Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why Labour must learn from 'Duffygate'

Mrs Duffy is no bigot. However what her comments yesterday to the Prime Minister show is that it's time to address the underlying reasons why many traditional Labour supporters sometimes take refuge in the language, attitudes and policies of the far right. 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. In the past Gordon Brown has argued that we need to do whatever we can to tackle xenophobia and racial hatred from wherever it surfaces. Perhaps if his defence yesterday had been along these lines he may have been able to salvage something from what was, as he rightly stated, a ‘disaster.’

What Mrs Duffy wanted was for the Prime Minister 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. Parties like the BNP are 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. This encourages the growth of myths and rumour that people like Mrs Duffy eventually believes to be fact. BNP tactics focus on using this information to target 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. People like Mrs Duffy often struggle to find the language to say what they want without being thought of or even accused of being a racist or indeed a bigot.

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 should be part of the core agenda of any centre-left progressive party. Instead of insulting life-long Labour supporters Brown should more openly take on the bigots and the bullies of the far right who exploit the genuine fears and anxieties of the Mrs Duffys of this world.

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