First published: July 1997
The doubling of the vote for fascist candidates in the general election should set the alarm bells ringing about the risk of a rise of racism and fascist activity under a right wing Labour government. While the extreme right, concentrated mainly in the BNP, remains a tiny political force, such an advance – in a general election characterised by a massive swing to Labour – should not be taken lightly. A right wing Labour government which presides over the further dismantling of the welfare state, drives down wages and attacks the most vulnerable in society will create exactly the conditions which led to the breakthrough into mass politics of fascist and far right currents in France, Italy, Austria and elsewhere in Europe.
The BNP’s election manifesto explained it was making ‘its strongest ever challenge, fighting seats in almost every part of Britain’. Eighty-three extreme right candidates stood in the election, fifty-four of them from the BNP. The average 50 per cent rise in the vote masks a much greater rise in a few specific pockets. It also has to be taken together with the rise in the number of candidates, up from 29 in 1992. Therefore, while in this year’s election the 83 extreme right candidates secured an average 1.4 per cent of the vote compared with 0.9 per cent in 1992, candidates in East London consolidated a base of fascist support, and in parts of the West Midlands and West Yorkshire won substantial numbers of votes.
In the two Tower Hamlets seats – taking in the area where the BNP’s candidate Derek Beackon was elected as a councillor in September 1993 – the BNP won 7.5 per cent of the vote in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency, or 3,350 votes, and in Poplar and Canning Town the BNP won 7.3 per cent of the vote, representing 2,849 votes. In 1992 the BNP had taken 3.6 per cent and 1.1 per cent of the vote respectively in these seats.
In other parts of east London surrounding Tower Hamlets the BNP won 2.7 per cent of the vote in Barking, 2.4 per cent in Chingford, 2.5 per cent in Dagenham, 3.2 per cent in East Ham. In West Ham the BNP candidate won 3.6 per cent of the vote. In Dagenham and East Ham the fascist National Democratic Party took a further 0.5 per cent and 0.73 per cent of the vote respectively.
Outside London, votes of particular note were Dewsbury where the BNP candidate won 5.2 per cent of the vote, and West Bromwich West, where the National Democratic Party took 11.4 per cent of the vote.
These votes put into context the BNP’s success in getting its racist politics broadcast on the media and circulated in the free election mail during the election campaign, and underline the importance of anti-racists having created a national campaign in protest.
Like its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, the BNP is seeking to render itself respectable and to argue that it is a political party just like any other. It argued along these lines in defending its right to an election broadcast. Attempts by the extreme right to legitimise itself have been aided elsewhere in Europe by the adoption of increasingly racist policies by mainstream political parties.
Following the election, the BNP’s potential for growth will also be helped by the degree to which Tony Blair imposes the kind of economic and social policies imposed or supported by other European social democratic parties, the consequences of which have aided the rise of the extreme right – the maintenance of mass unemployment and the dismantling of the welfare state.
Following the election it will be even more necessary for the anti-racist movement to base itself on the understanding that stopping the rise of the fascists means defeating the racism on which they feed.
The BNP’s election manifesto could not be clearer on the assistance the fascists get from racist policies and rhetoric from within the mainstream parties.
The manifesto approvingly quotes Nicholas Budgen, the former Tory MP for Wolverhampton South East who, just before the election was called, attacked Labour for being ‘lax’ on immigration and in his election address stated that immigration has brought ‘substantial social problems’. The BNP applaud Budgen for being ‘in a minority of MPs of his party in being prepared to state it [racist anti-immigration views] openly’ and for arguing his views against ‘the frantic efforts of his party’s hierarchy to suppress debate on immigration’. Budgen is quoted as saying: ‘In their schools, in their pubs and in their shops, the British have felt like strangers in their own land’. The BNP describe this as ‘nothing more nor less than the truth’ and that ‘in fact, his words are representative of a viewpoint which the BNP has held since its foundation 15 years ago’.
For his part, Budgen, during the election campaign, explained: ‘It’s better for a half-respectable politician like me to raise the issue than leave it to the National Front and others who will discuss it in far less measured terms’ (Guardian 14 April).
The BNP’s manifesto implicitly agrees, noting that the impact of Budgen’s push on immigration was that the ‘Tory Party hierarchy… grudgingly consented to individual Tory candidates venturing into the immigration field to the extent of criticising Labour’s latest proposals for even further relaxation of the immigration rules’. Part of Budgen’s aim was to head off any fascist candidate standing against him and taking away racist votes. Although he succeeded in this, he was defeated by Labour’s candidate on a 9.9 per cent swing.
