Where now for anti-fascism?

Following the initial attempts by mainstream anti-fascists to spin the European election results, are there any indications that lessons have been learned from BNP’s victory?

There are differences in the strategic approaches of Searchlight and Unite Against Fascism, but in the past, mainstream anti-BNP campaigns have shared a number of features. What are these features, and are they still intact following the Euro elections?

1) “Denying them the respectability they crave.”

This element of the strategy is aimed at those who might be tempted to vote BNP – presumably those on low incomes, who hold hardline anti-immigration views and who are disenchanted with establishment politics. The goal is to put off potential BNP voters by creating the impression that the Party is ”beyond the pale” of what is respectable. Elements of this strategy include emphasising the “Nazi” pedigree of certain BNP leaders, listing BNP members’ criminal convictions and arguing that they’re somehow trying to “take advantage” of the democratic process in order to undermine it. To the degree this tactic is successful, it has the useful side effect of legitimising arguments for legal restrictions on the BNP. If they are not a “normal” political party, there is no reason to extend to them the rights enjoyed by other parties. This argument for legal restrictions is often referred to as the “No Platform” argument (although militant anti-fascists might protest that ”no platform” means something quite different).

In the case of UAF, all three elements of this strategy appear to have survivived the Euro election car crash in tact, judging from the interview SWP and UAF leader Martin Smith gave to Channel 4 News. Searchlight, however, seems to have abandoned this strategy on the grounds that the BNP has already achieved respectablity. The organisation’s founder, Nick Lowles, admitted:

We also have to accept that the political landscape has shifted. Searchlight comes from a proud tradition of No Platform, a belief that fascism should not be allowed to air its politics of hate publicly. We have always opposed legitimising fascism through public debate and where fascists try to incite hatred within communities through provocative marches and actions, we have backed mobilisations against them.

While I still adhere to this in principle I also believe that we have to accept a new reality. Firstly the BNP has MEPs and whether we like it or not Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons will appear more regularly on television. No platform agreements between political parties were already breaking down before the election, with only Labour holding to them, and this process is likely to quicken now.

Although Searchlight seem to have quietly shelved “No Platform”, there is no sign that UAF will do the same. The group’s main constituent organisation – the Socialist Workers’ Party – hinted at its intentions with a passage in its open letter to the Left:

The Nazis’ success will encourage those within the BNP urging a “return to the streets”.

This would mean marches targeting multiracial areas and increased racist attacks. We need to be ready to mobilise to stop that occurring.

The BNP’s “real aim” (so the SWP story goes) is not to win elections, but to use street violence to foment racial tension. Therefore, it should be treated as a Nazi criminal conspiracy rather than a political party. Tactics appropriate for dealing with a rival party (refuting your opponent’s arguments and trying to convince people of your own worldview and arguments) are pointless because they do nothing to stop the BNP achieving its real aims. Instead, our focus should be on the street-level activities of the far right. Its public marches should be robustly countered with “shows of force” that will demoralise the fascists. A glance at UAF’s “events” page shows how the group’s activities revolve almost entirely around demonstrations and rallies.

It is easy to see how this narrative aids SWP recruitment. It offers impressionable middle class students the prospect of regular, high adrenaline confrontations with the fascists, rather than the less glamourous task of tackling the BNP politically in working class communities where they are successful.

It goes without saying that these tactics, and the view of the BNP that underpins them, are completely wrong-headed and indeed counter-productive. But since they are so useful as recruitment tools for the SWP, and as a way of side-stepping the challenge of opposing the BNP politically, they will probably be around for some time to come.

2) “…to unite the broadest possible spectrum of society to counter this threat.”

The above is from the “about us” section of the UAF website. To unite the overwhelming majority who are not attracted to the BNP seems uncontroversial. As we’ve noted previously, research indicates that the BNP is so disliked by a large majority of the population that even those who share many of the Party’s views on policy are put off from voting for it. However, there are a number of problems with the way “broad-based anti-fascism” works in practice.

Firstly, opening up anti-fascist campaigns to “all those opposed to the BNP” in reality means “those with the greatest interest in opposing the BNP, and those who are most passionately opposed.” Politically, this means Labour, who risks losing some of its core supporters to the BNP. Socially, it means liberal sections of the white middle class as well as politically organised groups of black and Asian people.

One way of drawing on the support of such groups is to “swamp” the BNP vote in elections by maximising the turnout among people certain not to vote BNP. This was the strategy used on the Isle of Dogs, after the election of BNP councillor Derek Beacon in 1993. The following year Beacon’s vote rose – but not as much as the anti-BNP vote, as Asian voters turned out in large numbers.

