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.