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Julie Waterson

Beating the Bigots

(March 2003)

From Socialist Review 272, (March 2003).
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Nazi BNP believe that they’re on the verge of a breakthrough at the May local elections. But, as Julie Waterson explains, the growth of left wing forces shows there is a power to beat them

Eighteen months on from the race riots they sparked, Britain’s Nazis – the British National Party (BNP) – are exploiting an increase in racial tension. To add to their council seats in Burnley, Blackburn and Halifax, they are planning to stand over 200 candidates in May’s local elections, four times the number they stood last year (when 16 candidates got more than 10 percent of the vote). The BNP believe they are poised to follow in the footsteps of their European counterparts such as Le Pen, Fini and Haider. But the same crisis of neoliberalism that has bolstered them has produced a radical mass anti-war movement that shows the potential for stopping the Nazis in their tracks.

The BNP have been opportunistically building their support on the racist hysteria against asylum seekers being pursued by New Labour and sections of the media. This is nothing new. Nazis, throughout the 20th century, have exploited social and economic crises to peddle their race hatred in order to create the conditions for a race war. What is new is the BNP under Griffin’s leadership. He has changed their tactics and polished their propaganda to mirror fascist parties across Europe in an attempt to emulate their success at the ballot box.

In the North East the BNP paper last May was called British Worker, carrying an appeal for people to join the trade union Amicus! The BNP in the area describe themselves as the ‘only non-Marxist socialist party’. Meanwhile in the South East and the Ribble Valley they organise ‘Land and People’ and have an orientation on the Countryside Alliance. (‘Land and People’ is the name of Le Pen’s rural organisation, taken directly from Hitler’s Nazis.)

The anti-asylum witch-hunt led by the Daily Mail, the Express and the Sun (the latter as a conscious riposte to the Mirror’s anti-war coverage) has been a populist campaign on one of the few issues that goes against the grain of the general leftward movement of ideas. Although rooted in disillusionment with mainstream politics, many Tories have seen it as a vehicle to escape from political irrelevance. New Labour, rather than admit that they have failed to provide adequate housing, schooling and healthcare because of their unwillingness to tax the rich, accept such scarcity as a given and allow asylum seekers to take the blame. This has given confidence to the BNP. Just like the 1930s and the 1970s, the Nazis have been strengthened by the racism of social democratic governments and their ministers.

‘For three years Europe has been mesmerised by the far right,’ writes BBC reporter Angus Roxburgh in his new book Preachers of Hate. ‘Its successes have appalled and shocked. But they have also changed the direction of mainstream politics – not by encouraging, as one might have expected, a strong left wing challenge, but by causing centrist parties to move to the right and adopt more populist policies ... The risk of infection by far right ideas is as dangerous, at least, as the rise of the extremists themselves.’

This has been the horrifying picture that has emerged from Europe as governments have tightened asylum and immigration controls and where fascists have gained power and respectability. Fini in Italy, the direct descendant of Mussolini, is the deputy prime minister and Le Pen, the French fascist written off by many, beat the country’s prime minister to the final round of last year’s presidential elections.

New Labour have embraced the overt racism of ‘Fortress Europe’, strengthening nationalism and giving more power to ‘little Englanders’. Yet those seeking asylum in Britain last year only amounted to 0.18 percent of the population – a minuscule figure given the tens of millions forced to flee from war and persecution around the world.

Britain has an ageing population and suffers a lack of skilled labour, which is why the racist hysteria against asylum seekers sits comfortably alongside the government’s ‘green card’ scheme. Britain’s population has grown by only 573,000 people between 1991 and 2000 (about 1 percent) – so much for ‘overcrowding’!

Labour ministers like Peter Hain, normally associated with anti-fascism, have inflamed the situation by blaming Muslims for failing to integrate, while two northern Labour MPs, Ann Cryer and Phil Woolas, have pandered to the BNP by arguing for compulsory English language and culture classes for immigrants. David Blunkett has also talked of asylum seekers’ children ‘swamping’ local schools.

