News - May 2003


12th May '03

One time Labour Executive member Shaid Malik was the first to make a grab for the ultimate comfort blanket. The BNP success, in becoming the official opposition in his hometown Burnley in just twelve months, needed to be seen ‘in context’ he insisted. There were ‘22,000 councillors in Britain’ he cautioned and ‘the BNP had less than 20 of them’. For a politician who simply oozes personal vanity and ambition, the probable attraction in drawing on such a comparison is that he believes he will never have to eat humble pie, for its usage is almost infinite. Say one day the BNP top 1000 councillors, there would still be 21,000 councillors left for Malik to smugly point to.
As it is, Burnley is for now the BNP’s only power base, and last Saturday the Guardian reported that Labour supporters were consoling themselves by saying that the BNP had been "corralled at the eastern end of the M65." How Sandwell in the Midlands or Broxbourne in Hertfordshire is considered to be in that catchment area is anyone’s guess.
Hardly any more convincing was the response of left-wing MP Chris Mullin to the BNP showing in his Sunderland constituency. "No one can afford to be complacent about the BNP but they have not done as well as I feared they might do". We can only speculate as to what he had envisaged. But it is perhaps a bit of a giveaway that he described himself "delighted’ that out of over 99,000 votes cast across Sunderland, a mere 13,652 of his constituents had ticked BNP. Mullin is obviously a man who is easily pleased. But Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford was even more upbeat. "The BNP thrives in areas of low turnout", he trumpeted, perhaps unwittingly drawing on stock in trade Searchlight propaganda, for which there is not a shred of convincing evidence. He goes on; "if you increase turnout there is a better chance that they won’t get through." Yes, possibly. However as with the IWCA, one of the marked features of the BNP participation in fighting local elections is that many voters, who otherwise would not have bothered, actually do so. When for instance the BNP won a by-election in Halifax in January 2003 the turnout was driven up from 22% to 37%. An argument in a similar vein is that the electoral resurgence of the far right owes much to disillusioned Tories and can thus be disregarded. At best this can only be partially true, as overwhelmingly, the seats falling to the BNP are Labour ones. And if indeed some Tories are switching to the BNP, it is more than likely these are that same section of the Tory party who deserted the NF in 1979 and are merely returning ‘home’. Though widely championed by anti-fascism at the time as being of crucial importance, the u-turn is being sneered at now. By and large it is fair to say that the conclusions being drawn about BNP achievements, much less prospects, are not being reached by a method of investigation that any fair-minded person could regard as impartial.
Patently the primary motivation of the purveyors of such cant is to try and protect their fast-fading reputations by divesting themselves of responsibility, or otherwise washing their hands of the catastrophe now unfolding before their eyes.
Putting the twisted logic and the inverted and totally phoney triumphalism aside, an article in this Friday’s Guardian rather let the cat out of the valise in admitting that; "in the capitals of Europe there are growing fears that asylum has become an issue capable of leading to electoral collapse of even the most entrenched left social democrat government. Last weeks limited advances by the British National Party in the local elections fuelled that anxiety in No 10."
So there we have it. What then the chances of substitute scenarios?

For the conservative left, a reassurance of sorts came with the SSP fulfilling its promise by taking 5 further seats in the Scottish Parliament. However a closer study shows that despite the impressive national profile the SSP have just two councillors. And in Glasgow’s Strathbungo ward the SSP were beaten into fourth place by the IWCA (who came within 150 votes of taking the seat) without a single one of the IWCA team responsible ever having contested an election before.
So for the SSP there are a number of lessons to be drawn. One, the party appears to have talent at the very top but is burdened with predictably variable quality at the bottom. Secondly, the system of proportional representation may owe rather more to the breakthrough than the SSP might like to politically consider, for unpalatable as it is, it can be the only explanation for how the SSP emerged from the election with more than three times as many elected MSP’s as it has SSP councillors.

