From Socialist Review 254, July 2001.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
‘The political landscape in Oldham has changed, and though the ANL [Anti Nazi League] might not like it, it has been changed through the proper democratic process by Mr Nick Griffin and his British National Party campaigning properly and legally, and persuading people to vote for them.’
Oldham Chronicle, 11 June 2001
‘Another big step towards the political mainstream... Any constituency in which the BNP can take around 3 percent in a parliamentary election contains council seats in which it is possible to take around 25 percent of the vote or even more. This string of near 5 percent votes therefore provides us with a number of winnable council wards in which the British National Party can take the next step into the mainstream.’
BNP press release, 8 June 2001
The Nazi vote in Oldham has sent shockwaves throughout the left. It has been met with disbelief, horror and paralysis. Worst of all, it has been overexaggerated and overgeneralised, serving to fuel the attitude that we can do little to halt the Nazis exploiting racial tensions and social deprivation. To be effective in resisting the rise of the far right means starting with an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. It is only if we look at the whole picture that we will be able to provide an analysis which enables us to build a movement that can challenge the Nazis. It also provides us with a political framework with which we can build an alternative to the Nazis.
The BNP votes should serve as a warning to us all. It retained five deposits: Oldham West, 16.4 percent (6,552 votes); Oldham East & Saddleworth, 11.2 percent (5,091 votes); Barking, 6.4 percent (1,606 votes); Poplar & Canning Town, 5.1 percent (1,733 votes); and Burnley, 11.3 percent (4,151 votes). In contrast, it saved three deposits in 1997 and in two of those the BNP candidate shared the same surname as the New Labour winner. Alarmingly, after weeks of racial tension, violence and rioting in Oldham, the Nazis grabbed a total of 13,160 votes in the three Oldham constituencies, including their 4.5 percent in Ashton-under-Lyne (1,617 votes). The BNP Fuhrer, Nick Griffin, beat the liberal Democrats in Oldham West.
While the outwardly violent fringes of the Nazi movement – the National Front, Combat 18 and racist football hooligans – rampaged through Oldham, the BNP consistently campaigned on deprived white working class housing estates around social issues – in a racist manner. It blamed society’s ills on multiracialism and multiculturalism, while peddling the myth of Asian on white racist attacks. The BNP also ran an effective press campaign and received coverage in the local paper, the Oldham Chronicle (firebombed by rioting Asian youth).
Yet most of the people who voted for the BNP are not Nazis. They are people disenfranchised from mainstream political life and alienated from mainstream society. They are the victims of a neoliberal agenda ruthlessly pursued by the previous Tory government and today’s New Labour rulers. They are protesting against a system that has failed and betrayed them. The BNP may believe that ‘the [election] result has been a complete vindication of the kind of party the BNP is trying to become – more efficient, more voter friendly and above all, more successful.’ (Mission Accomplished! BNP statement, 11 June, 2001). But it cannot escape its inherent racism and violence. Every Nazi activity breeds violence. Most notably, racist attacks increased by 300 percent on the Isle of Dogs after the election of a Nazi councillor in 1993. In Oldham the Asian deputy mayor’s house has been firebombed, Muslim graves have been desecrated and there has been an increase in racist attacks.
We now face the task of repeating the history of anti-fascists in the 1930s, the 1970s and the 1990s to build a vibrant anti-Nazi movement, mobilising the anti-racist majority into a force for change. Such a movement can unite those with divergent political opinions to defeat a common enemy, dividing the hardcore Nazis from their potential members. We must rip the mask of political respectability from the Nazis to expose them for what they are – Hitlerites, race thugs who want a return to the gas chambers.
The BNP stood 33 candidates nationally, gaining 47,225 votes. The number of candidates is down on the 56 who stood in 1997, polling 35,358 votes and averaging 1.3 percent. The 27 candidates in 1992 mustered 11,821, less than 1 percent in each constituency on average. The National Front stood five candidates this time, failing to gain from its strategy of exploiting racial tension by marching, then standing in the general election, in areas like Margate, Bermondsey and Birmingham. This summer the NF is saying it will march in Oldham and Bradford. The police continue to protect the Nazis, at huge cost to the taxpayer, while batoning anti-Nazis who protest against their presence.
The Nazis remain divided and at a fraction of their strength two decades ago. In the battle over the future of our society they are making small and isolated gains, but they are not winning. They are still a very long way from even beginning to emulate their counterparts in Europe.
There is an alternative. A battle is taking place between left and right as society polarises as a consequence of economic crisis. Left candidates won 185,000 votes on a principled stance against New Labour’s attacks on the working class. In comparison the Nazi vote poses less of a threat, but it is not insignificant. The candidates from the Socialist Alliance were contesting the general election for the first time and secured two deposits, and the Scottish Socialist Party made an impressive showing, saving ten deposits. In its heartland of east London the BNP vote fell. From the height of its success in 1993, with the election of a councillor, its vote has plummeted as a result of the opposition it faced. The BNP vote took a ‘dramatic slump’ (BNP statement, 11 June, 2001) when its vote halved in Bethnal Green & Bow, from 7.5 percent in 1997 to 3.2 percent today. Where it kept its deposit, in Poplar & Canning Town, the BNP vote still fell by 2.2 percent.
The Nazis invested heavily in the East End during the 1990s, as they will no doubt do in the north west of England leading up to next year’s council elections. Our job is to learn the lessons from history in order to repeat them today in defeating the Nazis. The focus on Oldham has obscured other developments for the Nazis in the general election. Firstly, east London has shown that protesting gets results. The diligent and vigilant campaigning against the BNP has paid off, as the BNP notes, ‘For the first time ever, the party is electorally stronger outside of London than in it.’
The BNP has chosen specific areas to build a power base. It tried in the 1990s in east London and we stopped it. The Anti Nazi League must again mount a mass campaign against the Nazis-this time in the north west. As the BNP says in its election analysis of the 11.2 percent Burnley vote,
‘This result was built up with solid community political work and not a race riot in sight ... The BNP’s first electoral outing in 1983 saw it get just 1 percent in its best seat, and that we could only take 3 percent in the Tower Hamlets constituency that included the Millwall ward in the general election before we won the Millwall seat, you can see the extent of the progress made in recent years. The BNP entered this election with the primary aim of setting itself up to make a real push to secure council seats next June, and to publicise the extent to which it has repositioned itself in the political mainstream.’ (BNP statement, 11 June, 2001)
The Nazis today are a fraction of the size and influence of their predecessors. Mass movements against them have shattered their unity, and their gains can be reversed. The Nazis exploited the failures of the last Labour government in the 1970s. As the Labour Party betrayed its supporters and played the race card over immigration, the fascists fed off working class disillusionment. By 1976 they had gained 44 percent in a council seat in London. They had councillors and went on to beat the Liberals in seats in the Greater London Council elections, getting 119,000 votes. National Front demonstrations were attracting new supporters and the Nazis were growing. This gave birth to the Anti Nazi League. On the admission of the then NF leader, Martin Webster, the ANL destroyed their chances of gaining ground.
Areas where the Nazis fared well in the 1970s, like Hoxton in Hackney, east London, are now places where they can no longer show their faces. Anti-racists are the majority – in Oldham and in east London. United we can defeat the Nazis. This has been demonstrated by the movements across Europe which have kept the fascists in check. The 1990s were a roller-coaster for European Nazis, who gained votes and credibility one minute to have them stolen by a surge to the left through workers’ struggles or through anti-racists organising and resisting. We have to learn these lessons again.
Last updated: 20.11.2012