Elections next month may see the Nazi BNP win their first MEPs. But, argues Weyman Bennett, the threat of fascism can, and must, be challenged
The elections for the European parliament on 4 June this year will be a watershed for British politics. As things stand presently, there is a serious danger that the fascist British National Party (BNP) will gain their first seats in the European parliament. Some people will react to this news by dismissing it. Others will be paralysed by fear. But the important thing is not to laugh or cry, but to understand what is fuelling the BNP's electoral rise - and what we can do to stop them.
The first reason behind the growth of the BNP vote in recent years is the atmosphere of racism whipped up by politicians and the mainstream media over immigration and Islamophobia. This has built up over the years and the effects on the BNP vote are clear. Opinion polls in 1997 placed immigration at number 14 on the list of voters' concerns. Today it hovers around first or second. Back then the BNP vote was under 1 percent and they had no councillors. Now they have dozens of councillors and a seat on the London Assembly.
The key factor driving this change has been the relentless campaign in the right wing tabloids blaming asylum seekers and migrant workers as the main problem in British society. Much of the media and many mainstream politicians have contributed to creating a climate where failures in public services are attributed to the presence of people from other countries, rather than to poor investment or madcap privatisation schemes.
This racism has been compounded by the particular targeting of Muslims as a result of the "war on terror". All this amounts to a racist blowback against globalisation and imperialism. And the fascists have taken advantage of the growth of this racism to target Muslims in much the same way that Hitler targeted Jews in the 1930s.
More recently another major reason for the rise in the BNP vote has entered the picture. The recession and the rapid rise in unemployment have led some people to raise the slogan of "British jobs for British workers". This slogan now adorns the BNP's main leaflet for the Euro elections. The fact that it was originally raised by Gordon Brown at the Labour Party conference means the BNP can use it and claim to be politically mainstream.
The prominence of the slogan in the recent unofficial construction workers' strikes centred round the Lindsey oil refinery meant that for the first time in decades a fascist party felt it could intervene in a trade union dispute. The "British jobs for British workers" slogan has given the BNP the green light to start holding stalls in many major towns and cities, presenting themselves as a protest party for working people. Of course, on many picket lines shop stewards told the BNP that they were not welcome. But by this time much of the damage had already been done.
The recent election of a Nazi councillor in Swanley, Kent, showed some of the consequences of raising a slogan like "British jobs for British workers". The area around Swanley has been hit badly by job losses in recent months. People feel their income is being squeezed, that good jobs are hard or impossible to come by, and that they are humiliated when they are forced to sign on.
In these circumstances many people draw the despairing conclusion that we need "British jobs for British workers". And the Nazis have been feeding on this climate of anger and resentment. We can see the same dynamic being repeated in many of Britain's old industrial heartlands. It is the process that took place on the eastern outskirts of Dagenham, where the car industry has been shut down and the politics of scapegoating have become more acceptable.
The impact of the economic recession has led many people to see voting for the BNP as a way of showing their anger about how they have been cheated. Traditionally the Labour Party was seen as the party of working people and the vehicle for political change. But the past few years have seen a decline in Labour's organisation and penetration into communities in Britain. This vacuum has allowed a small number of Nazi activists to be able to pose as concerned "local residents", even though in practice they have no answers to the problems people face.
This is a process that is writ large in Stoke-on-Trent, where the BNP now have nine councillors. The pottery industry in the city has been destroyed and many of those who were in trade unions have ceased to be leaders of the community. That makes it possible for other forces to present themselves as an alternative.
There are also several technical factors about the 4 June elections that work in favour of the BNP. Previous Euro elections have seen small parties do well, such as the Greens since 1999 and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in 2004. There are several reasons behind this - the low turnout at Euro elections, the tradition of people using the Euro elections to cast a "protest vote", and the proportional representation system that means parties can get an MEP with as little as 8 percent of the vote.
This year's Euro election is likely to see a low turnout coupled with a collapse in vote for New Labour. But there is also an added factor - UKIP received 2.7 million votes (or 16.1 percent) in the 2004 European election and got 12 of its candidates elected. But since then the party has all but imploded.
