The battle appears to be won. In 2010, the BNP were routed in Barking and Dagenham. The number of BNP councillors has plummeted from a high of 56 to just 3. Britain’s most powerful, and most threatening, fascist party seems to be in a state of terminal decline.
Elsewhere, the English Defence League is also in retreat after a period when it seemed destined to replace the BNP as Britain’s foremost far right organisation.
The EDL’s appeal lies in its ‘anti-politics’ approach to campaigning. Members engage in marches and demonstrations, rather than debate and canvassing. However, leader Stephen Lennon is attempting to drive the organisation down the parliamentary route trod by the BNP in an alliance with the British Freedom Party. This has caused the movement to fracture and split as grassroots members rebel against the leadership’s striving to make the EDL a ‘respectable’ party.
However, while the threat of a fascist renaissance in Britain has subsided for now, the underlying attitudes and issues that nourish the far-right remain present in society.
Polling conducted by anti-fascist organisation ‘Hope not Hate’ revealed that 10% of the population can be classified as ‘latently hostile’ to those racially and culturally different from themselves, and 13% as exhibiting an ‘active enmity’ towards the ‘other.’
Insecurity about the future, and concern that British identity is being steadily eroded by a wave of foreign immigrants, are the key
drivers of such attitudes. While very few can summarise what Britishness means (besides drinking tea and queuing), it is something that is felt to be under attack by multiculturalism and the political doctrine of tolerance.
Cosmopolitan liberals may shrug their shoulders at this concern, rightly pointing out that ours is a nation of immigrants and that the freedoms Britons hold dear are protected by law and not about to wiped out by a radical Islamic agenda or a tidal wave of Polish plumbers. However, the fear that British society is evolving out of all recognition is deep-rooted in the sort of constituencies the BNP prey upon. One Londoner said:
“One of the problems of academics is that they don’t understand how local people feel…I get very wobbly when I get on a bus and there are fifteen people with burkhas on….[the growth of immigrant communities] does wind people up.”
Progressives would be foolish to ignore local people’s concerns and brand all those who fear immigrants as ignorant or racist.
Fortunately, Labour is in a unique position to help change attitudes and strengthen the campaign against fascism. Aimy Saunders, a campaigner with ‘Hope not Hate,’ says:
“The BNP has been more successful in areas where the Labour Party has taken people for granted. 49% of BNP voters used to vote Labour but felt disillusioned with the Labour party and what they stood for at that time.”
The rest are typically first-time voters or non-voters, who cast their ballot for the BNP out of despair that mainstream parties simply don’t understand their concerns.
Labour activists need to take to the streets- as they did in Barking and Dagenham- to win that 49% back for the party and prevent non-voters from supporting fascists at election time.
Local parties should also forge alliances with campaigning groups like ‘Hope not Hate’ to promote ‘community resilience.’
“[At ‘Hope not Hate’] we’re building community links so that when times are hard and the BNP comes
knocking local residents will be able to respond and not be as influenced as much by their ideas,” says Aimy.
This means linking local schools, clubs, and religious collectives together in community-wide projects designed to strengthen a sense of fellowship. In Luton, Dagenham, and Croydon where the BNP have made inroads in the past, ‘Hope not Hate’ has founded community newspapers and sponsored local meetings and events to inspire a spirit of neighbourliness.
Local Constituency Labour Parties and Trade Union branches are well positioned to support such work in areas susceptible to the economic and social pressures that lure people to the far right.
Ignoring the threat of fascism and claiming that far right parties have been routed once and for all is arrogant at best and dangerous at worst. Parties like the BNP may rise, fall, then disappear, but the values they stand for endure.
There is, therefore, a strong moral case for Labour to jointhe struggle against fascism. If we claim to be the party of inclusiveness, we cannot turn a blind eye when attitudes toxic to the ideal of a free and equal society are allowed to find political expression.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog