the european elections, the left and anti-fascism

David Broder gives his (personal) view on the EU elections and the BNP

The Times has carried several articles in the last week predicting that the recent outcry at the “MPs’ expenses scandal” has boosted the chances of the British National Party winning at least one seat in the European Parliament in the June 4th elections. Most people can only be sickened by this prospect – and indeed the extra revenue and organising power this would afford the BNP –  but in a sense the election results will merely reflect the ‘already existing’ organising strength of the different parties. Of course, at election time we ought to be concerned not only by the growth of the BNP, which has expanded ten-fold in the last decade, but also by the much greater – continuing –  strength of the Tories and New Labour, who already have both the (state) power and determination to attack migrants.

Typically of the media (both corporate and leftist) The Times devotes great attention to all the activities of the BNP – wholly unwarranted by its size or power – much as the press swallowed the far-right group’s own ludicrous claims to have played a leading role in January’s Lindsey Oil Refinery wildcat strikes.  The paper fears the BNP playing on “anti-establishment” anger and widespread disaffection with the mainstream parties. Editorial pieces over the last week have extolled the virtues of Parliamentary democracy and pointed to the criminal records, violent past and sloppy attendance record of BNP councillors. A May 11th editorial piece encouraging voter turnout to stop the group securing an MEP commented:

“To alert voters to the reality of the BNP, the main parties need to make their own case and persuade people that, no matter what they think about the state of politics in general, the BNP is worse than just useless, it is bad. A vote for the BNP is a vote for extremism and intolerance.”

Of course, it is no surprise that The Times, the long-standing newspaper of record and ‘authoritative’, ‘serious’ voice of the elite, should defend the established order of ‘normal’ politics and ‘mainstream’ parties against ‘extremists’ (surely it would have the same attitude towards a sizeable communist alternative to the establishment). So why does the traditional left’s “anti-fascism” look so similar?

A recent Socialist Worker article reporting on their anti-BNP activism comments

“As Peter Hain, the former Labour cabinet member and co-founder of the Anti Nazi League (ANL), warned last week, “Winning European seats would secure the BNP an unprecedented platform and entitle it to draw down hundreds of thousands of Euros from Brussels to indirectly buttress their full-time personnel and organisation.”

“He called for the building of a broad-based campaign to stop the Nazis.

The BNP leader Nick Griffin has attempted to make his Nazi organisation appear “respectable”.”

Sadly, it is not uncharacteristic of Socialist Worker to quote the slimy career politician Hain – whose aim is to stop the crumbling of the New Labour vote – since its front Unite Against Fascism also boasts amongst its supporters David Cameron and Sir Teddy Taylor (a leading member of the Monday Club, the most right-wing faction of the Conservative Party). Hope Not Hate leaflets even depict Sir Alan Sugar saying racism is bad for business, as if most people could identify with someone like him.

Obviously the BNP’s racist platform is far more reactionary than even the Tories’, and their becoming a major party would be disastrous. But if, as Socialist Worker rightly points out, the BNP are benefiting from “the impact of the recession [and] the meltdown in Labour’s support”, then what sense does it make to insist that the people disaffected with Labour and the Conservatives ought to vote for these ‘normal’ parties? ‘You’re right to be angry, but stick to the devil you know!’ The BNP’s answers to the recession are based not only on racist scapegoating very similar to that in the Daily Mail and the columns of Richard Littlejohn, but also a protectionist, anti-privatisation and pro-manufacturing populism; UAF organises on the basis of being “apolitical”, which is one and the same thing as refusing to challenge the establishment. This type of “anti-fascism” is in fact the hallmark of trade union and student union bureaucrats who want to make the easiest possible “left” posture without doing anything to counter the BNP’s increasing ability to pick up “protest votes”: indeed, it quite explicitly presents the left and labour movement as an ally of the established parties who screw people over.

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In a recent debate on the Tommy Boyd show with deputy BNP leader Simon Darby, the SWPer and UAF organiser Weyman Bennett laughably refused to respond to Darby’s anti-bankers rhetoric over the economic crisis with any political alternative, instead simply repeating that the BNP were “Nazis” – not a “normal” political group – which “mainstream parties” refuse to debate. When it was implied that Bennett was a leftist, he said that UAF were supported by “David Cameron and leading elements in the Labour Party”! It is not just the SWP, however: other Trotskyist groups who also know that a large proportion of the one million people likely to vote BNP on June 4th are disaffected Labour supporters, tired of the openly pro-business careerists in the Cabinet, are nonetheless calling on people to vote for New Labour – that’s the existing Labour Party, the one which has not been and will not be “reclaimed” by “the unions” and whose European election candidates are a collection of anonymous Blairite hacks. The problem is not just that this will not work and stop the BNP winning a seat, but that in a general sense it serves to discredit the left by association: it is just as bad as saying “vote for anyone to stop the Nazis”, and for the same reasons.

