Apart from the Tory victory last Thursday, one of the other depressing aspects of the local elections was the success of the BNP. This, it has to be said, was patchy, as the fascists failed to make the big breakthrough they had hoped for in their Lancashire, Yorkshire and Black Country strongholds. But their feat in surpassing the 5% mark in London and returning Richard Barnbrook, their leader on Barking and Dagenham council, to the GLA will have given them a spring in their step.
It will also, at least for the time being, strengthen the hand of the Griffin leadership within the fissile ranks of the BNP. Griffin, you see, has a cunning plan. Being a smart bloke, and not being content to spend the rest of his life leading an irrelevant sect, he’s been studying the examples of his analogues in Europe.
There really is no fundamental reason why Britain can’t have a sizeable right-populist party like you have in several European countries. But the candidates for that ecological niche have so far failed to fit the bill. UKIP had a certain amount of dynamism behind it, but UKIP is too monomaniacally focussed on the EU, too full of blazer-wearing retired colonels and too prone to define its reactionary politics in terms of hankering after the days when good old Smithy was running Rhodesia. There’s a certain market for that sort of thing, but it’s a limited and ageing market. The BNP is a lot more streetwise, but it’s been hampered in turn by being full of thugs – you can sell racism to the electorate, but it’s harder to sell thuggery – and by being mired in Third Reich nostalgia.
Griffin understands this. He is well aware that for decades the Austrian Freedom Party bounced around on about 5% of the vote – its spectacular growth under Haider was precisely the result of Haider spending years distancing the party from its Nazi and Pan-German roots in favour of a more contemporary appeal. Fini has done something similar in Italy, as has (to a much lesser extent) Le Pen in France. To say nothing of the various hard-right parties on the continent who don’t have roots in pre-war fascism. Fidelity to the fascist tradition may keep a cadre together in hard times, but it does severely limit the possibilities of appealing to a broader audience.
That’s why the Griffin leadership has been throwing old fascist shibbolethim overboard with gay abandon. You see a lot of this in the foreign policy sphere. Traditionally, the British far right has had an anti-Zionist stance deriving from its anti-Semitism. Sometimes this has shaded into a vague Arabism, and even into saluting the indefatigability of Saddam and Gaddafi. Yet today we find the BNP taking a staunchly pro-Israeli position, which might be surprising from a group that not so long ago was selling Holocaust denial tracts in its bookshop. But this is only surprising if you assume that fascists can’t have an opportunistic streak, and are so stupid they don’t realise that, while anti-Semitism isn’t respectable any more, there is a good deal of mileage to be had from bashing the Muslims.
And as with the Middle East, so with the Balkans. Recently the BNP has been banging the drum in favour of Serbian sovereignty in Kosovo. And yet, during the Yugoslav wars when such positions were actually relevant, the BNP held fast to the traditional fascist position of calling for victory to Croatia. Indeed, if memory serves, some BNP guys tried to set up an “International Brigade” to fight for the Croats, who were supposed to be defending European civilisation from the communist Serbs. Is it likely that Griffin has suddenly discovered a deep affinity for Serbia? I think not. It’s more likely that the new BNP position has its roots in Londoners’ fear and loathing of violent Albanian gangsters.
But what’s more important is domestic politics. This means going into run-down estates that Labour has pretty much abandoned, and offering people a seductive cocktail of what looks at first glance very like Old Labour politics, combined with racism as a global explanation of the working class’s woes. In certain working-class areas, especially racially segregated places like Oldham or Dewsbury, or white flight areas like Dagenham, you can understand the appeal to people at the bottom of the pile.
What’s obviously called for is an imaginative response. I think what Cruddas has been doing at grassroots level in Dagenham is interesting for this reason, that Cruddas understands that the white working class tends to be resistant to moralistic appeals from do-gooders, and that an anti-fascist and anti-racist strategy needs to be tied in to offering some kind of politics of hope and solidarity. Cruddas reckons you can do this by reconnecting the Labour Party with its core base. Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. But thinking along these lines is vital if we want to do anything beyond contemplating Barnbrook in City Hall and throwing up our hands in horror.
More on this at Socialist Unity.