Those in the liberal establishment who defended the BNP’s right to a media broadcast did so on the basis of defence of ‘free speech’ and opposition to censorship. Workers’ Liberty added the twist that calling for a ban on the BNP’s broadcast would mean putting faith in the ‘establishment’, when in fact it was the ‘establishment’ which was defending the broadcast and the black and Jewish communities and anti-racists who were mobilising against it.
Defending the BNP’s right to broadcast means elevating the interests of a fascist organisation which would ban not only freedom of speech but the right to exist of black and Jewish people, gay men and lesbians, trade unions, would reverse the social gains made by women and so on. As National Assembly Against Racism vice-chair Lee Jasper pointed out in a letter in the Guardian, ‘freedom of speech’ is already limited by the Public Order Act by ‘prohibiting incitement to illegal acts including racial hatred’. Indeed, he added, the ‘British government claimed in a 1997 paper presented to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Hatred that the Public Order Act is a sufficient instrument to control racist parties in Britain’, yet no action was taken against this blatantly racist propaganda.
Or as Guardian journalist Mark Lawson argued, offensive sections of the anti-abortion group, the ‘ProLife Alliance’, had been cut by the BBC but ‘nothing of Tyndall’s poisonous address had been threatened’. Therefore those who ran it ‘might like to explain the reasoning by which viewers are protected from upsetting images but exposed to racist rhetoric’ (Guardian 29 April).
The BNP’s explicitly racist broadcast followed the themes of their manifesto. This calls for forcible repatriation of all ‘non-White’ people living in Britain and a total end to asylum rights. It states: ‘Future immigration of non-Whites must be stopped’; ‘Non-Whites already here must be repatriated or otherwise resettled overseas and Britain made once again a white country’.
The manifesto continues:
‘BNP policy with regard to immigration is simple and straightforward. We place applicants to settle here in three basic categories:
‘(a) Those who can prove wholly white and predominantly British ancestry and are of sound health and good character should be allowed to settle here as they please.
‘(b) Those of wholly white but not British ancestry should have their applications to settle here treated each on its individual merit, but in most cases should be accepted, provided the same rules of health and character are observed.
‘(c) Wholly or partially non-white applicants to settle in Britain would be refused except in cases where they can provide evidence of some strong occupational necessity to reside in this country, such as membership of some diplomatic corps or positions of representatives of foreign countries trading in the UK.’
They propose a ‘resettlement’ scheme for all ‘ethnic minorities’. This would ‘begin on a voluntary basis’ but ‘it would be made clear to the ethnic minority members that it was the first part of a two-part programme of resettlement, the second part of which would be organised on a compulsory basis’.
That is, the BNP stand for the expulsion of millions of black citizens from Britain. Such a policy could only be imposed by massive fascist terror of the kind Hitler employed after 1933 in Germany.
The section dealing with refugees is entitled ‘Refugees no exception’ and explains ‘It would not matter to us whether ‘refugee’ claims were genuine or not; we would make the decision as to whom to admit to this country on the basis of whether the claimants in question were the kind of people we wished to welcome here and integrate into our population. Non-Whites of all categories would not be admitted’.
The way in which the manifesto is able to exploit much of the racist rhetoric about ‘bogus’ refugees used by government and mainstream party political spokespeople during the debates on the Asylum and Immigration Act illustrates the impact of such debate in legitimising the views of fascist and far right groups. In much the same way as government ministers motivated the Asylum and Immigration Act and defended their treatment of refugees in Rochester Prison, the manifesto states that ‘the vast majority of so-called “refugees” pouring into Britain every year are not real refugees at all but simply people seeking to better their living standards’. Its talk of ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘genuine’ or ‘bogus’ claims has been rendered more commonplace by the racist tenor of mainstream debate.
The experience of the fascists and far right growing on the back of racist policies and rhetoric from more mainstream political parties has already advanced much further elsewhere in Europe.
In France the National Front’s election win in Vitrolles in February secured the fourth town hall controlled by them, adding to Toulon, Orange and Marignane. In the parliamentary elections called for 25 May and 1 June, the National Front plans to stand 566 candidates for the 577 assembly seats and hopes to poll the 12.5 per cent necessary to proceed through to the second round. Le Pen says he is aiming for a parliamentary group of 20 deputies.
