The Labour party is dying, and fascism is on the rise. Where does the working class go from here?
‘May you live in interesting times’ is an old Chinese saying. You might be forgiven for assuming it is a blessing but in actual fact it is intended as a curse. Of course, how you might regard the inherent implications of some major political or social upheaval most probably depends on what end of the political or social spectrum you inhabit.
In any event, for good or ill, ‘interesting times’ we are certainly in.
In 1994, at the beginning of the Blair era, Labour MP Roy Hattersley suggested that ‘the working class would continue to vote for Labour whatever the party does’. A number of years after New Labour had taken power in 1997, when the cracks between the governing party and the working class electorate were already beginning to emerge, mostly in the form of a collapsing turnout at elections, it was all airily waved away by current Justice Minister Jack Straw. He described the gathering disengagement as ‘the politics of contentment.’
The quotes are a useful reminder that New Labour’s problems did not begin with the ascension to power of Gordon Brown, or the credit crunch, or MP’s expenses. The real damage was done far earlier, goes far deeper and may indeed be irreversible.
In last weeks Euro elections the SNP won the popular vote in Scotland for the first time ever, while the Tories trumped Labour in Wales. With the South-East in almost complete meltdown – Labour taking a mere 8 per cent of votes cast – there must now be some serious question marks against Labour ever again being a party with a true national reach.
In short, New and indeed Old Labour have got what they deserved and so, predictably, have the BNP. Tony Lecomber’s forecast in 1997 that ‘The people who have been abandoned by Labour and have never been represented by the Tories will, in their desperation, turn to us’ has been handsomely vindicated. The BNP’s steady climb from obscurity also began in 1994 when they abandoned their battle to control the streets.
Approximately a decade ago the modernised BNP, under the control of a new leader Nick Griffin, gave cause for concern when they took 26% of the vote in a council by-election in Bexley in Kent. An alarmed Guardian covered the story on page two but despite the evidence, then and since, their true potential has consistently been underestimated and decried, particularly by ‘professional’ anti-fascists and the orthodox Left.
In the run up to the local elections one poll commissioned by The Observer put their support level at just one per cent. If accurate it meant the BNP would do five times less well than in 2004. So don’t be fooled when they tell you that the recent success was purely down to the expenses row — if that benefitted anyone it was UKIP, who were down and out prior to the election. This has been a long time coming. Wishful thinking fools no one, least of all the BNP.
Worse, it fatally impregnates any counter-strategy with the same false optimism, to the extent that 45 year-old photos of former leader John Tyndall resplendent in brown shirt and swastika, with equally aged quotes to match, will still be considered stellar anti-fascist propaganda in five years time. Already, Labour MP Glenda Jackson is telling us that ‘this wasn’t the triumph Griffin and his acolytes had been hoping for … the number of people voting for his unique cocktail of racism and hate actually fell compared to five years ago.’
An internet search will reveal identical comments following the BNP’s first councillor in 2002 and after they came second in Barking & Dagenham and again when they took their first London Assembly seat last year. This whistling past the graveyard flows from a simple failure of nerve. Rather than try and take on the BNP in a political way, the proffered counter-strategy has deliberately been restricted to one of technical opposition only: bans, boycotts, censorship, no platform, smears and innuendo.
Of course, to pursue a strategy of winning-over rather than side-lining the alienated working class voter would mean addressing ticklish subjects such as immigration and its impact on jobs, services and housing, and ditching the conservative anti-fascist strategy pursued by Searchlight/The Mirror/Unite Against Facism (UAF) which is committed to stopping the BNP at almost any cost outside of upsetting the political equilibrium. UAF, for instance, merely called for ‘a vote for the mainstream parties’. Their conclusion? Vote right wing by all means but not too right wing! This is not anti-fascism, it is anti-extremism. (It should be noted in passing that the tactics pioneered by Searchlight for use against the BNP have also been used by the favoured ‘mainstream parties’ against the ‘extremist IWCA’. Once, a particularly reckless libel cost Labour a cool £15,000 plus a hefty chunk for legal costs).
