Wednesday 7 May 2008

BNP votes in London

130,000 BNP votes in London requires a change of tactics

Whilst Facebook abounds with apocalyptic warnings about London’s future following Boris Johnson’s elevation to the post of Mayor, it is the election of the BNP's Richard Barnbrook to the Greater London Assembly that means we need to sit up and think. How did the Left fail to stem the tide of BNP support?

We now know that the anti-BNP campaign leading up to polling day and run by South East Region TUC and Searchlight, with the tacit support of the Labour Party, has failed. The tactic of maximising voter turnout is based on a idea that the BNP have a low base of support but that if the voting turnout is low, their share of the vote might carry disproportionate weight, presenting the risk that they might creep in and take local council seats. It’s a simple formula – BNP voters / high turnout = BNP defeat – and it’s one that I remember Newham Monitoring Project once pushed when we were out every night in the early 1990s, leafleting in Canning Town against the BNP. The problem is, what worked 18 years ago no longer has any basis in reality.

Why? Because we've seen a major jump in the number of people voting in the London-wide elections, up over 8% on 2004, and yet the BNP have still managed to take a GLA seat. The real tragedy is not that the BNP were elected, but that they no longer have a low base of support - 130,000 mainly working-class Londoners went to the polling stations on a wet Thursday and made a positive decision to give their first preference votes in the party lists to a racist political party. This was despite a considerable publicity campaign in favour of other candidates, which included thousands of pounds spend by own union, Unite, so that its regional secretary Steve Hart could write to every member in London warning of the threat of “nazi racists in London’s government” - and then urging a vote for Labour.

However, as the election of a BNP Assembly member has started to sink in, the response from groups like Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) has been worryingly simplistic. LMHR have stated that “Barnbrook has managed to con a small minority of Londoners into voting for him”, whilst UAF have claimed that “a slightly higher turnout of 49% would have stopped the BNP from getting elected.”

A 'small' minority of 130,000? A ‘slightly’ higher turnout of 49%? This isn’t thinking through a change in the political climate, but attempting to ignore it. All we have to do, UAF and LMHR are arguing, is try harder in future to mask growing support for the BNP by trying for an even bigger turnout. Perhaps, then, it will simply go away. At least Searchlight are been a little more thoughtful, although astonishingly they have claimed their campaign as a 'success', with editor Nick Lowles saying, “obviously, the BNP getting anyone elected is bad but we can all be proud that we helped keep them to just that. Indeed, for much of the day we actually thought there was a chance that we were going to stop them altogether.”

The trouble is that all the mainstream anti-fascist groups are still obsessively focused on voter turnout and on campaigning based on two rather naive assumptions: that racism is all the fault of the fascists and that as long as the BNP are kept from office, then we can go on pretending that London is, as Livingstone's campaign tried to argue, a "united diverse city, where all communities and individuals feel they belong". However, as I have argued before, London is in reality a city painfully divided by economic inequality that is closely tied to race. The recent election has only helped to prove this even more.

Pretending that the 130,000 votes really mean nothing as long as we can keep a few racist bigots from claiming GLA expenses might make the Left feel better, may even help it to ignore its own shortcomings, but there's one thing it isn't - it's not effective anti-fascism.

So what should we do instead? There's not an easy answer to this, but engaging in a battle of ideas with the BNP assumes their platform has some credible basis in reason, so that's a non-starter. However, what this election have shown, more than ever, is that overt racism has found a guilt-free, 'respectable' way of expressing itself. There is no opposing pole offering an alternative political vision, just the politicians from the mainstream parties, backed by the unions in the case of the Labour Party, bartering for votes and offering their support for free trade and the market.

If we simply wait for the next election, thinking that an even bigger push to turn out the vote will be enough, then we risk the BNP’s support hardening and growing. Searchlight pledges to “expose the incompetence of their councillors… highlight the extremism of their politics and … work to bring hope instead of hate to communities.” Focusing on the conduct of the BNP's elected representatives has its place, but ignoring the increasingly 'proud' racism of its electoral support, which doesn’t appear to care about the extremism of the BNP's politics (how many BNP voters failed to notice that the part they voted for is racist!), is a recipe for disaster. And with the greatest respect to Searchlight, whom I have known for many years, what does “bringing hope not hate” even mean if the principal ‘hope’ on offer in London is just the chance to cast a vote for the discredited Labour Party?

A new way forward for anti-fascist campaigning must instead be based on principles that many on the Left should be able to support - a rejection of top-down, hierarchical and authoritarian politics and a belief that change can only be achieved through collective, grassroots organisation. I'd be happier going down to wave a placard outside of City Hall if the demonstrations that have been called were the start of campaign along those lines.

But I fear that unless we start to change our tactics, psephology will continue to remain more important than tackling the racism of the BNP’s voters head-on.

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