There are three clear facts that need to be remembered at the outset of this article. The first is that the British National Party has won two seats in the European Parliament. This provides it with the platform, financial clout and semi-respectability from which it hopes to build future success at a local and even parliamentary level over the coming year. Secondly, their election is a game changer. Debates around no platform, access to the media and political representation will change whether we like it or not and we will need to adapt accordingly. Finally, and in terms of this article probably most importantly, anti-fascism can be successful particularly if it becomes more organised. While I will argue that only by addressing the public policy issues that give rise to the BNP and challenging the racism at the core of its support can the far right be properly defeated, anti-fascism, particularly at a local level, can halt and even reverse its growth.
It is also important to dispel two widely (though separately) held assumptions. Firstly, this is not the protest vote against mainstream parties and useless locally elected representatives that many politicians would like us to believe. It is an increasingly hard and loyal vote which is based on political and economic insecurities and moulded by deep-rooted racial prejudice. This in turn is linked with a second myth, that the way to beat the BNP is simply to tack left and offer more socialistic policies. While this might peel off some BNP supporters who feel economically marginalised, it will not in itself address the strongly held racist views of many BNP voters.
As the YouGov poll (see below) clearly shows, the racism of many BNP voters goes well beyond simple opposition to current immigration and eastern European migrant workers which one might expect if their support for the BNP was prompted simply by economic insecurity. Belief in the intellectual superiority of white people over non-whites, the view of nearly half of BNP voters that black and Asian people can never be British, the almost universal dislike of even moderate Islam and the contempt and suspicion many of their voters have towards a liberal and multicultural society show how hardline much of the BNP support is and how it will take more than a more progressive economic policy to win them back fully.
More importantly, and regularly overlooked by politicians, activists and commentators alike, are issues around identity. As I have discussed before, the BNP is emerging as the voice of a forgotten working class, which increasingly feels left behind and ignored by mainstream society. As the YouGov research confirms, the majority of BNP voters feel that the Labour Party, for many their traditional political home, has moved away from them and is now dominated by a middle-class London elite who care more for Middle England and the interests of minority groups than for them.
Class politics exists but not as we once knew it. The Labour Party, in line with many other centre-left parties across western European and Scandinavia, draws the bulk of its support from the middle class, public sector workers and minority communities, especially in the big cities. The BNP, on the other hand, is the voice of a section of the white working class, particularly in those areas of traditional industry that have experienced the greatest economic and social upheaval over the past twenty years.
Most of the local authorities with the biggest BNP vote are in areas once dominated by the car, steel, coal or ceramic industries. All have gone, and those people able to leave have left. While some new jobs have replaced those lost, the work is generally lower skilled, short-term and further away from their home. In addition to economic difficulties the identity of the areas has collapsed, leaving behind a confused, resentful and alienated minority. This is the cultural war that the BNP has cleverly exploited, particularly by tapping in to people’s paranoia that outside forces are deliberately conspiring against them and giving preferential treatment to others (viewed by most BNP voters as undeserving).
However, all is not lost. While the BNP vote edged up it did not make the sweeping gains it and others predicted. The vast majority of voters still reject the BNP and many of those equally disillusioned with the political process did not vote BNP but stayed at home.
Addressing the widespread economic insecurities, solving the democratic deficit and forging new progressive identities requires public policy changes that are beyond the remit of the HOPE not hate campaign and anti-fascism generally. We can mobilise the anti-BNP vote and even sometimes suppress the pro-BNP vote but we cannot build houses and reduce waiting lists; we cannot prevent undercutting of wages and the abuse of migrant workers. Local anti-fascist movements cannot get resources into communities, often the poorest, dealing with extraordinary levels of migration.
That is the job of politicians and political parties. It is their failure currently to do so that is resulting in the increasing tribalism of local politics along racial and religious lines.
Making a difference
What we can do, however, is make a difference on the ground. And we do. Results in several local authority areas in the European elections showed the BNP vote (both actual and share of the vote) down compared to 2004. Among these areas were Burnley, Pendle and Oldham in the North West, Bradford and Kirklees in West Yorkshire, and Sandwell and Dudley in the West Midlands.
