Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why Labour must take on the far-right

The following piece also appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free section.

Patrick Barkham’s report in today’s Guardian on the support for the far-right in Stoke-on-Trent well illustrates the need for Labour to strengthen its appeal to the white working-classes as well as to middle England. The increase in levels of support for the BNP raises all sorts of questions about how progressive politics deals with the rise of the far-right in Britain. Gordon Brown has argued that we need to do whatever we can to tackle xenophobia and racial hatred from wherever it surfaces. He is right, of course, but the key question is how is this best achieved?

One way to begin is to stop simply talking about the symptoms of dissatisfaction and address some of the underlying causes that have resulted in an increasing number of traditional Labour supporters taking refuge in the policies of the far-right. For example one reason for the growing support for the BNP has been its ability to respond to and exploit genuine local grievances. As Patrick Barkham’s piece makes clear, the BNP is often successful in so called 'forgotten' white areas, areas where many traditional Labour supporters frequently say that they feel alienated from modern political discourse and have long been of the view that no one in the Labour party is listening to them let alone concerned about them. The BNP often finds support in a context of significant social problems: high unemployment, deprivation, lack of educational achievement, high crime rates, drugs, and people of different ethnic backgrounds living apparently separate lives which encourages the growth of myths and rumour.

The BNP tactic is to use this information to focus on people who traditionally have voted Labour and in many cases feel neglected by this government. Many of these people feel that they have only two places they can go. One is not to vote, the other is to vote for the far-right. I think it is true to argue that all too often there is a lack of what might be described as a 'safe space' for ordinary working people to air their feelings - they often struggle to find the language to say what they want without being thought of or even accused of being a racist. In cities like Stoke-on-Trent the BNP is developing a network of supporters who are now openly willing to admit to not only voting for a racist and bigoted political party, but are doing so with pride and patriotic fervour.

If Labour is to stage a credible fight back then it must not only focus on the needs of the middle classes. Gordon Brown would send out a powerful message to his party’s core supporters if he were to personally throw his weight behind a call for a new ‘coalition of the willing’ that will help to blunt the advance of the far-right in this country by addressing some of the genuine concerns of white working-class voters whilst at the same time openly challenging those concerns that have no factual or legitimate basis. Brown should back calls for the creation of a multi-racial, multi-faith and cross-party movement that can help unite and lead the great majority of people in Britain who feel repulsed by the rhetoric and actions of the likes of the BNP.

Gordon Brown should explain that the reasons for Labour openly taking on the bigots and the bullies of the far-right are not purely tactical and strategic. He should make it clear that the values that underpin the Labour movement demand that it be done.


Miller 2.0 said...

"Gordon Brown has argued that we need to do whatever we can to tackle xenophobia and racial hatred from wherever it surfaces. He is right, of course, but the key question is how is this best achieved?"

Easy, really. Force all immigrants to carry ID cards. They're not like us.

Methodist Preacher said...

Good piece Mike. I picked up on The Guardian story today as well.

Stoke was the centre of an extraordinary early eighteenth century movement called the Primitive Methodists. Even in the early nineteen eighties I was aware if its influence in the Labour and trades union movement in the town.

Methodism is now in sharp decline as is the moral anchor that it provided for many working class communities. I feel that many parts of the Labour movement haven't really understood the importance of an ideological or moral foundation for our work.

Baht At said...

It's interesting how badly the genuinely poor fare under a labour government - as you say they seem to have decided that pandering to the selfish wishes of the middle classes is the way to win elections.

For all that is bad about the upper classes at least they have some idea of noblesse oblige which seems to be entirely lacking in the vulgar middle classes who no only deny what they have to others but enjoy flaunting it in front of them to emphasise their "superiority".

I think if the poor actually thought it through properly they would realise that the people they should elect should either be already wealthy beyond corruption rather than shifty arriviste wankers from Islington.

Just my view of course.

Praguetory said...

' often struggle to find the language to say what they want without being thought of or even accused of being a racist. '

Following form one of your typical 'that's racism!' posts is this some sort of deep irony?

Tim Swift said...


You are right about the Stoke article pointing to a wider problem - there was an earlier article in (I think) the Independent about a BNP gain in Rotherham which was very similar, and from personal experience I could highlight the position in a ward in Halifax where the BNP cllr won because he was seen in part as a genuine 'community champion'.

Labour needs to listen and think about what the messages and concerns are in these communities - and it's not about deprived areas, necessarily, it can also be about the kinds of people who come from traditional council housing areas but have moved into neighbouring suburban areas, possibly have small businesses or work in 'skilled manual' jobs like building / plumbing.

And there concerns are not just about race, although those issues are often a factor.

Of course, there is beneath this a potential split within the BNP support and activist base which we've already seen emerging between those whose main drivers really are about race and far-right politics (but may use the community campaigning as a cover) and those who are mainly attracted by the community issues.

I'm not sure that the best way to deal with this is by a direct "anti BNP" campaign of some kind - primarily, it's about us and the kind of party that we have become, and our ability to listen and respond to what used to be our core communities.

Mikw said...

miller 2.0 - Tom, I am not as worried about ID cards as you are but I am worried about the rise of the far-right.

Tim - I agree totally with the sentiments in your final paragraph