The piece about Stoke and the BNP in today's New Statesman makes for depressing reading. Partly because of its bleak analysis and partly because it fails to offer any hope or see any signs of how things might improve.
We have known for months that the BNP has been busy exploiting the present economic crisis and that it could easily end up winning seats in the European parliament in June. Back in October I wrote a piece for the Guardian suggesting that one reason for the BNP's growing support has been its ability to respond to and exploit genuine local grievances. Since then we have had the debacle of MP expense claims which will only end up exacerbating peoples' distrust of the political establishment and could help turn even more people toward the far right.
What I found disappointing about the New Statesman piece is that it offered no route map as to how the many decent, hard working Labour members and supporters in Stoke might fight back and counter the depressing, hateful and bigoted message that the BNP is set on spreading. The people of the Stoke have a fine and distinguished record in promoting and defending equality (it is the birthplace of Hugh Bourne the 19th century campaigner for education for children and for treating women as equals). The increase in support for the BNP is evidence of a new challenge in British politics. In the past the battleground (sometimes literally) of left v right politics centred on our inner cities. This is no longer the case. The BNP has begun to develop a network of suburban supporters, people who are openly willing to admit not only to supporting a racist and bigoted political party but to doing so with pride and patriotic fervour. 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 Party 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 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.
Gordon Brown has been too quiet on the issue of the BNP. He 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 Britain who 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
Stoke is just the sort of place where local people want to be treated - and want their neighbours to be treated - fairly. They don't want favours and they don't want special treatment. The majority of people of Stoke hate what the BNP stands for and would just love to get back to voting for Labour out of conviction and not simply out of convention.