And even though Searchlight has conceded the BNP needs to be ‘defeated politically’ it nevertheless insists, almost as if it has the likes of the IWCA in mind, that ‘those who argue for a solely class based approach to anti-fascism … will only hand dozens of seats to the BNP and quicken its electoral advance.’ As an analysis it is thoroughly risible. For if, as they have correctly concluded, New Labour’s ‘drifting to the centre’ helped cause the BNP advance, how can the cross-class political alternative they propose be anything but a compound on what is already happening?
Now that the BNP have captured two MEP seats anyway, the refusal to engage with working class concerns and voters looks even more absurd. And what, after all in the scheme of things, are a couple of dozen extra BNP seats in the short term when both the price of strategic failure and the potential reward of strategic success are so great?
The need for a new nationally-based working class federation/party
Nonetheless, such an admission of strategic review is to be welcomed as it helps make the case for one thing even more clear: the need for a new nationally-based working class federation/party. And unlike in 1998 the need for it is surely beyond even speculative challenge now.
A month prior to Labour tanking The Observer (3 May) called precisely for such a formation: ‘The best antidote to the far right would be a movement that aspires to represent everyone who feels disenfranchised, alienated, excluded, regardless of race; a movement that promotes solidarity among poorer voters instead of dividing them. It would speak with moral authority against a political system that looks, to many voters, grotesquely skewed in the interests of a narrow, wealthy elite. That no Westminster party can credibly deliver such a message shames the government.’
Another welcome reality check is the growing recognition that ‘anti-racist’ policies that effectively work to widen the racial divide – in either direction – and leave the BNP as sole beneficiary, cannot any longer be justified in the name of either anti-fascism or class solidarity. As the London Evening Standard columnist Andrew Gilligan put it following the BNP success at the 2008 GLA elections: ‘The endless focus on race alienated many white working class Londoners, who got the impression that Labour was not interested in them and was even trying to deny their place in London. Though you’d never know it from the Ken GLA, the white working class remains the largest single group in the city – something of which it reminded us on election day, by voting almost as one for Boris. He won two-thirds of the wards in Barking and Dagenham, truly astonishing for a Tory.’
Back in 1995 when anti-fascists first called for the formation of an independent working class organisation, it was met with incomprehension and no little ridicule from more or less all sides. Back then, with the Tory Party limping towards defeat and New Labour appearing buoyant and progressive, multiculturalism still in good order and the benefits of affirmative action and identity politics largely unquestioned, the notion that there would indeed need to be ‘a working class antidote to the far-right’ was regarded as an irritant at best. In any event, ‘we’re all middle class now’ we were informed.
A full seven years away from their initial breakthrough in Burnley in 2002, the BNP too was written off, while the organisational weight of the old left, mainly in the shape of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) seemed indefatigable. Back in 1995 the phrase ‘Labour heartlands’ still made sense. And as practically no one had heard of ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘Vote New Labour with no illusions’ remained the order of the day. How very different does it all look now?
For some time there has been evidence a-plenty that the New Labour project was breaking apart. Not just at a leadership level but organisationally as well. For the first time in living memory membership has dipped beneath the 175,000 mark, and that figure was from nine months ago. Who knows what it is now and when it will bottom out? It is hard to imagine a decade or more in opposition providing the necessary fillip. A staggering £24 million of debt is another sign of terminal decay. And this remember is still the party of government. Writing in the New Statesman, one time Brown groupie, Polly Toynbee now labels New Labour “bankrupt financially, bereft of ideas, it is skidding toward near-oblivion for a long time – and it is horrible to watch”. This is now a given. Where the real interest lies is in the level of carnage the party suffers in a general election rout.
The loss of huge numbers of MP’s apart, how will New Labour be able to explain its reason for continuing to exist once the famed triangulation strategy is rejected by the electorate? It would be bad enough to be lumbered with a seriously moth-eaten stratagem, but not to have a core philosophy to return to in order to get your bearings could prove terminal. Or as lefty comedian Mark Steel put it: “They sacrificed principles, debates, humanity, purpose and personality for the purpose of getting elected. But now they can’t get elected to anything so there is nothing left.”
