Searchlight Editor Backs 'IWCA' Approach

With the Anti-Nazi League discredited and banned, the Socialist Alliance reduced to building support for a new CND type movement, and the political establishment in Oldham and wider afield showing signs of panic at the prospects of BNP councilors in northern towns, Searchlight magazine which has spent much of the last decade reassuring its audience that the far-right was more or less genetically pre-programmed to self-destruct, appears to have undergone a Damascene conversion. In an interview with a left-wing magazine, editor Nick Lowles discusses what is to be done. Far from predictions of BNP implosions followed by routine calls for more legislation (the staple diet of the Searchlight strategy for decades) Lowles, perhaps recognizing the scale of the disaster unfolding has apparently decided some re-positioning is required. In so doing, he not only echoes the long-standing Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) analysis but also perhaps more interestingly politically endorses the pioneering work being conducted by the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) within working class communities.

Along the way, the politics of former allies the ANL and the Socialist Alliance (SA) come in, rather inevitably, for heavy criticism. The latter are described as "distant and abstract" while the ANL plan for an anti-racist march in Oldham which might have brought marchers into conflict with "hundreds and hundreds of white workers" is condemned as "counter productive". Equally, going to a town center and getting a " few middle class shoppers to sign a petition" or going to Asian areas and telling them the "BNP is bad and racist", Lowles contemptuously dismisses as "easy work".

The harder work, the "key work", in Lowles estimate is the "day to day graft in white areas." But before such work could even be considered the "left must accept that the white workers in those areas do have real problems". In the same way, the fiction that if all else fails the 'labour movement' would ride to the rescue is also rejected out of hand. "Many of the unions are not in good enough shape to lead the fight, " Lowles warns.

Instead he stresses the left must take note of the BNP' s adoption of policy, which in contrast to the left fondness for sloganeering is a "community politics strategy" to suit their own political ends. "In some areas they do local bulletins taking up everything from parking and dustbins to the question of the proposed local hostel for asylum seekers." By contrast the Socialist Alliance campaign, he attacks for being based on distant propaganda. "For example, re-nationalise the railways is a fine demand, as long as we understand that it does not have much purchase on white workers in some of the most deprived areas who need detailed answers to their local problems of housing, social services and jobs."

As Lowles makes repeatedly makes clear throughout, "the key thing" for anti-fascism is being in position "to undercut the racist message by answering the real problems people face." Undercutting the racist message is itself undermined by a mindset that still maintains "Asylum seekers welcome here" remains a vote winner. In an area of disgraceful housing provision, "where a tower block gets re-developed and "outsiders" are put it, "great resentment" is according to Lowles "guaranteed".

Responding by telling such people "not to vote BNP because they are racists" is "plainly inadequate". Particularly as the white working class "vote BNP for various reasons - yes for racist reasons, but also as a protest against the mainstream parties which ignore or patronize them, and because they have been let down by other parties." Though he does not say outright it is implicit in his criticism: the 'other' parties outside of the mainstream who have for decades have 'ignored', 'let down' and 'patronized' the working class, all today play leading roles within the Socialist Alliance.

Unsurprisingly the track record of the SA so far offers reasons aplenty for Searchlight to get off the hook on failing to endorse 'anti-fascist' candidates put up by the SA when push comes to shove in the wards contested by BNP in the north. Pragmatic it may be, but in doing so the impotence of Searchlight's own politics and strategy run the risk of being exposed. Quite simply Searchlight has relied on the state and the establishment parties being the solution for too long. Even while dissecting the failures of the left, Lowles is ultimately forced to return to the mantra of not "splitting the Labour vote". In the short term, given the myriad weaknesses already identified this may appear a common sense approach. Yet it entirely ignores that the electoral appeal of the BNP is as Lowles admits, a symptom of the systemic weaknesses within the self-same Labour Party.

In 1993 after the 'victory for anti-fascism' on the Isle of Dogs, when the BNP lost its single councilor, many anti-fascist militants realized that the 'victory' was in fact a confidence trick that would not suffer too many repeats. From then on, London AFA with leading Red Action members prominent, took political responsibility for developing a strategy for the long haul. In 1994 when the BNP publicly abandoned 'the politics of the punch-up', the project gathered momentum. To say AFA as a whole, was from the beginning swimming against the tide is something of an understatement. For instance it would take Trotskyism as a whole, six years before they could come to terms with confronting Labour, much less the root and branch review necessary before any sustained orientation to the working class could expect to prove productive.

That is not somehow to suggest that the Searchlight response to the London AFA initative was any more enlightened, far from it. As an alternative to acting like grown-ups, Searchlight saw the attempt to adapt, as an opportunity to settle some old scores, by deliberately encouraging elements within AFA to question the authority of the security stewards up and down the country who recognized the need for and supported the project. As well as Searchlight moles brazenly challenging the proposals for the development of 'a political wing' within and without, Searchlight entryists eagerly cultivated any malcontents, the restless or the adventurers who hungered for the previously confrontational approach, which as a result of the BNP withdrawl from the streets was now self-evidently redundant.

Six months out from what promises to be a watershed, for Searchlight to turn around and publicly try and present the AFA analysis as theirs, without any reference to its origins is typically devious and underhand. More importantly it is too little too late, for in the six months remaining until May, it is a critique they must realize, has a zero chance of being heeded by a myopic, self-obsessed, and increasingly anachronistic left.

It can be assumed that this belated concession to reality by Lowles is therefore, no more than a stratagem by Searchlight to cover their own analytical backs. Ironically, in stretching their remit away from the type of state friendly cross-class alliances enthusiastically promoted by them for two decades, the community-orientated strategy they now recommend as an alternative, is in itself an admission that a class free approach to anti-fascism, if not already downright counterproductive is certainly defunct. In truth, the only effective way of combating euro-nationalism has nothing in common with the traditional posturing and self-serving techniques that have come to be associated with the type of strident, state-friendly anti-extremism typified by Searchlight and the ANL. Putting it more bluntly, fascism as re-packaged by the BNP cannot be defeated by an anti-fascism presented in the abstract as a single issue particularly when "detailed answers" to the problems faced by the local working lass community are being provided by the right rather than the left. (The recent by-elections in Burnley being a case in point.)

All of which means that if Searchlight judge it opportune to covertly appropriate the AFA analysis today, then in a post May 2 landscape how long will it be before they are forced, through gritted teeth admittedly, to openly endorse the IWCA strategy, in order, if for no more principled reason, to have a credible political future as anti-fascists themselves?

*Interview with Nick Lowles conducted by Mark Osborn of the Alliance for Workers Liberty and published in a recent pamphlet entitled "How to beat the racists".

November '01