For want of any movement which poses a communist alternative to capitalist crisis, can it be any surprise that many people fall for the Old Labour-ish, protectionist and statist economic plans of the BNP? An article in The Times on Tuesday about a large meeting with Nick Griffin speaking in a Barnsley pub reported that “Mr Griffin expresses sympathy for the 1984 miners strike, triggered by the closure of the Cortonwood colliery in Barnsley. He denounces the Government’s privatisation programme. He accuses Labour of crushing ordinary people to ensure maximum profit for its corporate financiers. “It has sold out,” he thunders. “The old Labour Party is dead. Long live the new party for British workers — the BNP.”” The Times featured a photo of the people at the meeting, many of whom – it says – 25 years ago were striking miners. Socialist Worker refers to the crowd as “Nazis”.

In his debate with Darby, questioned by the presenter on what solutions he would counterpose to the BNP’s slogans for the economic crisis, Bennett embarrassingly replied that UAF isn’t a political party so has no answers – and then returned to the theme that the BNP would not be able to “restore the system to equilibrium”. Restoring the system to “equilibrium” is hardly a tantalising prospect for most workers, and it is a testament to the lack of openness and democracy in the SWP that they had no public debate before changing their main slogan on resisting the recession from “we won’t pay for their crisis!” to “restore the equilibrium, now!”

Many of the traditional left’s other means of criticising the BNP are also rather questionable. For example, calling the BNP – or even more counter-productive, the hundreds of thousands of BNP voters – “Nazis” is hardly likely to do much to change the minds of those who do vote for them, who are surely sufficiently numerous as not to be written off. Such chants may strike them not merely as shrill, but rather odd, given the party’s heavy reliance in their propaganda on the World War II theme, including nostalgia for wartime national unity, pictures of Spitfires, Winston Churchill and the ‘British bulldog’, and indeed the fact that they often stand old war veterans as candidates. The “Nazi” claim itself also chimes in with the rather peculiar national habit of constant referencing of “the war”, the final triumph of Empire evoked in a thousand Sun headlines and England football fans’ costumes. Seeking to steal the WWII-nostalgia thunder, the June 21st 2008 Socialist Worker, a special issue for an anti-BNP demo in central London, carried a long article about an Imperial War Museum exhibition on West Indian people fighting for the Allies. Simon Assaf’s priceless piece made no reference to the imperialist character of the USA-UK-USSR war effort, nor the terrible exploitation in the West Indies, instead pointing to how even colonial subjects dug deep “Many people in the British empire took part in raising money to help the war effort – in addition to the extra taxes, raw materials and food that flowed from the colonies to support the war”. (“Flowed”!)

This tactic – stealing the BNP’s thunder by reappropriating their “tradition” – is also evidenced in the “No2EU” campaign organised by the Morning Star, the Socialist Party, other smaller Leon Trotsky fan clubs and elements of the RMT bureaucracy. The Communist Students website reports on the activities of a Socialist Party member who toured far-right Facebook groups encouraging the partisans of “Foreigners out” to vote “No2EU” – although of course, anyone who agrees with that slogan might as well vote for the real article rather than the state-socialist lash-up version. “No2EU” is simply not a serious effort to win people with diffuse anger at the “political class” away from nationalist politics to some better alternative, any more than 1,000 students marching through central London or holding a carnival in Tower Hamlets. Often we have criticised those who call on trade union leaders to set up a state-socialist Labour Party mark II, thinking about initiatives such as Respect: but “No2EU” is a much better example, copying as it does all of the worst traits of the Labour Party, not only nationalism but also a complete lack of democratic decision making and lack of any connection between the political expression of the union bureaucrats and the concrete or “industrial” concerns of the rank-and-file and their battles with management and the authorities.

That said, much unlike both the real Labour Party and the BNP, which from the inception stood in election after election, consistently hammering away and gradually building strength from a low base, “No2EU”, Respect, Left List, Socialist Alliance, SLP etc. represent the left groups’ remarkable tendency to present a differently named party composed of a different collection of organisations at every single major election.

As racists and radical right-wingers, the BNP are a threat to migrants and the labour movement, but not so much in that they have councillors and deputies in parliaments – by the measure of legislative and state power they are nothing like the threat the main ruling class parties are – but rather with their use of violence and intimidation. Although the BNP is not primarily an Italian Fascist Party-type militia, there is of course some relationship between the overall strength of the party and the level of violence its members employ, and undoubtedly in a broader sense racist attacks will be on the increase during the recession. It is highly important that communities and the labour movement organise to counter all violent attacks and to keep the streets free of gangs of thugs – stopping the problem rather than just ritually denouncing “the Nazis” in print. Chris Kane’s article in issue 4 of The Commune made a strong case for why we also have to organise to stop police violence, as well as the racist use of ‘sus’ laws and the constant intimidation of Black youth: certainly where I live in Tower Hamlets this is a very immediate and real issue.