Most of the people who voted UKIP last time will return to the Tories. But a minority of these voters will shift further to the right and end up in the hands of the BNP. In the last Euro elections the BNP polled just over 800,000 votes and fell just short of receiving a seat.
So it is important to get the BNP's electoral results into perspective. It does not represent the kind of breakthrough that Adolf Hitler received in September 1930, when his Nazi party jumped from 2.6 percent to 18.3 percent in the polls. But we cannot be complacent about the implications of the rising BNP vote either.
If they win MEP seats it will mean the fascists have taken another step into the political mainstream. It will make it easier for them to pose as a "respectable" and "legitimate" party. They will receive even more media coverage than they do already and they will, of course, receive large amounts of EU public funding.
But there is nothing inevitable about the Nazis winning seats. And whatever the results in June, we can limit their gains by ramping up the level of activity of the broad mass of people who oppose racism and fascism. We need to spend the next month campaigning with Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) to build a mass anti-fascist movement that can take the BNP Nazis on and defeat them.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the BNP have attempted to camouflage their fascist nature and present themselves as a right wing populist party. This is the strategy that the Front National in France pursued, and it is one BNP leader Nick Griffin has consciously tried to copy. John Tyndall, the BNP's founder and former leader, could be photographed wearing Nazi regalia and openly defending Hitler and Mussolini. But Griffin has repositioned the party as one that attracts right wing populists but has a Nazi hardcore at its centre.
The fascist parties of Mussolini and Hitler after the First World War started out by building a paramilitary core from disillusioned and demobilised right wing officers. They then sought to win votes by stressing their opposition to "the system". Finally, once they had built a mass movement, they won the support of the bulk of the ruling class, who turned to them to help them physically destroy working class resistance.
The new generation of fascists in Europe - Griffin, France's Jean-Marie Le Pen and Italy's Gianfranco Fini - have a slightly different strategy. They are aiming for electoral respectability first, and then building a paramilitary movement out of that more passive electoral support. But they face problems in doing this. The majority of the people who vote for the BNP do not see themselves as being Nazi supporters. The fact that Griffin has to hide his conviction for Holocaust denial makes it harder for the BNP to develop a cell of hardened Nazis that can carry out the absolutely necessary task of taking to the streets and crushing opposition by force.
Fascism cannot creep up on society - it has to storm it. The historic will of fascist parties is to smash working class organisation and destroy all forms of democracy. But they need a hardened cadre to do that. The BNP have not achieved this so far and they can be prevented from doing so.
The recent leak of the BNP membership list backs up this diagnosis. Its list of "active" members numbers around 3,000 - just under one in four of the total list. So while the BNP may be able to win mass votes at elections, the organisation is still fragile and could be subject to splits if it comes under pressure. The membership list also exposed the class nature of fascist politics - the majority of occupations listed were classically lower middle class (or "petty bourgeois" in Marxist terms), producing individuals often unconnected to mass working class communities.
It's also important to remember that there is nothing fixed or unchanging about the BNP vote. Campaigning against them can and does make a tangible difference. In the 2001 general election Nick Griffin won 12 percent of the vote inside Oldham in the north west of England. That was in the aftermath of riots started by Nazi activists and fascist campaigns claiming that Asians were attacking white people.
But campaigning on the ground has pushed the BNP back since then - they have never managed to win any councillors in the town. The Black Country is another area where a consistent campaign against the BNP has managed to hold back their vote despite them making some headway a few years ago.
The BNP have faced opposition wherever they go. Their so-called "Battle for Britain" fundraising tour has had trouble getting off the ground. Most of the publicly named venues for their tour ended up being cancelled, either because the venue owners bowed to public anger or UAF protests, or because they discovered the BNP had lied about who was actually booking the meeting.
More importantly, UAF campaigners have picketed venues and in some cases prevented the BNP from continuing with their meetings. This was the case in Bristol where pickets managed to close down Griffin's south west England meeting. In the north west region, where Griffin is standing, there were UAF protests in central Manchester and in Leigh, forcing the BNP to cancel meetings.
