Argus title : It's vital to challenge the far-right parties
Last week journalist Lawrence Marzouk published one of the most important articles I have seen in the Argus of recent years. It was a wake up call to the people of Sussex, warning of the growing likelihood of electoral gains by the far right British National Party (BNP).
Lawrence Marzouk reported on the fact that in February, BNP member Donna Bailey was just 20 seats short of winning a fiercely-contested seat on Upper Beeding Parish Council seat in West Sussex.
On 20th March in an Arun District Council by-election, BNP candidate Albert Bodle, who runs the Selwood Lodge guest house in Bognor, came third in Yapton ward with 205 votes. The Liberal Democrat candidate who came second received only 7 more votes. Labour didn’t bother to stand. On the same day, a BNP candidate Mark Logan, won another by-election in the South East, for Havering Council.
The BNP is now campaigning for May’s local elections. Lawrence Marzouk wrote: “Its success remains modest compared to the big three and should not be overstated. But a strategy of targeting minor by-elections where major parties often fail to field candidates and turn-out is poor ensures the party takes a disproportionately large slice of the vote.”
In short, the apathy and indifference of mainstream parties, failing to field candidates in seats that they consider unwinnable for their party, provides the BNP with an open goal. Even if they don’t win, gains they have made strengthens their claim to be taken seriously as a mainstream political party.
Apathy is indeed the ally of the far right. In April 2002, the neo-fascist French “Front National” candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen won 20 per cent of the popular vote to enter a second round run-off against the then president Jacques Chirac. Voters’ indifference resulted in a very low turnout.
Le Pen was beaten in the second round and 5 years later the shocked electorate, determined that nothing like that should happen again, achieved an 85 per cent turn out at the next presidential election. Le Pen’s vote was halved.
Le Pen was able to attract voters, not just because he appealed to the electorate’s fears of immigration, but also because he repackaged many policies. The BNP has done something similar, presenting itself as a left-leaning radical democratic party which condemns the privatisation of the railways, supports student grants and argues for a foreign policy independent of US or other domination. It even calls for withdrawal of foreign troops from British soil and an end to the wars in which we are currently engaged.
Many voters might be attracted by what appears to be a programme well to the left of Labour’s. However, those who have some knowledge of the growth of far right parties in the 1920s and 1930s will be aware that in the early days they similarly argued for some apparently progressive policies. Hitler’s party was after all called the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
The BNP denies it is in any sense a fascist or neo-fascist party. It is true that it has lost the worst of its racist language. Nonetheless, it continues to argue for a white Britain, maintenance of what it calls the traditional British genotype and voluntary subsidised repatriation for ethnic minorities, arguing that all asylum seekers should be refused entry to Britain and that foreign aid to developing countries should be stopped. It continues to rail against “political correctness”, but does not say what it means by this.
The BNP is coy about the position of women and homosexuals – both of which groups tend to suffer acutely under far-right governments. It says it pursues a policy of “don’t ask don’t tell” regarding homosexuality and, as far as women are concerned, says enigmatically that they are “different” from men, just as, it claims black people are “different” from white people.
The BNP’s improved showing is no doubt also due to the fact that many voters see little difference between the main political parties and therefore fail to vote at all or in desperation give their vote to a party appearing to offer change.
Years ago, not long after Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, I remember having a discussion with my husband about the future. We were both fairly certain that Labour would win the next election, but had deep misgiving about the direction in which Blair would take the country.
A comment my husband made then has stayed with me. He said “The trouble is, when a right-wing Labour government lets working class people down there’s a real possibility they’ll go to the far right.”
Unfortunately, it seems to me that we are in exactly that situation. The three main parties are seen to be fighting over the same centre right political ground. Despite the advent of Gordon Brown, Labour is still seen as a party in thrall to America and wedded to the super rich, while the trade unions seem to have lost their roots in the working class. The far left largely ignores the day to day concerns of working class people and the churches – apart from the odd gesture in the direction of world poverty – seem more concerned with their own internal wranglings than they are about exploitation and injustice on their doorstep.
In such circumstances, it is not surprising that far right parties are gaining ground. Margaret Thatcher mopped up working class votes by capitalising on voters’ feeling of exclusion. She was a consummate political operator who understood how marginalised many people felt. What she offered was a sham, but it was one people rushed to embrace.
Once the working class electorate who had supported her came to realize they had been let down, they looked for an alternative in the Labour Party. They hoped for change, but in fact received more of the same. Under Labour, they have seen civil liberties attacked, health and education services continue to malfunction and the criminal justice system work against their interests. Poorly trained people have floundered into the labour market only to be undercut by better trained workers from Eastern Europe, prepared to work harder for less.
Council housing, which had been undermined under the Tories, came under further sustained attack from Labour – leaving thousands of people homeless and inadequately housed. The income gap between the rich and poor widened, while social services were slashed. Violent crime including rape increased and drunkenness, drug addiction and bullying infected the estates. ASBOs took the place of traditional children’s and young people’s services – and money which could have been used to build new council houses, subsidise post offices, and construct new hospitals, was squandered on military adventures without point or purpose.
t cannot imagine what it’s like to live on a drug-torn estate with no prospect of being rehoused only to realise that billions of pounds have been wasted on funding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I cannot imagine how it feels to learn that since British troops took responsibility for ending poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, opium production in that country has increased exponentially, much of it being sold as heroin on the streets of Britain.
In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that voters have become both despairing and cynical and cast about for alternatives and – when they seem unavailable within the main parties – that some of them consider voting for the far right.
It does no good to treat such people with disdain or contempt or to assert that their anxieties are unfounded. In fact, much of their insecurity and fear is based in reality. It is the conclusions they have reached which are wrong. If their genuine concerns are addressed – for example by means of additional council housing, effective control of exploited illegal labour, better education and training and genuinely improved health services – then those faulty conclusions could and should whither away.
As to the leaders of far-right parties, it is vital to challenge them – through the media, street protest and the ballot box – for, whatever they may say, their ideas are based upon inequality, injustice and an assault on democracy.
There’s only one thing that needs to be said about them. As brave anti-fascists used once to chant when Mosley’s Blackshirts marched through the East End of London “No Pasaran!. They shall not pass”.