But because of what the BNP has become – still racist, but having made a “respectable turn”; which hundreds of thousands of people tired of Labour either vote for or give passive support to; and which is now larger than the far left – we have no choice but to combat it on its own territory and counter its arguments. “On principle” refusal to engage with the types of argument the BNP make in their leaflets – which are not only ideological racism, but do relate this scapegoating in some way to real grievances caused by cuts, privatisation and the capitalist crisis more broadly – means abandoning their voters to them, giving up without a fight. In fact, it is over precisely these questions that the labour movement has to organise. The BNP could be on course to win as many as 1 million votes in the June 4th poll: but that does not mean that there are 1 million little Hitlers goose-stepping around Britain’s shopping centres. In fact, the BNP is two-faced, has very little to say for itself and is a bundle of contradictions, as its “organisers’ language discipline” article on its website shows:

“Rule #8: When addressing a specific audience, arguments for our policies should always be couched in language calculated to be relevant to their interests. Do not bore a workingmen’s audience with those parts of our ideology that derive from old-school Toryism, or puzzle an affluent suburban audience with an explanation of worker ownership of industry.”

“Rule #12: Successful revolutions from the right have always presented themselves as restoring older traditions. Therefore, we should couch our agenda in restorationist terms whenever possible. Ours is a populist traditionalism, not an elitist one.”

Anti-fascist activism as such and by itself cannot stop the BNP growing, and ‘get out the vote’ campaigns to stop them at this or that election-time could be an endless – by current evidence, fruitless – exercise. The BNP’s strength is in the populist appeal of its ideas and the fears it plays on, and the only way to respond to that is to build some better, political alternative. As well as general recomposition of the labour movement and giving people confidence that it is possible to organise to resist the recession, we also need a louder voice for communism. Not narrow electoralism and creating a Labour Party mark II – which in the European examples of Die Linke and Rifondazione Comunista ended up joining the ‘real’ social democrats in managing capitalism and making attacks on the working class – but arguing that turning back the clock is no answer to capitalism’s crisis, that our class need to organise for its interests in the here and now and that we also need to radically reorganise society. We should do that not only to “stop the BNP” but because we ought to challenge the ruling class as such and as a whole. We are starting from a very low base, both in terms of the left’s numbers and its political culture: but far better to do that gradual work than endlessly chase rainbows like UAF.

“Rule #10: A political party cannot succeed, or even attract new members, if it takes as its premise the hopelessness of its cause.”

6 thoughts on “the european elections, the left and anti-fascism

  1. Well done David, this is the best article about contemporary politics I had read in a long time. Even on a formal level it is better than Spiked’s writings – more nuanced and erudite; on an analytical level, far more accurate and revealing.

    You should try and cross-publish this elsewhere too.

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  2. David Renton, an unofficial historian of anti-fascism will be speaking at the upcoming 1st Oxford Working Class Bookfair next month on the history of anti-fascism in Britain from the 1930s to the ANL mark 1 with reference to the Red-Shirts, an independent anti-fascist group set up by Ruskin College students/trade unionists to stop the attempt of Moseleys Black Shirts to get a base in Oxford.

    More info. about events – http://www.oxfordworkingclassbookfair.blogspot.com
    The page will be updated regularly with more info as it gets closer to the event.

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  3. Just received this helpful piece of advice;

    Should you receive a BNP election leaflet through your letterbox, don’t whatever you do, return it to them using the free admail address on the back. The address to which you shouldn’t return your BNP leaflet or empty envelopes?

    National Office
    Admail 4148
    London
    EC1A 1UY

    It should also be noted that Admail covers responses up to 2kg, and the receiver pays by weight received. So please don’t advise anyone to stick the BNP leaflet in a box with 1.999kg of rubble, cat litter or out of date jars of gherkins. God forbid many people do this therefore costing the BNP lots of money :-)

    Thank you for your co-operation. Please pass on this message to encourage other people not to abuse the free admail service.

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  4. Martin Smith from the SWP on Newsnight yesterday evening, debating how to deal with the BNP with Libdem Simon Hughes:

    “You can’t have dialogue with these people (the BNP). Thats because they’re not Parliamentarians, they’re counter-revolutionary fascists”

    “When you deny other people’s rights, you are not entitled to have yours”

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  5. I felt Martin presented himself and came over on Newsnight as a student activist, ranting to a student activist audience. His constant point of reference was World War Two German National-Socialism not 21st fascist British Nationalists and the reasons they can secure votes in working class communities and how to stop them.

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