In England the Socialist Alliance which campaigned entirely on a ‘stop the war’ ticket, even though it was apparent to most sane people that the war such as it was, was long over, did as dismally (considerably less than 5% on average) as everyone including their own supporters suspected they would. In one ward in Preston the SA candidate did emerge victorious, which left everyone baffled until it emerged that the surge in support was a result of the intervention of the local Imam who publicly called for the Muslim congregation to vote against Labour as ‘a pro-war party’.
Considering that Weekly Worker, the Socialist Alliance’s biggest cheerleader, had just prior to the election declared the continued existence of the SA as only slightly better than ‘total liquidation’, this means that had the Preston result truly reflected socialist sentiment (rather than the anti-Labour ethnic/nationalist backlash it was) the SA could not even then (considering the many hundreds of wretched results in its brief existence) have regarded it with any satisfaction. For in their heart of hearts, all would surely know an exception to the rule at this stage, carries no more promise than the bounce of a dead cat.
But if orthodox Trotskyism was felt to have performed shabbily, the other part of the double act, in the shape of the ANL and Searchlight, arguably fared even worse. Quite the most remarkable statistic of the campaign (apart from the fact that the governing party could only find candidates to fight 67% of the seats) came from Searchlight who predicted a "good anti-fascism campaign" could possibly affect the BNP vote by between, wait for it, "3% and 5%". And that was going into the election. Quite in what regard ‘Don’t vote Nazi’ type propaganda is held in the aftermath is moot, but if only 5% is all a well run campaign can hope for, it does rather beg the question as to what amount of damage has been inflicted by the type of ‘bad’ anti-fascist campaign for which the ANL is renowned?

Ten years ago militants looked on in disgust, as the ANL all but wiped out the benefits of a two year AFA offensive in the then BNP heartland of Bethnal Green in a matter of a few months. How much the BNP are beholding to them in Burnley, where the ANL has been active for the last eighteen months (rumour has it they are again threatening a national march there, though surely wiser heads will prevail) can only be guessed at. Without doubt in terms of realpolitik, orthodox Trotskyism cannot be the only ones facing the possibility of ‘liquidation’.

But if form is anything to go by, the liberal left and their allies in the media, (the most fair-weather surely being the Daily Express, who only broke off a campaign attacking refugees just a few days before the election to turn their fire on the BNP, and then returned after the weekend to attacking refugees) will return to what really interests them by the end of the week. But if for a moment they think the worst is over they could not be more wrong: it is quite the opposite in fact. Much worse is to come. Remember it was in the Euro elections in 1999 that the BNP first signalled its intent when it took 100,000 votes, in a 20% turnout. Consider for a moment then how much more credible local BNP candidates everywhere will appear in the eyes of working class people when the results of the European elections due to be held on June 10 2004 are announced?
Remember too that in 1999 it was the European campaign that laid the basis for the spectacular in Oldham when Griffin took over 16% in a parliamentary constituency, followed a year later by the election of three councillors in Burnley in 2002.

Less than two weeks before Christmas Day 1999, London AFA called a special meeting of the AFA Northern Network to try and alert activists to the explicit threat faced by anti-fascism in the North West. Speakers pointed out that in the last three years, as a result of AFA not working ‘effectively’ in the North West, the BNP had ‘doubled the number of branches in the region’. In drawing on a study of the voting pattern in European elections, the 3.5% registered support for the BNP across the North West strongly indicated it was likely to be in the ‘former cotton towns like Oldham, Burnley and Pendle rather than inner London where the BNP now expect to make their electoral breakthrough. Once they have one seat, acquiring a second, will prove, as has been the case throughout much of Europe that much easier.’
Though heads nodded, outside of Manchester there were few real takers. At the more extreme end, delegates from Bolton AFA argued vehemently that the ‘BNP had not changed strategy’ and all the talk of the need for ‘a progressive radical alternative’ was nothing more than a "Red Action recruitment exercise’.
Today outside of a few cranks, who still maintain the whole thing to be a cunning wheeze cooked up by the RA publicity department, there is now general acceptance that the political vacuum in working class areas needs to be filled. And not just physically ward by ward or region by region. Instead the prize is to be the party deemed most in tune with working class consciousness. At the moment the BNP are front-runners. By June next year the bookies may stop taking bets. For as well being in position to add considerable volume to the overall numbers voting BNP nationally in the Euro elections, by establishing a high profile in the GLA elections, they have at the same time an opportunity to add considerable prestige to their bandwagon by cracking the capital. A tripling or even quadrupling of the 80,000 who voted the BNP candidate for Mayor in 2000 is not beyond them. If this were to happen they would emerge from these elections as a genuine national party and the negative impact on working class hearts and minds across the country could well prove irreversible. So to say the situation is grave is an understatement. But what are the options?

