Wednesday 16 April 2008

Not just Boris, but the BNP too!

Apologies, this is a rather long post, but I guess what follows was inevitable. First, an increasingly desperate Labour Left, apparently unable to comprehend why Ken Livingstone isn’t more popular, has unconvincingly tried to rally support from those who plan to boycott May’s mayoral elections in London by claiming that a defeat for their man would ”represent a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond". Forget about Livingstone, they say, and be frightened by Johnstone. Now they are arguing that a failure to vote risks handing seats to the British National Party.

Former New Statesman editor Steve Platt has taken the Livingstone campaign’s declaration that the BNP threaten “London's future as a united diverse city, where all communities and individuals feel they belong” and argued on his blog that there is no excuse for his “anarchist friends” not to vote because their abstention will be “considered a vote for the BNP”.

It is of course deeply insulting to put those who actively decide not to vote alongside BNP supporters and call them a threat to London’s diversity, but I suppose is to be expected. Nevertheless, it is an argument that needs thinking through. After all, unlike Zimbabwe, popping down to the local school on 1st May and voting, just to increase the turnout, is hardly a difficult thing to do. On the face of it, it’s not even a very political act.

But there are two parts of the Platt / Livingstone position that need closer examination. The first is the claim that “there’s only one way to stop the BNP, which is by actually going out to vote against them” because “a low voter turnout will help the BNP get elected.” This is an argument that I, along with other activists in Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), used to forcefully present back in the early 1990s, when we spent endless hours trying to mobilise black voters in Canning Town and the Isle of Dogs, back when the BNP was much stronger in these areas. In one election in 1994, the BNP came within 66 votes of taking a Newham council seat – whilst we had encouraged hundreds to vote, even transporting dozens to polling stations. We patted ourselves on the back and said that “we” had defeated the BNP.

But only for one Thursday. Support for the BNP was still there on the Friday and at the next council by-election, we were back using the same campaigning tactic. But in between elections, east London’s Labour councils continued to disregard the causes of working class disenfranchisement from the political process. Turnout at elections remained low but the faceless bureaucracy, the meaningless consultations on policies that had been decided in advance, the racist attacks that were ignored by council staff, the unpopular decisions taken in the teeth of opposition from local people - all continued unabated. It soon became clear that local anti-racist campaigners had become little more than a useful substitute for moribund Labour branches who had no-one to canvass. Many of us had the unpleasant realisation that we were no longer sure whose side we were on.

And it wasn’t as if they were even grateful for our efforts. Mobilising the vote didn’t once open up local councils to new ideas or progressive politics and in 1997, the now thoroughly Blairite Newham council cut its funding for Newham Monitoring Project, for doing what we had always done and providing support to the family of a local Gambian, Ibrahima Sey, who died under brutal restraint by officers from Forest Gate police station. In clumsily attempting to silence a critic, the council was helped in part by a former NMP activist turned councillor who was unable to carry the support of other anti-racists in continuing to act as little more than Labour’s election foot soldiers.

In all honesty, the BNP eventually ceased to be a threat in Newham and Tower Hamlets not as a result of our efforts but because of its incessant internal rivalries and because of changing demographics. The substandard housing in Canning Town, the ‘great white south’ of Newham, became a place to dump refugees, transforming the ethnic mix. One section of the disenchanted working class, those who blamed the new arrivals for how little their vote seemed to count, moved out to ‘whiter’ areas like Barking and Dagenham and it simply became too difficult – and often too dangerous – for the BNP to campaign. The same was true in the Isle of Dogs as the Bengali community in particular became stronger and more confident. In Newham’s southern wards, the most unified organisations amongst new communities were the black churches, with little of the tribal loyalty to Labour of earlier arrivals, which may explain why Canning Town has become the national base for the Christian People’s Alliance.

What years of focusing on elections had achieved, however, was to squander the opportunity to build coalitions in support of a more radical perspective than that offered by religious-based parties, leaving Labour to continue to monopolise local politics on a low voter turnout. What we are left with instead are opposition political parties who are wedded to the idea that democracy begins and ends on election day.

Even before it split, the Respect party as an alternative to Labour in east London was locally ineffectual between elections, which became the eventual trigger for the battles within its ranks. Its councillors in Newham are nice enough people but it has been unclear what all the effort was for. Now the two halves of the party are little more than a populist vanity project for George Galloway and an attempt by the Socialist Workers Party to try and salvage some much-needed dignity. London’s Greens, for all their apparently progressive rhetoric, have so little esteem for their prospective voters that, to try and attain some post-election influence, they have cut a sordid second-preference deal with Livingstone, a man who at the recent Reuters Mayoral hustings posed as a champion of globalisation and free trade. If that wasn’t bad enough, their GLA member Jenny Jones, in an e-mail exchange on the eve of the hugely contentious vote by the Metropolitan Police Authority on Sir Ian Blair’s conduct following the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, seemed offended that I might dare to question whether her decision to support the Met Commissioner was hers alone to make. So much for 'new politics'.

But enough of the minor parties. Let’s turn to the main event. The campaign between the three main rivals has been presented as little more than a personality contest between the individual candidates. In this clash of personalities and rhetoric, all three are competing mainly for sympathetic media attention. Voting in the Mayoral election has become no more empowering than choosing between performers on Pop Idol, with whoever puts on the best show winning.

Yet after years of economic growth, we still have a chronic housing shortage, underfunded transport and a widening gap between the rich and poor. Shouldn’t there be a real choice between the candidates?

This brings me to the second problem with the Livingstone / Platt position. London simply isn’t “a united diverse city, where all communities and individuals feel they belong” but one painfully divided by economic inequality that is closely tied to race. Yet Livingstone’s brand of anti-racism, as I have argued before, offers nothing to address the economic inequality that disproportionately affects working class black people. Instead the ‘candidate of the Left’ is at pains to present himself as business-friendly, backed by a political party that done so much to hand power to major corporations. Is it any wonder, then, that an entirely logical conclusion to reach would be that no matter who we vote for, we will have no greater say in any of the major decisions that affect our lives? Isn’t the reality that, no matter whether Livingstone wins or loses, we will have no say in how our workplaces are run or any control over the distribution of our society's wealth?

Elections are supposed to be how we influence the running of society and yet it seems that somebody else has already made all of the important decisions - without asking us. However, there are ways that people are able to exercise real power. If I had to pick an example, it would naturally be a local one. My compatriots in the campaign to stop the local council from handing over Queens Market in Upton Park to private developers have organised hundreds of local people, prevented the council from steamrollering through their plans and frightened off the mighty Asda supermarket chain – all without ever standing a candidate in an election. And they have brought together white working class market traders from Essex with shoppers from communities that have arrived in Newham from all over the world.

There has always been a political alternative to the lack of choice of the mainstream political parties, the opportunism of the minority parties and the racism of tiny fascist outfits like the BNP. It involves organising in such a way that everybody has a say over the decisions that affect them. It means refusing to accept what politicians tell you to do and taking the power into your own hands, not waiting for somebody else to do it for you.

And that is why I’m not voting in May’s elections - no matter how lurid the claims that the Labour Left might try and make.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.