It is also important to note that elections are a snapshot of popular consciousness and do not necessarily reflect an active campaign. The basis on which the BNP are making electoral gains is by softening their rhetoric and tapping into the general discontent and feeling that something is wrong in society. There is nothing automatic about this discontent leading people to the right. Nor is there any automatic way for Griffin to turn disgruntled atomised voters into hardened stormtroopers willing to physically fight for the party. But if we are to stop these things from happening we need to be clear about the ideological stakes.
One aspect of the debates that are taking place about the growth of the BNP vote has been a claim that the "white working class" is the problem, or that the "white working class" has been let down by the government, in contrast to black and Asian working class people whose needs are supposedly being met. This is an argument that we have to firmly reject. Far from strengthening the anti-fascist movement it would lead to splitting the working class on ethnic lines. It has led some people to believe that they can beat the BNP by waving the flag of St George, or by giving concessions to the idea that we need to "crack down" on immigration.
All the evidence shows that racism is still deeply embedded in society, and that black and Asian workers still have a lower earning power than their white counterparts. For example, Caribbean men on average earn £81 a week less than white men, even after taking factors such as educational qualifications, training experience and parental income into account. In the 1970s people chanted, "Black and white unite and fight." That remains today the only method of defeating the fascists.
Most importantly we have to exploit the fundamental weaknesses of the BNP in order to develop a mass anti-fascist movement in this country. The vast majority of people hate fascism, which is why the BNP go to such great lengths to deny their underlying Nazi politics. Most people are also either explicitly opposed to racism or at least uneasy about it, which is why the BNP cannot afford to come across as too openly racist.
Past decades have seen significant rises in the levels of racial integration. Recent opinion polls say 70 percent of white respondents would not mind if a close relative married a non-white or someone of a different religion. This figure rises to the upper 80s for younger people, and is even higher in inner cities.
This is one of the reasons why the BNP are still fearful about going into many inner-city areas. But it will not be a permanent block unless we challenge them where they are organising. What is important is to recognise that there is a mass reservoir of people who are willing to be called upon to challenge the BNP. The biggest working class organisations in this country are the trade unions. They are full hearted in opposition against the fascist BNP and many have policy to expel BNP members. Unions such as the National Union of Teachers and the NASUWT have set up political funds specifically to target fascists and racists. These trade unions can reach millions of people and they are the major bulwark against fascist organisations implanting themselves beyond the electoral arena. It is these resources that we must call upon over the next few weeks if we are to restrict the BNP's vote and ultimately smash their organisation.
Last year's LMHR carnival in Victoria Park saw 100,000 people coming to show their opposition to racism and fascism. Compared to the 1970s the level of cultural mixing is much deeper and much more widespread today. It is now the norm to be anti-racist and anti-fascist rather than the other way round. This year's LMHR festival will take place in Stoke FC's Britannia stadium football ground. This can help to weaken the BNP, both by mobilising people in the Midlands and north west England, and by winning the hearts and minds of a mass of people to a public demonstration of popular culture in opposition to racism.
All over the country we are seeing socialists, trade unionists and anti-racist activists come together to form local UAF groups to prepare for the 4 June election. They will help distribute millions of leaflets and hundreds of thousands of tabloid newspapers to maximise the anti-BNP vote. That campaign can be a shield for us to defend ourselves from the fascist BNP. But there also comes a point when pinning the label of fascist on the BNP and denouncing their racism is not enough - necessary though these tasks are. We also need to offer a credible alternative to the failed neoliberal politics on offer in the political mainstream.
As well as building a shield, we have to forge a sword. The deep economic crisis creates conditions that make it possible for the fascists to begin to grow, but also conditions that allow us to build an alternative. The workers' occupation and pickets at Visteon, the occupations against school closures in Scotland and workers taking to the streets in opposition to the jobs massacre are critical to showing there is an alternative to despair.
Our immediate task is to mobilise as many people as possible to weaken and block the fascist BNP in June. But that is only the start of a much wider and deeper battle.