In such circumstances it is likely the ‘project’ will be formally ditched in it’s entirety with someone, like say Jon Cruddas, taking the helm, and steering the Labour party back in a social-democratic direction. Eighteen months ago the BBC was posing the question as to whether Old Labour would succeed New Labour. But the real poser now, is in what state it will actually survive New Labour? Some smart money may already be on the project’s trailing mast disabling or even sinking the old Labour mother ship.
An organisational as well as an ideological vacuum
In the background too the economic fundamentals have altered dramatically. Home and abroad the Reagan/Thatcher/Blair/Brown legacy of de-regulation once famously described as ‘voodoo economics’ will, following the credit crunch, be forever looked at in a very different light. This welcome retrospective will not be confined to their reforms in the economic arena either as the political and social certainties identified with neo-liberalism are being studied with increasing scepticism as well. As a consequence it is not an exaggeration to say that the political situation unfolding has a once-in-century feel about it. It is a crisis so wide-reaching it touches everything. Not least because the free market philosophy recommended by the ruling elites particularly in America and Britain is shown not to work even on their terms. The ‘trickle down’ hypothesis is utterly eviscerated. Recently the head of the Audit Commission forecast ‘Armageddon’ if the strategy pursued by the government climaxes in Britain itself being bailed out.
But to say that progressive elements are ill-prepared to take advantage is to underestimate the scale of the disarray. Putting it bluntly, the working class and its allies are utterly adrift. What is lacking most is a counter philosophy. For without such a vision, there cannot be any proper analysis, organisation strategy or tactics. As a consequence you get NO2 EU – YES TO DEMOCRACY! instead. The name selection alone (described as a ‘temporary workers party’ by one arch optimist) illustrates the utter loss of direction. For the first time in living memory there is no identifiable working class/left leadership visible anywhere in Britain. For very sound reasons both the largely white collar trade union movement and Labour Left are devoid of credibility within working class areas. Neither is there an individual figurehead, standard bearer or even self-serving grandstander of note. Galloway and Sheridan are fit only for reality TV, while others like Benn, Livingstone, and Scargill are either yesterday’s men or mentally equipped to fight just the odd skirmish in some previous class war.
Thus in addition to New Labour flirting with oblivion, the BNP threatening to soon become the fourth biggest party, the ignominious failure of the various vanity projects and consequent loss of prestige, all means that in contrast to 1998, there is now not just an ideological vacuum but an organisational one as well.
Ideology aside, perhaps the one key ingredient missing from all of the failed unity efforts was the failure of any one of the groups, or prominent individuals to engage with the process in a way designed to meet the political needs of the working class as a whole, rather than those of themselves as individuals or their groups. Even when IWCA pilot schemes proved again and again that the mainstream parties were as vulnerable to an attack from a progressive working class party as they were to the BNP, this critical lesson was not taken on board. The example was not imitated. And though it is unlikely there will be any retrospective drum rolls for us getting it right, the overall terrain is nonetheless simplified to enormous advantage. Potentially, that is.
Wherever you look there is evidence to suggest that the tectonic plates of British party politics are shifting, and much more besides. Routinely being compared to the ‘Great Depression’ the credit crunch promises to expose some spectacular societal fault lines. In broad terms we can expect higher taxes and less public spending – whoever’s in government. And though the working class will catch in the neck it will arguably be even more traumatic for ‘Middle England’. A rise in unemployment will of course affect all classes. But for the middle classes, or for the working class elements encouraged to believe they had jumped a class simply by the fact of putting a deposit on a house, and thereafter paying rent to the bank, there is the additional anxiety that their rising living standards were nothing more than a blip and a future of ever growing prosperity something of a chimera. For a considerable time international experts have argued that house prices need to fall at least 30 per cent in real money before finding a floor, so we are still some distance out from full social and political impact. And with the notion of being able to borrow a way out already barred off by an existing £1.44 trillion of personal debt, the borders of the seemingly endlessly expanding middle class are sure to suffer the sharpest of contractions. This is the real motor for the rage at the disclosure about MP’s expenses. Expect more gnashing of teeth and renting of garments as redundancy, re-possession and bankruptcy become routine.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, and if Nick Griffin is even half right (and at least some of his forecasts have actually been accurate before) racial/religious demarcations are due for a dramatic expansion too. Recently Griffin confidently announced that he expects the lid to come off the multicultural experiment some time soon. “Inter-communal violence” will likely be a fact of life for many working class communities “within” he believes “three years.” The seemingly spontaneous demonstrations in Luton recently may be a portent. It is difficult to predict the short-term winners and losers from such a collective meltdown but it’s a fair bet it won’t be pretty.
