firms. You have to look long and hard to find traces of the organised proletariat, in the classical Trotskyist sense, but there’s an awful lot of petty bourgeois and lumpen proletariat out there.
This decline of traditional industries has also served to isolate the Pakistani community in Halifax and the rest of the country, confining the economic activity and employment of many within their own community. More than two thirds of this community come from Mirpur, in the Kashmir. Emigrants from this region to the Middle East and the UK provide 80 per cent of Pakistan’s foreign currency. This is also a trade route for heroin, thanks in part to the growth of the drugs trade after the CIA-funded war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There are reports that Pakistani criminals are now attempting to corner the heroin market in the UK.
Add to this a Mafia-style code of honour and we have, for instance, the planned and deliberate destruction of Aziz Chishti’s family in Huddersfield in May 2002 when five girls between the ages of six months and 13 years were burnt to death in an arson attack by a group of young men of Mirpuri origin aged between 19 and 25. Many white people feel genuinely intimidated by these gangs of Asian youth (who dislike white people for obvious reasons and feel the dislike whites have for them). The Left has long been ignoring such complaints. The BNP is not.
Unemployment amongst Asian youth and social exclusion has been the seedbed for this growth of crime and gang culture, which culminated in the Bradford riots. It would be crass not to acknowledge, however, that this is only part of the story. Many families struggle to get on in ‘multicultural’ Britain and find their way blocked by racist attitudes, particularly in the professions. The community tends to stick together, perhaps because of racism, but also through of its own sense of cultural difference, and some of the most talented lawyers, accountants and IT specialists in the country end up working in local high street businesses rather than taking their places among the brightest and the best of the commercial world. Many others are discouraged completely.
Despite the vigorous and creative discussions amongst young people (particularly young women, in my experience) about their identities, the political leadership of this community is almost exclusively male, and largely corrupt, sometimes to the extent that some local dignitaries may be involved in organised crime. There is no apparent political expression of the re-thinking of identity which is going on amongst sections of Muslim youth.
Political forces, such as trade unionism, for instance, are not significant in the community, partly because of its patriachal control and nepotism (though a lot of the work now done is in areas with low rates of unionisation). Between the mosque, the gang leaders and the community fathers, there is not much space for secular and democratic political organisations to grow. Criticism of this tends to attract the epithet of ‘racism’, and white multiculturalists rarely make public comment. The Labour Party is also happy to turn a blind eye so long as the vote is mobilised, although ‘twas ever thus, regardless of the ethnic origin of the vote.
Since its defeat in Mixenden in January, the Labour Party in Halifax has been largely content to plot and gossip following the announcement of Alice Mahon MP’s retirement and the search for a successor. There are attempts to organise it as a campaigning force (in other words, to do some canvassing and leafleting), but the party itself remains largely sectarian in its attitude to other groups that are campaigning against the BNP. On 1 May, it lost another two seats, one to the BNP in Illingworth and another to the Liberal Democrats in Mixenden. There, the BNP came second and Bob Metcalfe, leader of the Labour Group and a councillor since 1979, a close third. Not surprisingly, this very decent and honourable man felt humiliated.
During the campaign, the BNP had issued a leaflet with a photo of a derelict yard in Mixenden ward with the message, ‘Bob Metcalfe has been your councillor for 23 years. Has anybody noticed?’ Deeply unfair as this was, it did expose the weakness of the party and its council group. Very little has been done to get out and meet people outside the circuit of council and voluntary organisation meetings, and the modus operandi of the party has been to sort out difficulties through administrative and bureaucratic means, rather than by mobilising popular campaigns. Bob’s intense caution and innate conservatism, his fear of making a mistake and letting people down, was his downfall. Political lives seem to be built out of such terrible ironies.