First off, to pretend that either the SA or the ANL or Searchlight can play any positive role has to be kicked into touch. It is of course axiomatic that a political alternative to the BNP must be constructed, and what more than anything it needs to do is cater to the needs, concerns, and aspirations of the constituency from which the BNP draws support, the white working class. And as we witnessed over the last two years this is a constituency where liberal anti-racism and its supporters are spectacularly ill equipped to deliver.

Secondly it is also necessary that those who agree with the conclusions drawn also take on board that if the BNP is to be directly confronted in a high profile way, say in London in June, the purpose in the short term is not to poll better from the outset; the BNP have too much of a head start for that, so in the short to medium term ‘beating the fascists’ will need be replaced with a more modest target. That being, to take a sufficient share of the seriously disenchanted white working class Londoner vote to allow the progressive alternative to compete with the fascists in the next heat. It is as straightforward as all that.

That such a candid admission will most likely be greeted by hoots of derision by cretins who fairly routinely palm off votes as low as 16 or 19 in council by-elections, as ‘something to be built on’ is par for the course. More generally the degree of hostility, suspicion and resentment toward anyone who tries to bring the working class back into the political arena is proven by the reactionary body language that greeted the IWCA results last May, and twice since.
Of all the condemnation perhaps the most bizarre explanation/criticism for the relative success of the IWCA in working class communities, was that the IWCA was not sufficiently ‘socialist’ - like say the SA! Which rather sidestepped the fact that it is obviously a case of either or.

In its depiction of the IWCA strategy as ‘sub-reformist localism’ Weekly Worker sought to portray the IWCA appeal as being somehow apolitical, plus the failure of the IWCA to even pretend to act like a national political party (‘they don’t even have a national website’) was another reason why true Marxists ‘had nothing to learn from the IWCA’
To the charges of ‘not pretending’ the IWCA must plead guilty. Up till now, the tactic has been to run a series of pilot schemes in working class areas in order to prove to the sceptics that an independent working class strategy was both vitally necessary, and more to the point, could work.

It is now evident that to try and keep pace with the competition the work must be expanded, and the pace of development accelerated: force-marched actually. Before the summer it is expected the IWCA will launch as a national organisation. In twelve months time candidates will be put forward to contest the GLA elections.

Understandably there are reservations about so sudden a break with previous custom and practice. But then the IWCA is itself a total break with what has up to now been passed off as the epitome of radicalism. So the howls of outrage from certain quarters that will follow the publication of the manifesto will offer some reassurance that the gamble in stepping up to the plate is on the right one.

Now obviously there is no way the IWCA can carry the fight with the resources currently available so it is counting on there being a sufficient acceptance by the rational element, within what is loosely termed the left, that if the white working class are to be brought back on board (which is key to everything that has gone before) it will on certain matters need on occasion to be met at least halfway between reality, and possibly their perceptions of that reality. Politics is, as is often said, the art of the possible, so in order for the strategy to work ordinary people will need to reasoned with rather than browbeaten or manipulated, which is how they have been dealt with in the past.
It goes without saying that for the foreseeable future, the IWCA sees the fight as being a defensive one. That simply is the lay of the land. But being able to fight a defensive struggle in such terrain is not at all bad, particularly when you consider the alternatives. Which frames the remaining questions rather satisfactorily: if not the IWCA who, if not this way how, if not now when? You decide.