Anti-racists must drive a wedge between the Nazi cadre and their soft supporters

Such talk does nothing to weaken the Nazis. Rather it gives them space within ‘legitimate’ public debate from which to build. Blunkett’s talk of ‘swamping’ and Blair’s pledge to halve the number of those seeking asylum in a year gives succour to the BNP. The party’s propaganda may differ from region to region, but it is unified in attacking asylum seekers. They peddle myths which they turn into ‘facts’ – racist attacks used by the press, the Tories and finally New Labour to justify further persecution of asylum seekers. And so we have a feedback loop fuelling racism (of which asylum seekers are by no means the sole victims).

This counterproductive top-down strategy has also been at work in Labour-led Burnley council, which has cooperated fully with the three Nazi councillors elected last May, affording them a high degree of respectability and ‘normalising’ them as a legitimate and democratic party. Meanwhile the ANL has been the recipient of repeated bans from the council, the police and the Home Office when organising protests against the BNP, mass leafleting and a Love Music Hate Racism carnival. The carnival had to be moved to Manchester, where it was celebrated by 35,000 people.

A pattern is emerging like that of the 1930s, 1970s and the early 1990s – racism leads to hatred and division, attacks increase and people get murdered for the colour of their skin. This spirals out of control when the Nazis organise. This was true in the early 1990s – when the BNP having a councillor in east London meant racist attacks rocketed by 300 percent in the area. The urgent task for anti-racists is to expose the Nazis as the source of this violence. This is a vital way of driving a wedge between the hard Nazi cadre and their soft supporters. This means the kind of grassroots activism which decimated the Nazis ten years ago.

Black and white unity – challenging the myth that there were fortresses of BNP strength which were ‘no go areas’ for anti-racists – was crucial in driving them out of the East End of London. Then, the TUC organised a magnificent march through the area and toured local factories arguing against racism and the BNP. Local activists and trade unionists also did mass leafleting of the Isle of Dogs to undercut the lies from the BNP.

Today there are two new challenges to deal with. Firstly, the BNP are much more image-conscious than the past, when they were often seen in public giving Nazi salutes. However, many of them have convictions and a history of open Nazi activity which can be exposed. As well as this we need the kind of pressure on them and their organisations that makes their masks slip.

The other difference with ten years ago is that Labour is in office. This makes it even more important that the ‘Don’t Vote Nazi’ slogan is supplemented with activity outside of the electoral arena. Pressure must be put on the TUC to organise against the BNP, both nationally and locally, to counter the threat. Central to this is the initiative of rank and file trade unionists. Seventeen national unions are affiliated to the ANL – we need pressure to turn these good intentions into action. Everywhere the BNP rear their heads we need local campaigning which (1) stresses a determination to confront them politically and physically and (2) proves that they don’t speak for ordinary people.

They need to be confronted physically because they thrive on instilling terror. Only collective resistance can turn their strutting into fear, their arrogance into demoralisation. Their appeal lies in the illusion of empowerment they give. This illusion needs to be comprehensively smashed.

This depends on a clear understanding of the threat Nazis pose to all ordinary people – black or white, gay or straight, men or women. Their parasitical use of frustrations about cuts, privatisation and alienation need to be answered with the ugly truth about their priorities. Griffin is a rich landowner who went to Cambridge, and his party has a stated contempt for the NHS, trade unions and anything else which makes the lives of working class people more bearable.

Like the 1930s and the 1970s, there is a massive radicalisation to the left inside society combined with a polarisation to the right. The lesson from France – where only a turn from passive resistance to directly challenging the Nazis has begun to stem their growth – is that one does not automatically cancel out the other. The crisis of the mainstream parties has led to a volatile political situation that the far right can manipulate. But in almost every street and workplace there are people who have demonstrated against the war who can be won to combining that opposition to imperialism with resistance to the Nazi threat.

We are fighting for a society free from war and exploitation. In doing so we have to utilise the energy, vitality and vibrancy of the new movements to stop the Nazis and create the kind of world which will consign them to history.

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Last updated: 20.11.2012