Anti Fascism

The left and the BNP

Nick Lowles of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight takes a look at the BNP’s election strategy and presents his ideas on the best way to combat the racist party in next year’s general election.

The effectiveness of running a “BNP is Nazi” campaign, with shocking photos of concentration camps and images of Adolf Hitler, lessens with each election. We need to beat the BNP politically and to do that we need a grassroots strategy based firmly in the very communities for which the BNP is competing.

Today’s BNP needs to be linked to extremism and more importantly so do its local branches and council candidates. To do this we need good local intelligence.

Anti-fascists must first identify the key target wards within a constituency chosen by the BNP. These wards must become the central focus of our campaign even if it means, as it definitely will, that large parts of the constituency are ignored.

Once the ward has been identified it needs to be profiled. What are the local issues that most affect people? These are not always the issues we think are important or would like people to think are important. Most of the time they involve matters such as anti-social behaviour, crime or a specific local service. We need to develop strategies that neutralise these as potential BNP issues.

We then need to identify the movers and shakers within the ward. Who, locally, is respected and does not like the BNP? It is far better that such people are seen at the forefront of the campaign than outside activists who are often viewed with suspicion and deemed patronising.

It is only when we have accomplished these three tasks that we can begin campaigning. And campaigning means more localised leaflets and newsletters and more importantly talking to people. Research demonstrates clearly that leaflets are becoming less effective and the challenge for anti-fascist groups is to find ways to engage with local people.

I hope this advice is followed because the old way of taking on the BNP didn’t work very well.

In fairness, if the Socialist Workers Party deserve credit for anything it is that they have continued, through the Anti Nazi League, to challenge, expose and harass the BNP when many others simply weren’t interested.

Yet at the same time, anyone who has spent anytime in anti-fascist activity knows that bussing in student activists to scream ‘Nazi’ at a BNP meetings has a limited impact. Indeed, worse than that, it is often be self-defeating, allowing the fascists to portray themselves as the ordinary local folk up against extremist agitators.

Anti-fascist activity, when it focuses just on exposing the BNP, is an exercise in damage limitation. What is sorely needed is a Labour Party that has an active membership and real roots in the communities being targetted by the BNP. Sadly, the experience of the Lancashire milltowns (and other similar communities) is that local Labour parties are shrinking in terms of numbers and influence. Political parties in general are no longer seen as products of the community but rather local representatives of the London leaderships.

One of the reasons that regional assemblies were a good idea was that they would have helped to revitalise local politics, creating new leaderships that could be identified as distinct to the Westminster elites and who had the autonomy to develop and present policies that were tailor-made to their region.

We are frequently told that people’s connection to parties and to the political process in general has dramatically weakened and the development of a politics with a regional accent would have helped to start addressing this alienation.

The other problem is the state of the left, because it is the labour movement and the broader left that has always been at the forefront of campaigns to defeat the fascists. You can get the strategy right (as I think Searchlight has in this latest approach) but if you don’t have the people to carry it out you have little more than shipped-in leaflets.

If you were looking to set up an anti-fascist campaign 15 or 20 years ago, you had a ready-built layer of activists you could turn to. You had the Labour Party with hundreds of members in each town, trade unions, the Communist Party, the Trotskyist groups and then the various anti-racist initiatives.

We can argue over the reasons for the decline of the socialist left but there is no doubt that it has happened and the result is a shortage of activists across the country but particularly in the kind of communities targetted by the far right.
Labour has been unable to combine governing and maintaining an activist base and I suspect it is about to find out in May exactly how serious this problem is – anyone for canvassing?

For a long time there was a kind of unspoken division of labour on the left – the pro-leadership Labour Party activists ran councils, organised the party machine and stood for election. The more radical base focused on community activism where they had more autonomy from the leadership but were still able to be called upon for election work and other major mobilisations. There has always been a long list of right-wing Labour MP’s who have been elected partly due to the donkey-work of left-wing activists.

But that era is over. Since 1997 the Labour Party has neglected activism and the activists have turned away from party politics. We could argue about why this is but I would only add at this point that it is always going to be tougher to attract people to get involved in a governing party than to join a protest. There are other factors though.

Whatever the causes, the effect is clear. Whenever I return to the constituency where I cut my teeth politically, which happens to be a BNP targetted area, I find that the same old councillors are still attending committee meetings but that the rest of the party has vaporised.

Its too late for Labour to do anything about this before next year’s election and they may well pay a price in some areas for the absence of activists. But somehow Labour (and the wider democratic left) has to find a way to create a new activism unless New Labour’s legacy is to be a managerial party with no roots.

It won’t be enough to merely try and relaunch the Young Socialists or announce some nationwide recruitment drive. It needs an entirely new way of organising locally, with greater autonomy from the formal structures of party and a stronger focus on local problem solving. People won’t get involved in politics merely to help keep the local MP in Westminster or hold up Tony Blair’s vote.

People used to join the Labour Party thinking they could change the world but it would be enough if the party could find a way of attracting people who would like to change their towns.

There is no better defence against the far right then an active democratic left with real roots in localities. The daunting truth is that such a movement may well need to be built from scratch.

(Hat Tip: Peter C)