The National Front has risen to prominence in the context of record unemployment in France – currently 12.8 per cent – and the implementation of brutal racist legislation, most recently the attempts by the French government to conduct mass deportations under the racist Pasqua laws of non-EU citizens refused a renewal of residence or work permits, which provoked the ‘Sans Papiers’ struggle.
In Italy, while the local elections in April saw advances for Communist Refoundation, the extreme right National Alliance also advanced, taking votes from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
The electoral advance of the extreme right took place after the decision in early April by the Italian parliament to send troops into Albania and the killing of at least 90 Albanian refugees when a ship in which they were fleeing was sunk by an Italian naval vessel, which have helped continue to legitimise racism. Irene Pivetti, a former speaker of the Italian house of deputies, followed the death of the Albanian refugees by saying that refugees should be ‘thrown back into the sea’ and that Albanians were ‘invading’ Italy. She added that ‘the government has done nothing. Fortunately the navy is doing an admirable job.’
The centre-left parties are whipping up racism to divert attention from the impact of their economic policies, particularly the impact of trying to secure Italian membership of EMU, which has necessitated the imposition of a ‘Euro-tax’ and attacks on the welfare system by Romano Prodi’s Olive Tree government.
The rise of racism and of the extreme right on this scale demands an anti-racist movement that is as broad and united as possible and which bases itself on fighting not only the fascists and far right but the racist policies from the mainstream which give them greater purchase. In the general election campaign this political approach, together with unity on the basis of leadership of those most affected by racism, was developed further through the National Assembly Against Racism.
The National Assembly Against Racism’s campaign against the BNP and the decision to allow it broadcast time – including pickets of the BBC and independent channels in London and cities across Britain – was conducted alongside campaigning against Budgen. The anti-BNP campaign, furthermore, took place after the National Assembly Against Racism had led the national campaigning against the Asylum and Immigration Bill – establishing the central campaign against the bill – and had focused national public opposition to the government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers held in Rochester and other prisons.
In conjunction with this campaign the National Assembly Against Racism had, over the last year, formed a national alliance against black deaths in police custody – Operation Justice – involving MPs, Liberty, Inquest and religious organisations. The black leadership of the National Assembly Against Racism had set an agenda of demands for the general election campaign by launching the Black Manifesto at the highly successful National Assembly Against Racism conference on 1 March. Support for the National Assembly Against Racism and for the protests against the BNP’s campaign were secured at the TUC Black Workers Conference in April. The campaign’s student wing led the formation of a new alliance of black and Jewish students which precipitated a breakthrough on NUS policy on racism.
This orientation responded to the priorities of the black communities, combated racism in the political mainstream and helped strengthen the core alliance needed in the leadership of the anti-racist communities – that between the black and Jewish communities and the most anti-racist elements of the labour movement. As a result all these components came together in the campaign against the BNP. The pickets were led by representatives of black and Jewish organisations alongside trade unionists, students and others in the National Assembly Against Racism. Black and Jewish activists, along with representatives of the churches and trade unions, were central to the National Assembly’s legal action against the BNP broadcast. The racist tenor set by the government’s whipping up of racism through its asylum policies had been met by mass campaigning, thus weakening the racist ground for the fascists to build upon.
The alternative approach proposed previously by the ANL, to focus solely on the fight against the ‘nazis’ and to try to separate the ‘soft racists’ from the fascists, would have been disastrous. The experience of the last year, with the National Assembly Against Racism taking the anti-racist movement onto a new, much more mass and united level, underlined once again that the only way to halt the fascists is to attack the racism on which they base themselves.
The election of a Labour government poses the challenge of ensuring that the anti-racist movement continues to be led by this orientation, and in this framework that the priorities of the movement are informed by those subjected to racism. This means an anti-racist movement which continues to meet every manifestation of racism head-on, from whatever quarter and avoids the pitfalls, for example, of SOS Racisme in France which, at the crucial moment subordinated the anti-racist struggle to the interests of the Socialist Party government.
The results of the BNP in the election campaign show they remain a tiny force. But to ensure that this remains the case and the experience of France, Italy, Austria and Germany – in all of which a rise of mass support for fascists would, a few years ago, have seemed remote – are not repeated in Britain, the unity of the last year must be built on as rapidly as possible. The anti-racist movement must be ready to tackle the prospect that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown may provoke just the sort of racist and extreme right backlash already on the march elsewhere.