A common factor in all these areas has been the intensity of local anti-BNP campaigns, which has been all year round and not just a leaflet at an election.
And this sets the model for the year ahead. We will go into the 2010 local elections with an emboldened and financially secure BNP and we believe the number of council wards at risk is now over 150 across the country. The BNP’s main target will be Barking and Dagenham where it will be looking to take control of the council.
To fight the BNP effectively we must move away from city and town centre events to focusing on the very communities where the BNP is drawing its support. We need to return to localised leaflets and newsletters, tapping into the local identities of neighbourhoods and addressing local issues to undermine the BNP’s message of hate.
Smaller, local events are more important than one-off larger ones. The recent anti-racist carnival in Stoke-on-Trent might have been attended by 15,000 people but was it really the best use of £300,000? Even the carnival the year before, in Hackney, might have been attracted 60,000, but what impact does it have on the London hotspots such as Barking and Dagenham and Havering?
The effort required to put on and build such an event drains and diverts activism away from local campaigning, which will be the priority in 2010. Of course in the ideal world we would like both big national events and smaller local events, but where funds and activism are limited this is not possible.
A proper local strategy requires us to localise our campaigning. What works in one area will not work in another. Talking to principally Conservative voters requires a quite different leaflet to what would be put out in a traditionally Labour area. Localising our approach allows us to deal with local issues and also to target our message depending on what we are trying to achieve. And mobilising the anti-BNP vote is sometimes quite different from trying to suppress the BNP vote.
That is why the HOPE not hate campaign will be encouraging and supporting local groups to begin their own local anti-BNP newsletters. We hope that by starting this summer and focusing on the key wards for 2010 the newsletters will become a crucial tool to defeating the BNP at the ballot box.
To begin to undermine local BNP support we also have to build alliances within the community. Local anti-BNP groups need to be accepted and even respected. Every community has key movers and shakers and spending a bit of time cultivating relationships with these people will open new opportunities, allow our message to be widened considerably, potentially increase our activist base and give us a regular flow of information to rebut BNP myths and lies.
We also need to be cleverer in how we present our arguments. The YouGov survey shows the complete lack of respect BNP voters have towards authority – way beyond those of other parties. That means dogmatic or one dimensional arguments on anti-fascist leaflets are likely to fail.
We have to recognise that we might not always be the best messenger to get over an argument. One of the most successful leaflets we have ever produced was in Halifax where we got quotes from local doctors and pensioners to dismiss BNP claims that asylum seekers were forcing old people off GP lists and causing hospital operations to be cancelled. The strength of getting other people to speak up for us, particularly those respected by local people, is also evident from the survey. Local GPs, at 82%, came out as the most trusted professionals among BNP voters.
A new reality
We also have to accept that the political landscape has shifted. Searchlight comes from a proud tradition of No Platform, a belief that fascism should not be allowed to air its politics of hate publicly. We have always opposed legitimising fascism through public debate and where fascists try to incite hatred within communities through provocative marches and actions, we have backed mobilisations against them.
While I still adhere to this in principle I also believe that we have to accept a new reality. Firstly the BNP has MEPs and whether we like it or not Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons will appear more regularly on television. No platform agreements between political parties were already breaking down before the election, with only Labour holding to them, and this process is likely to quicken now.
Likewise, we also have to change our tactics on the streets. The hammer attack on a BNP activist in Leigh, Greater Manchester, in March was an unmitigated disaster. When we learnt about the BNP’s intention to hold a fundraising event in a local nightclub we got almost 5,000 people, including 400 from the local area, to sign an open letter from a local vicar calling for the event to be cancelled. Our pressure proved successful but what should have been a great media story, showing the strength of people power against the BNP, became three days of appallingly negative local headlines after an anti-fascist struck a BNP member in the head with a hammer.