Being in the right place when Labour is no more
At the same time it is important not to panic. The BNP are building incrementally. This is not the politics of putsch but drift. At the same time they have endless ambition and with the extra £4 million in the coffers will undoubtedly build on what they already have. Just over a decade ago the IWCA set up its pilot schemes in a number of areas around the country. We got our first councillor in 2002. The BNP too made a modest breakthrough in Burnley when it captured three seats. By 2006 when the IWCA had four councillors the BNP had something like 54 elected. They are now firmly ensconsed in the public mind as the radical alternative so it has to be back to the drawing board. At a political level we will renew the search for a way forward with other progressive forces. The strategic objective would be to eventually match the reach of the BNP nationally. Ideology aside, the BNP has established a benchmark for how smaller parties can advance. There are lessons to be learned there and it is futile to deny it.
Systematically building an infrastructure to rival the BNP’s is not simply out of a desire to compete with the Far-Right for working class hearts and minds on the ground in the here and now. Instead we will be encouraging other independent groups and individuals of a like mind to set our sights on being in the right place, when Labour as a ‘natural party of government’ is no more. Of course even if the emerging situation is Scotland is eventually mirrored in Wales in the general election, Labour would still be a party with a national reach, but at the same time the notion of it ever forming another government without help from a coalition partner or partners would be in the past. Inevitably that in turn would lead to an even greater fusing of the neo-liberals in the centre. Which in turn would force ever-greater sections of the population already squeezed to the electoral margins to actively look elsewhere for a political voice.
Crucially what has been lost in the whirlwind of liberal hysteria about the ‘Nazis’ is that a substantial part of the BNP appeal within working class communities come from its depiction of its policies as ‘socialism of the old school’. Former Tory party chairman Norman Tebbit has said “I have carefully re-read the BNP manifesto of 2005 and am unable to find evidence of Right-wing tendencies. On the other hand, there is plenty of anti-capitalism, opposition to free trade, commitments to “use all non-destructive means to reduce income inequality”, to institute worker ownership, to favour workers’ co-operatives, to return parts of the railways to state ownership, to nationalise the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and to withdraw from Nato. That sounds pretty Left-wing to me”. At the moment this is something the BNP take particular delight in admitting. But this is also their Achilles heel. Currently they are effortlessly riding two horses. Along side their work in former Labour heartlands they are equally at home in tapping into a sort of ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ time-honoured conservatism in the more upmarket neighbourhoods.
Therefore either as a result of achieving greater national prominence or as a consequence of being faced with an authentic working class challenge down the line, the contradictions in their philosophical underpinning must be revealed, forcing them at critical moments to bend in one direction or the other. Historically, when given the choice between opting for the nationalist or ‘socialist’ fork the gravitational pull for fascism is nearly always toward the former. When that time comes, if a progressive working class party were in a position to do so, rather than advance piecemeal on a ward-by-ward basis it could very well mop up across entire boroughs where previously Labour, and then the BNP had once ruled the roost. Why such a possibility exists is because as Searchlight admits “in some places such as Barking and Dagenham, one of the fundamental problems is the absence of any mainstream alternative to Labour, so the BNP is the sole beneficiary of the anti-Labour protest vote”. As the big three continue to shed activists (according to one report the Tories have shed 40,000 members since Cameron took over) and atrophy in terms of popular support it is trend that can only become more widespread.
But how to get from the present to there is the tricky bit. One factor is certain. A long-term strategy is now required. It is unlikely there will be any short cuts. So it is the long game or nothing. A daunting prospect. But on the plus side, the opportunities unfolding before our eyes do have an undeniable once-in- a-century feel about them.