Another manifestation of this tactic is the use of large anti-fascist carnivals. UAF organised a Love Music Hate Racism carnival in Victoria Park, Hackney, days before the Mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections in 2008. The 60000-strong audience was young, ethnically mixed, and very unlikely to vote BNP. Four days later, the BNP won its first seat on the GLA thanks to thousands of votes from white working class people in Barking, Dagenham and Havering.

Clearly, the drawback to this approach is that it makes no attempt to engage with the growing minority who do support the BNP. It also guarantees that anti-fascist campaigns are organised and staffed by people with no connections to the communities where the BNP are winning votes. Groups of young, middle class students knocking on doors in post-industrial Northern towns are unlikely to have a positive impact, and may well reinforce the perception among potential BNP voters that anti-fascists are social and cultural outsiders. As Searchlight now admits:

Class politics exists but not as we once knew it. The Labour Party, in line with many other centre-left parties across western European and Scandinavia, draws the bulk of its support from the middle class, public sector workers and minority communities, especially in the big cities. The BNP, on the other hand, is the voice of a section of the white working class, particularly in those areas of traditional industry that have experienced the greatest economic and social upheaval over the past twenty years.

Nick Lowles now advocates that anti-BNP campaigners “build alliances within the community” rather than bus in liberals from elsewhere. Indeed, since 2005, when the BNP got 19% of the vote in Barking and Dagenham at the General Election, Searchlight has talked about the need for anti-BNP campaigners to match the concern the Party shows for local “bread and butter” issues. And yet elsewhere on Searchlight’s website, we see evidence that they intend to persist with attempts to mobilise the anti-BNP majority. They urge readers to sign a petition stating that the BNP “does not represent them”. This can only be a tool to mobilise those who strongly oppose the BNP, since it cannot hope to have any impact on those who are tempted to vote for the Party.

One reason Searchlight is unlikely ever to  fully embrace an anti-fascism rooted in working class community politics is that it has consistently refused to advocate support for any other party than Labour. In order to gain the trust of working class people, a local anti-BNP campaign would have to tackle the problems local people felt were most pressing. This, in turn, would involve opposition to the Labour Party, which in most far-right growth areas is blamed for contributing to many of these same social problems.

3) Taking the politics out of anti-fascism.

Perhaps the most significant defect of mainstream anti-fascism is the way it refuses to take on the BNP politically. Due to the need to maintain support from across the political spectrum, the politics of mainstream anti-fascism is defined by what it is opposed to, rather than what it supports. In practice this means anti-racism or simply anti-”extremism”. Such a stance inevitably becomes a defence of the liberal democratic status quo. The Commune recently reported on a TV appearance by UAF’s Weyman Bennett, in which he criticised the BNP on the grounds it would not be able to “restore the system to equilibrium” following the recession.

The SWP leaders who back UAF would argue they support a “twin track” strategy – campaigning against fascism through single issue anti-BNP groups, and providing an alternative to the establishment parties through their political work. The counter-argument is that by joining UAF or Searchlight campaigns, socialists are spending valuable time that could be devoted to patiently building support for a progressive working class alternative.

Since without single-issue anti-BNP campaigns both Searchlight and UAF would be out of business, we can expect them to continue to make the argument for the “twin track” strategy. Searchlight are at pains to insist on such an approach in a recent article:

The BNP success has led some to argue that we need to politicise anti-fascism, even to offer a political alternative to the BNP. While there are clearly public policy failings and a democratic deficit, it is not our job to fill this void. We must leave that to the political parties, old or new.

To justify this position, Searchlight refers to a YouGov poll that shows BNP voters have much more reactionary views on race and immigration than the average voter. These results show that while a Left alternative to the BNP might “might peel off some BNP supporters who feel economically marginalised, it will not in itself address the strongly held racist views of many BNP voters”, argues Lowles. These must be countered through specifically anti-racist campaigns that “dispel racist myths”.

What the YouGov survey results actually seem to show is that BNP voters are disproportionately working class, feel particularly hostile towards the political establishment and articulate their social grievances in terms of race. As Searchlight acknowledges, reactionary views on race have become so embedded that they are part of the culture in some working class communities. Roger Hewitt’s excellent study Routes of Racism showed how this process happens. He found that racist views among young people in South East London were sustained through a worldview that saw white working class people as victims of unfair treatment. He argued that the way to deal with this kind of “social racism” was to disrupt the “route” these racist views took. In practical terms, this meant tackling the causes of peoples’ grievances and helping to construct non-racist explanations for unfairness.

This is not simply a matter of chanting “unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration/ bullshit, come off it/ the enemy is profit!” as the SWP are wont to. It will involve painstaking community work, and it must involve concessions to the way people in areas at risk to the BNP see the world. More urgently, it will require socialists to leave the safe world of liberal anti-fascism and begin to put down roots in working class communities.

Left Luggage on July 5, 2009

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