Our response to any BNP activity is a tactical issue. Just as we always consider what is possible, so we have to think about the possible outcomes. With large chunks of local people supporting the BNP something that gives the party media sympathy is often counter-productive. In a 24-hour-communica-tions world every small event that in the past would have gone unreported can be headline news on television, the radio and on the internet within minutes.
With the BNP leaders far more politically savvy than in the past it is not difficult for them to spin a story to their advantage.
There is also a need for an honest debate about the use of rallies, marches and pickets. While one could argue that it is important continually to oppose the BNP gaining any legitimacy, such protests are increasingly ineffective and, probably more importantly, a distraction from the real work required in the communities.
The reality is that most people other than a few highly motivated activists will not come out on a regular basis. Continually chasing the BNP uses up their time when there is more serious but perhaps less glamorous work to be done in local communities. Again, people might say that we should do both. That may be the ideal but it is not the reality and choices have to be made. We have to prioritise our agenda rather than continually react to the BNP’s. Obviously there will be times when mobilisations are important but this cannot be a distraction from the real work at hand.
Over the next few months our priority is to build anti-fascist groups in every community in the country. Over 115,000 people have engaged in some activity for the HOPE not hate campaign. That’s an incredible one in 470 adults in Britain. Over 80,000 people have signed our “Not in my name” petition since the election, of which over 60,000 were completely new to us.
This shows the level of anger at the BNP success, but now we need to harness it in a positive and constructive way that helps us build the necessary networks that can defeat the BNP in the community.
Our initial job is to turn our online supporters into activists on the ground. Hopefully some will emerge as local organisers, committed to the localised strategy ahead. Old hands must be encouraged to support new organisers and we will be providing an organising and leadership programme in every region of the country.
A series of one-day training events will be held to give key activists from local groups the basics in running a local campaign group, working in a target ward and building alliances within the community.
From there a handful of the most enthusiastic local organisers will be invited to a three-day residential programme, to be held in the late autumn, where they will develop leadership and organisational skills.
Developing a pool of local organisers is the way to ensure good quality campaigns. Whatever the enthusiasm of local activists a lack of organising skills and the ability to localise campaigns effectively will result in continued reliance on national help, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of a local campaign.
To support local groups, particularly in the run-up to next year’s local and probable general election, the HOPE not hate campaign will be seeking to put trained organisers on the ground in each region of the country.
The work of local groups will be further supported by an even bigger online effort than we achieved this year. Through online telephone canvassing, supporters across the country will be able to help in our key battlegrounds from their front rooms. Matching groups and activists in one part of country where there is no BNP threat to an area where there is one can help us raise money for local material.
The BNP success has led some to argue that we need to politicise anti-fascism, even to offer a political alternative to the BNP. While there are clearly public policy failings and a democratic deficit, it is not our job to fill this void. We must leave that to the political parties, old or new.
We are about defeating the BNP, both by turning out those voters totally opposed to their racist politics and by dispelling myths and challenging the assumptions and ignorance that give rise to BNP support.
We have a big job to do but it can be done. The work on anti-BNP campaigns in East Lancashire, Oldham, the Black Country and West Yorkshire is testament to that.
However, for us to defeat the BNP over the coming year requires hard work, building local broad-based coalitions, adapting to the new realities and being a little bit smarter than we have been before. Get these components right and we can hold the BNP at bay.
A hard and alienated vote
Who votes BNP and why
A new survey into the attitudes of BNP voters has produced some startling revelations. Unsurprisingly BNP voters are overwhelmingly opposed to immigration and asylum seekers but a sizeable number also share the BNP’s hardline attitudes about citizenship and racial superiority.
It shows that BNP voters are predominantly working class, drawn from former Labour-voting households and feel more insecure about their economic prospects.
Conducted by YouGov from 29 May to 4 June, the survey questioned 985 BNP voters as part of a much bigger study of the political views of 32,268 people.
The study tells us that men are twice as likely to support the BNP as women, 44% of BNP voters are aged 35 to 54 and 61% are drawn from the social groups C2DE. One third of BNP voters read The Sun or the Daily Star, whereas only 13% read the Daily Mirror and those reading The Guardian and The Independent are statistically insignificant. One fifth claim to be members of trade unions or trade associations and 36% identify themselves as skilled or semi-skilled manual workers.
