In order to defeat the BNP, we have to tackle the disillusionment and disaffection the party feeds off
Change appears to be political buzzword of the times. Labour MP Jon Cruddas ran on the slogan "Choose Change"; Barack Obama went with "The Change we Need", while this week even David Cameron finished his conference speech on the theme of change.
But there is another "change" taking place, at present below the mainstream political radar, but it is a change that could sweep through the political establishment if not quickly addressed. This change is reactionary – it is the rise of the British National party.
The BNP is a growing force in Britain. In May's local elections it averaged 13.9% in the 612 wards it contested across the country, while in London it polled 130,714 votes in the London assembly elections. Locally, its results have been even more startling. It averaged 41% in the wards it contested in Barking and Dagenham in 2006, and this year it averaged 28% in Rotherham and 27% in Stoke-on-Trent.
Next year the BNP could win the Stoke-on-Trent mayoral election and has a strong chance of gaining several MEPs in the European elections, particularly in the North West, West Midlands and Yorkshire and Humber constituencies. Victory here, with the respectability and finances the job carries, will transform the BNP into a major political force.
Why is this happening? The BNP is growing for several reasons, including the poor quality of some existing councillors and political parties taking voters for granted. Then there is concern among some over rising immigration and the changing face of Britain. The BNP itself has had a facelift. It has publicly diluted its policies to appear more moderate and mainstream and it has adopted increasingly sophisticated campaign techniques and in its internet operation it has the most visited party political website in Britain.
However, the BNP's growing appeal is more than simply a product of rising racism, though of course this remains at the heart of its politics. The BNP is tapping into political alienation and economic deprivation. It is providing a voice for those who increasingly feel ignored and cast aside by Labour as it chases the mythical "middle England". It is a consequence of a political system that concentrates resources and activism to a few key swing marginals.
The BNP is articulating the concerns, grievances and even prejudices of these forgotten voters. It provides them with a sense of belonging, an articulation of their own frustration – even a new white identity.
The emergence of the BNP is just one consequence of the change under way, and it is a change far more fundamental than many political commentators and politicians appear to register. It is also primarily an issue affecting the Labour party.
This is a phenomenon occurring across Europe and North America. In the United States, middle-American nationalism has emerged over the past 30 years, which despises the corporate elites above and the "undeserving" poor below. Across western Europe we have seen working-class voters turn towards far-right and populist parties at the expense of centre-left parties. Only a few days ago, two far right parties polled a combined 29% in the Austrian elections.
Antifascism has to change to meet this new threat. Unless we understand why the BNP is growing – and that entails accepting that its appeal is built on more than simple racism – we have little chance of defeating it.
A simple "Don't vote Nazi" slogan is no longer enough. Of course we need to expose the true politics of the BNP leaders but we also need to address the issues on which the BNP campaign.
There is a limit to what traditional antifascism can deliver. We can certainly organise a turnout campaign to defeat the BNP in an election and through focused and localised leaflets we can undermine and expose the racism and ineffectiveness of BNP councillors and candidates. We must also get involved in the very communities where the BNP is most active, something progressives have increasingly failed to do over recent years.
However, if we accept the BNP is filling a void in British politics then it is a political response to these underlying issues of disengagement and disillusionment that ultimately needs addressing.
The political climate is certainly changing, but unless we act now then the change might not be to our liking.
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