Ian Austin says the national hero who stood up against fascism is shining example for us today.
Whoever said the era of the public meeting is dead should have been at a packed-out hall at Stourbridge College last week to discuss where hatred, bigotry and racism can lead. The vast majority of people there were not political activists, but a cross-section of the communities represented by Stourbridge Labour MP Lynda Waltho and me, interested in hearing about Frank Foley, who has become known as the British Schindler.
Lynda and I invited our constituents to attend the inaugural Annual Frank Foley Memorial Lecture, organised with the Holocaust Educational Trust, to honour the memory of a man who made a real difference during the Second World War, refusing to stand by when people were being singled out because of their race or religion and instead doing whatever he could to help.
I’ve been fascinated by Foley’s story since I first heard of him. He was an MI6 agent working undercover as the passport control officer in Berlin in the 1930s, where he witnessed the rise of the Nazis at first hand. He saw the persecution suffered by the Jews and did everything he could to help them, providing papers and forging passports to let them escape.
He sheltered families in his own home and even visited concentration camps to get people out. There is no doubt that he took massive personal risks, while his courage and compassion saved tens of thousands of lives.
When he retired, he moved to Stourbridge, where he lived in anonymity until his death in 1958 and what he shows us is that seemingly ordinary people can find within themselves the courage to do extraordinary things, instead of just walking away.
He stood up for the great British values of democracy, freedom, fairness, equality and tolerance and it is this which marks him out as such a great British hero.
Despite growing up in Dudley and my interest in the Holocaust, I’d never heard of Frank Foley until I stumbled on the biography by Michael Smith that brought him and his heroism to public attention, so this year – the 50th anniversary of his death – Lynda and I launched the lecture with Michael and Auschwitz survivor Ziggy Shipper as the guest speakers.
Although recognised as “Righteous Amongst the Nations” by Israel, Foley never received formal recognition from his own country during his lifetime, so Lynda has worked with the Holocaust Educational Trust to launch a national campaign to change the honours system to recognise the brave actions of deceased British heroes during the Holocaust – people like Frank Foley.
It is right to organise a lecture to honour this great man’s memory, but in an area like ours, targeted by the British National Party, demonstrating that the British heroes we should admire are people who fought fascism and stood up for freedom and democracy, it is of even greater importance.
Communities Secretary Hazel Blears was right to argue that the BNP takes root in areas the mainstream parties have either taken for granted or ignored.
That has left a vacuum in which the racists can use easy answers to exploit general feelings of resentment, perceptions of unfairness, economic insecurity or concerns about housing, crime, anti-social behaviour or immigration.
So first we’ve got to be out on the doorsteps showing that it is Labour which is in touch and on people’s side dealing with the issues they’re concerned about, not the BNP.
And we’ve got to work harder than ever before in areas we’ve perhaps taken for granted and allowed the BNP to exploit our absence.
The BNP won a council seat in Dudley in 2003 and gave the Labour Party, trade unions and the wider community such a shock that they all joined together and worked harder than ever before to win the seat back the following year.
When I was elected in 2005, we made beating the fascists our number one priority. Since then, we’ve worked with Searchlight and its fantastic “Hope not Hate” campaign and with local unions to build a much broader, community-based campaign and ensure we keep them out.
Searchlight’s strategy of mass campaigning, the long hard slog of grassroots politics and community engagement has seen similar successes elsewhere.
Hazel Blears was right, too, to say that tactics which worked in the 1970s, just 30 years after the Second World War, such as calling them Nazis, won’t work in defeating them today.
But we do have to be clear about what they stand for – and we do have to be just as clear about spelling it out. The BNP claims to be respectable, mainstream, and democratic but its new image masks a very ugly truth.
So when I meet people who are considering voting for the BNP, I point out that its members do not believe what normal decent Dudley people believe. I’m very clear that they are not a mainstream political party, but a bunch of extremists stirring up hatred and dividing people on the basis of where they were born and the colour of their skin.
Many are often shocked to discover the truth about what the BNP believes, but if the BNP won’t tell the public the truth, we must do it for them.
The fact that the BNP believe black or Asian people can never be British, even if they were born here or have served in the forces. They oppose any racial integration and even mixed marriages. They believe ethnic minorities should be second-class citizens under the law. That people should be given preference in the jobs and housing market, and even in choice of schools on the basis of the colour of their skin.
And I tell young men tempted by the BNP’s message that they even believe footballers such as Ashley Young and Rio Ferdinand should not be able to play for England because of the colour of their skin.
No one, apart from a tiny number of hardcore racists, believes this nonsense nowadays. But we must not be complacent. As we hit tough times, extremists will try to exploit insecurity and divide our communities.
Now more than ever we must take a lead locally, find new ways in which communities and politicians can work together, in an economic downturn, to tackle the problems the fascists will try to exploit, and show how the Labour Government is on their side.
And if we spell out the truth about the racists, campaign harder than ever on the doorstep where it counts and find new ways, as we have with the Frank Foley Lecture, of mobilising the wider community in the fight against racism, persuading people to stand up for what is right and confront extremism and racism wherever it appears, then we can beat the BNP and come through the downturn with our communities strong.
Ian Austin is Labour MP for Dudley North