Regional office, however, did respond more positively to the Mixenden defeat in January, and this contributed to Labour’s only success in May. George Pope, a regional official, produced a sketchy but perceptive analysis of what is going on, concluding, “It’s not about what they (the BNP) do, it’s about what we do. It’s not about them, it’s about us.” He told the Halifax party to build relationships with voters. Listen. Learn. Respond. This point was illustrated by the victory of Labour in Town ward. Significantly, the candidate who won was a former Liberal Democrat, who used Lib Dem electoral techniques (lots of leaflets and surveys, and just working damned hard at voter contact). He is, of course, treated with enormous suspicion by Halifax Labour party. Once a Liberal Democrat always a Liberal Democrat.
George also hit the nail on the head (in my opinion) by pointing out that, “The BNP are no longer just about racism. Yes, the racism is there, but the image is of a party that cares about you and your concerns. THEY ARE LISTENING, because the other parties are not.” For instance, Adrian Marsden, the BNP councillor who won in Mixenden in January, has (though this story may be apocryphal) placed skips at his own expense around Mixenden estate to deal with the litter problem. Written on the side of each skip is the slogan, “VOTE BNP”.
Therefore, it is worth turning to the BNP itself and examining its policies. The BNP describes itself as a “popular, democratic nationalist party”. Whatever the secret affiliations of its leading activists, it is careful to present a radically different face to the electorate. Reading its 2003 local government election manifesto, it is possible to identify a number of key areas.
1. Anti-crime policies
Many of these link to the BNP’s intention to revive urban spaces as economically active areas, with a strong community presence. These policies include promoting flexible working and home working amongst council employees (allowing people to work from home and be in their neighbourhoods during the day); funding school holiday activities; ensuring planning decisions reflect community needs; evicting ‘problem’ tenants; raising punitive taxes on commercial or leasehold residential premises which are left empty; encouraging the police to take race hate crime against whites seriously, “including … the use of plain clothes police officers as decoys…”; and opposing the resettlement of paedophiles in the community, passing on any information which they receive about these offenders to the public.
2. Low taxes and the promotion of volunteering or self-help schemes
The BNP wants to be seen as a party which will reduce the tax burden on small businesses and promote the civic culture of volunteering; forcing asylum seekers to clean up the streets (although with no job substitution); establishing credit unions, Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) and micro-currencies; and allowing poorer people to pay their taxes via these schemes.
3. Protecting the environment and promoting healthy lifestyles
These include ending canteen style school meals and having one supervised sitting per day, providing healthy food; promoting organic food and healthy eating; restoring school milk; protecting the greenbelt and ensuring new housing developments occur on brownfield sites.
4. Returning to the values of traditional education
By not employing anyone from teacher training college; running campaigns to allow smacking and demanding referenda if Clause 28 is abolished; re-introducing Christian worship; promoting healthy eating in school (see above); and banning halal meat on the grounds of animal cruelty.
5. ‘Equal treatment’ policies
Removing council employment quotas (even though they don’t exist); conducting a full audit into spending bias on ethnic minorities and, where such bias is found, correcting it; awarding licences on the basis of “the average make-up” of the local population.
There are two sources for these policies: Tory party ideology (traditionalism, low taxes, protecting the countryside, ‘family values’, volunteering), and Green and environmental concerns. Beneath most of these policies is an undercurrent of racism and homophobia. Some of it is barking; some mere gesture politics. Is it fascist though? There is not the slightest touch of militarism, nothing about destinies, heroism, or willpower.
There is a very useful essay by Umberto Eco in which he defines Ur-Fascism – or a list of features typical of all forms of fascism. Some of them like ‘the cult of tradition’, ‘rejection of modernism’, the ‘appeal to the frustrated middle class’, ‘fear of difference’, are clearly there. Others, such as ‘life is permanent warfare’, ‘everybody is educated to become a hero’, or being against ‘rotten parliamentary governments’, are not present, at least not yet. However, Eco warns that wherever even one of these features is present fascism may “coagulate around it”. This is certainly a dangerous far right politics which seeks to promote racism and division. How much more do we need to say?
It is important to re-iterate that the BNP does have a shadow organisation: Combat 18. There are analogies between its relationship with this openly fascist organisation and the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Some members of the BNP are reputedly also Combat 18 members, and photographs of ANL activists and sympathisers have appeared on the Combat 18 website, which asks for details of names and addresses. The strap line of this organisation says, “While it is time to be ‘legal’, we must stolidly endure what the puppets of the capitalist system see fit to inflict. And when it is time to revolt, we must be prepared to unleash all the furies of hell.”
