Monday, 23 June 2008

The BNP laughs while the left falls out

It’s been a depressing weekend for anyone who’s opposed to racism and concerned about the rise of the British National Party. On Saturday, in case you missed it (which you probably did, since both the pre-publicity and the turnout were tiny), there was a central London ‘march and carnival parade’ organised by Unite Against Fascism. It was predominantly youthful, colourful and vibrant, but if there were more than two or three thousand present Trafalgar Square has got a lot bigger since I was last there. That’s a long way short of the 60,000-plus who turned out in the rain for the Love Music Hate Racism event on the weekend before Dismayday (see 'Just like '78'); and no more than turned up at short notice to say hello to George Bush on his visit to London a week ago.

Far more depressing than the turnout on Saturday, however, has been the sectarian squabbling and repetitive point-scoring that erupts over every discussion of anti-racist organising (or almost any other form of organising) these days in the left-wing blogosphere. The participants have long since lost any sense of how they appear to the 999,999 people in every million who have not the slightest interest in their internecine catfights and wish only that they would go away and rattle some other tin roofs rather than keeping the rest of us awake at night.

Their arguments can be summed up in a couple of sentences. (If you really want to read them in detail you can find a representative sample here, under Liam MacUaid’s in itself unobjectionable assessment; or here on the ever more inappropriately-named Socialist Unity blog.) On the one side there are those who see Saturday’s event as a Socialist Worker’s Party front, regard the SWP as the font of all sectarian evil and want to drive a stake through the heart of the people they blame for splitting Respect and dividing the left. On the other side there are those who see Saturday’s event as a model of broad front mobilising, regard those who didn’t support it as the font of all sectarian evil and want to drive a stake through the heart of the people they blame for splitting Respect and dividing the left.

Meanwhile, the BNP (642 wards contested in the Dismayday elections, winning an average 13.4 per cent of the vote; 130,174 votes in London and a seat on the London Assembly) must be laughing all the way to the polling stations.

One of the arguments over Saturday’s march concerns the fact that it clashed with door-to-door leafleting, organised by the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, in one of two wards in east London where the BNP has hopes of winning council by-elections in two weeks time. It’s clear that this sort of local campaigning is an essential part of first halting, and then reversing, the advance of the far right. But it seems equally clear to me that big set-piece events on a national stage are an essential part of the campaigning mix too. That, after all, was the basis for the success of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism the last time the far right posed a significant electoral threat; and the sad thing is that if you strip away the sectarian tensions I don’t believe that anyone is seriously arguing otherwise.

What also seems clear to me, though, is that the old anti-Nazi formula is inadequate to the current challenge. I was born and (in large part) brought up in Stoke-on-Trent, and my ex-partner of 20-odd years was born and brought up in Barking, the two main centres of BNP electoral success and ambition at the moment. So I know both places well; and I know the kind of people who are now backing the BNP. Dammit, some of the people in our families are among them.

The simple anti-Nazi demonising doesn’t work in the way that it used to for a number of reasons. First, the BNP has sunk real roots into some of these communities – far more so than the left. Whatever its ideological origins, whatever the backgrounds of some of its leaders, the BNP is not the same fringe Nazi organisation as its predecessors; and in places like Barking and Stoke voters know this from their personal experience. Outsiders coming in and telling them otherwise simply doesn't wash.

Second, the core anti-Nazi message is in any case weaker now than it was 30 years ago, when many people of working age still had direct personal experience of the war against fascism and couldn't stomach a supposedly 'nationalist' message that was at odds with what they and their parents had fought for in 1939-45. Put crudely, the patriotic appeal of anti-fascism has lost its punch; it’s much harder to combat the far right on this terrain than in the past. Expose them for what they are, yes, but the new-look, besuited-not-booted image is not just window dressing. As Magnus Marsdal (‘Underdog politics’) and Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas MP and Searchlight editor Nick Lowles (‘Nothing is more important’) outline in the June/July issue of Red Pepper, we are facing a Europe-wide phenomenon in the shape of the rise of a newly ‘respectable’ far right that cannot be combated on the simple basis of old-style anti-fascism.

This new far right is reaching parts of the white working class that the left is failing to touch. The reasons are many, but they boil down to two: the absence of an alternative political appeal in the form of a credible left-wing programme (exacerbated by the surrender of New Labour and other European social democratic parties to the forces of neoliberalism and global capitalism); and the absence of alternative political organisation rooted in the experiences and needs of people who have been to a large extent abandoned by the mainstream political parties and the left alike.

In the course of writing this, I dug out for reference a piece I wrote for New Society back in February 1985 (‘I’m not racialist but …’). Reading through it, I was struck by how I could have written virtually the exact same article yesterday. And if that’s not depressing, I don’t know what is.
Photo: Saturday's march/parade in London, courtesy of Harpymarx, who has other good pics too


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

Just received your message. Btw no problems using my pic and thanks for the kind word as well.


Steve Platt said...

Thanks - I did write an earlier message but forgot to click 'submit' ...

pauline said...

24 hours since you wrote this-it looks like the alternative to the left slagging each other off is that they don't say anything at all.

Anonymous said...

The left has had its day. The only hope of halting the BNP in the short term is by voting Conservative. The far right does best when Labour is in power.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. It would be funny if it wasn't so pitiful.

Anonymous said...

Look at a Hogarth painting. Everyone in it is white. That is the indigenous population of these Isles. It has the right to prevent itself from being swamped by Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, or Slavs. The right to self-determination is in the UN charter -- thus the right to stop immigration and, I would claim, promote a humane -- voluntary system of repatriation.

Steve Platt said...

And if they decline to 'volunteer'?

By the way, you should look more closely at Hogarth. Black people feature in Marriage a la Mode, the Rake's Progress and Four Times of Day, which are three of his most famous series of engravings.

Anonymous said...

In response to anonymopus who first mentioned Hogarth: you evidently labour under the delusion that there is such a thing a homogenous, racially 'pure', authentic, indigenous national identity that we can safely identify as 'British'. This is plainly wrongheaded: look at the history of the British Isles. We were invaded first by Saxons, then by Normans. Should we track down the racial heritage of every member of the country and include France and Germany in your proposed (ludicrous) scheme of repatriation. I think you would soon find there would be no one left, including, probably, your twisted self.