Monday, April 20, 2009

Labour heartlands: fertile ground for the far right?

The increase in support for the far right in cities like Stoke-on-Trent over the past decade well illustrates the need for Labour to strengthen its appeal to the white working classes as well as to middle England. Any increase in support for the BNP raises all sorts of questions about how progressive politics deals with the rise of the far right in Britain. The Labour arty has long argued that, as a nation, we should do whatever we can to tackle xenophobia and racial hatred from wherever it surfaces. This, of course, is right 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 traditional Labour supporters taking refuge in the policies of the far right. The BNP is often successful in so-called "forgotten" white areas where many traditional Labour supporters say they feel alienated from modern political discourse and that no one in the Labour party is listening to 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). A well used 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. 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 the likes of 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 fightback 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 while 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 Britainwho feel repulsed by the rhetoric and actions of the likes of the BNP. 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.

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