On one level the report tells us little new. More BNP supporters regard immigration as one of the key issues facing the country at the moment – 87% compared to 49% among all voters. Again unsurprisingly, 94% of BNP supporters believed that all further immigration should be halted. This compares with 87% of UK Independence Party voters, 68% of Conservative voters, 46% of Labour voters, 43% of Lib Dem voters and even 37% of Green voters.
Only 4% of BNP voters believed that recent immigration had benefited the country.
What is more startling is the strength of the racial attitudes of many BNP voters. In a result that gives the lie to the BNP vote simply being a protest, 44% (compared to 12% of all voters) disagreed with the statement: “non-white British citizens who were born in this country are just as ‘British’ as white citizens born in this country”.
Among BNP voters 21% strongly disagreed with the statement compared to just 1% of Greens and Lib Dems and 2% of Labour and 3% of Conservative voters.
More disturbingly, 31% of BNP voters believed there was a difference in intelligence between the average black Briton and the average white Briton.
Although only 2% of BNP voters deny that six million Jews, Gypsies and others died in the Holocaust, a further 18% accept that the Holocaust occurred but believe it has been exaggerated.
It is clear that the BNP receives support primarily on issues of race, immigration and identity but there is also a clear link with economic insecurity. Several of the questions probed respondents’ views on their current and future economic prospects. BNP voters repeatedly had the most gloomy outlook.
When asked whether they were satisfied that they had enough money to live on comfortably, 74% of BNP voters said no, compared to just 43% of Labour and 50% of Conservative voters.
On whether they were confident that their family would have the opportunities to prosper in the years ahead, 75% of BNP voters said no compared to just 35% of Labour voters.
Over half of BNP voters felt the financial situation of their house- hold would worsen over the next 12 months. In contrast only 29% of Labour voters agreed and 27% thought it would get better.
Again, more BNP voters thought someone in their family would lose their job in the current recession than supporters of other parties.
One of the most startling results was the response to the statement that “there is a major international conspiracy led by Jews and Communists to undermine traditional Christian values in Britain and other western countries”. Amazingly one third of BNP voters completely or partially agreed.
However, the significance of this response actually lies in the feeling of victimisation felt by many BNP supporters and cleverly exploited by the BNP itself. The view that they are losing out because of the conscious action of others is widespread among BNP supporters and it comes out clearly in this survey. Over three quarters of BNP voters believed that white people suffered unfair discrimination whereas only 3% thought Muslims did. Nine out of ten BNP supporters felt that councils allowed immigrant families to jump housing queues.
This feeling of victimisation coupled with a widespread belief that the Labour Party, which most once supported, at best no longer cares about them and at worst conspires against them makes these voters susceptible to the BNP’s big lie. It is hardly a surprise then that so many people in Barking and Dagenham were happy to believe the Africans for Essex myth.
Think of the balance of forces. On one side you have the Labour Party (which 57% of BNP voters think no longer cares about them), politicians (who 78% of BNP voters think are corrupt), senior officers in the council (who only 1% of BNP voters trust a great deal) and immigrants (who 87% of BNP supporters think are a problem and only 4% believe contribute anything positive). Then you have the BNP, the anti-establishment party speaking up for the forgotten white working class.
This survey is both predictable and disturbing. While immigration remains the dominant issue for BNP voters it is clear that they more than any other group feel economically insecure and politically abandoned. What is shocking is the depth of their racism and the alienation from mainstream politics. Support for the BNP goes far beyond being a protest, as some politicians would have us believe, and the racist attitudes will not disappear simply by improving economic conditions.
We should be under no illusion that a long and hard struggle lies ahead.
What do you think?
We are opening up the August issue of Searchlight to find out your views on the way forward. Please restrict articles to 500 words and get them to me firstname.lastname@example.org by 10 July. (Please note that space is limited and we cannot guarantee to publish every article.)
Nick Lowles, Searchlight