Whether the leadership of the BNP are as close to Combat 18 as Adams and McGuiness are to the IRA, personally, I doubt, although, of course, I could be wrong. What I suspect is that the BNP has its own factions, some still clinging to the ways of the old NF, some who see the BNP’s current direction as a ‘sell-out’, and a political leadership which is electorally pragmatic, and prepared to re-think assumptions.
Whether the BNP is fascist or not, attempts to undermine its vote by calling the BNP a nazi party are not working. The Anti-Nazi League concentrated its campaign on Illingworth, which was lost, and in Sowerby Bridge, where only the renewal of the Tory vote by a team of young Tory activists, pushed the BNP into a close third place. ANL and Searchlight literature did not prevent a haemorrhaging of the Labour vote to the BNP. The left clearly had little credibility with voters, new, old, Labour or Tory.
The end result of this is that following the May elections a plethora of new organisations have been created, reflecting either the genuine concerns or weird obsessions of the left in Calderdale.
In the weird corner is the Calderdale Red and Green Party. Its intention is “to replace the Labour Party”. So far it has produced a circular accusing new Labour of poisoning people through floridisation of the water supply. Another anti-nazi, but more broadly based organisation (in intent), called Communities Against Racism, has been launched. There is also something called Unity (against the BNP), which appears to be much the same thing, but is more active in Halifax. All this tends to point towards deep uncertainties and confusions among the anti-nazi left. Everyone is, of course, saying that they want to work with everyone else, so the two broad-based organisations seem to exist side by side rather than sorting out a merger.
From the outside, the situation does not look promising, particularly because the Calderdale Red and Green Party circular carried a Unity leaflet whilst wishing death and destruction on the Labour party. This is Life of Brian meets The League of Gentlemen, although, hopefully, Unity (despite its lefty name) will make genuine efforts to get all sorts of people involved, including Tories and the established business community (which is aghast at the rise of the BNP).
I wish them well. However, at their first public march and rally, I have to say, the ratio of Socialist Worker sellers to marchers was way too high, and the shouts of “Smash the BNP” made us look like the thugs. The leaflet it produced – meant to appeal to a wide cross-section of people – concentrated on celebrating the diversity of a multicultural society. Whilst I appreciate the genuine effort to present something reasonable, I have doubts about whether this is sufficient. It smacks too much of public sector political correctness, which is a big turn off for the kind of audience we must connect with. The authors of the leaflet are clearly trying, however, and there are no obvious formulas which will magically dispel the BNP.
Far left articles usually end up with some arrogant list of the lessons to be drawn from the defeat just inflicted. I do not propose to do that. But some tentative conclusions have been drawn by others and are worth repeating:
- The BNP can be defeated (as in Oldham and Halifax Town Ward) through hard work and voter contact.
- Broad-based campaigning, rather than the ANL, is also a way forward.
- There is no point accusing the BNP of being nazis. It doesn’t work.
The problem with the Labour Party solution of voter contact, however, is that it does nothing to promote progressive politics or anti-racism – it is mainly about doing more leaflets and communicating directly with people. That needs to be challenged. As do its own anti-democratic practices, even if that means challenging vested powers in the Asian community, and working with groups outside the party. The Labour Party must acknowledge its role in creating the conditions for the rise of the BNP. That is not just because of poor campaigning techniques – those techniques have arisen because of its politics and political practice.
Broad-based groups need to be genuinely so. Let us hope that they develop in that direction – otherwise they will have no credibility.
The phrase “Mavis Grimett is out”, incidentally, arose when I was campaigning in Mixenden in January. I was sent to her house to canvas it. It just seemed to sum up where the Labour Party was at. Since the elections in May, the one Labour councillor in Sowerby Bridge has left the party, apparently because her husband failed to become chair of the local government committee. There’s nothing like taking the broader view.