Argus article : Why the BNP is a threat to Labour
When the Labour government came to power, I experienced very mixed emotions. On the one hand I was glad that a corrupt and immoral Tory government had finally come to an end. On the other I feared the kind of government Tony Blair would lead.
I had rather liked the previous Labour leader, John Smith. With his domed head, short arms and rotund body he reminded me of a penguin, always one of my favourite animals. He managed to combine huge intelligence and a high level of competence with the capacity to make people smile – not least when television cameras caught him guiltily munching chocolate bars in public.
I disagreed with many aspects of his politics, but I thought he was at that time probably as honest a politician as we were likely to get in Downing Street, seeking consensus where he could and making a reasonable fist of standing up to Washington.
He was what Labour left-wingers then called ‘an honest right-winger’, by which they meant a reformer rather than a revolutionary, someone who had reached an accommodation with capitalism, but who would resist its worst excesses. Like Blair, he courted wealthy men. However, looking back to that time through almost 10 years of compromise, cronyism, sleaze, war and corruption, his early ‘prawn cocktail offensive’ seems very innocent.
Smith’s death was a tragedy for the Labour Party – and I think for Britain – though deeply convenient for Tony Blair and his Atlanticist allies.
With hindsight, the way in which Blair responded to the death of John Smith should have been an indicator of the sort of leader he would be. Gordon Brown, the ‘heir apparent’, appeared genuinely grief stricken and initially made no contact with the media. In contrast, Blair was almost immediately on television, in control and apparently assuming the mantle of leadership.
At the time my husband was Vice Chair of the Christian Socialist Movement. The CSM had once been a radical organisation, but over the years had come under increasing Labour Party influence. During Neil Kinnock’s reform of the Labour Party, many prominent or ambitious politicians joined the movement. These highly publicised memberships (including John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) signalled political ‘respectability’ and sent a powerful message that any future Labour government would be morally purer than the sleaze-ridden Tory administration.
Over the years my husband and I had come to despair of CSM’s capacity to rid itself of political influence – particularly given that the Chair was known to be closely associated with the ‘new’ Labour leadership. However, even we were shocked when, within hours of the announcement of John Smith’s death, my husband received a call from the Chair strongly suggesting that in any leadership contest, Tony Blair and not Gordon Brown should receive CSM support.
In the event of course, Gordon Brown stood down and gave Tony Blair a clear run at the leadership. He was beaten by a cold-bloodedly effective campaigning machine.
Smith’s death and Brown’s capitulation, coupled with division, stupidity and moral cowardice on the left (as well as who knows what covert manipulation of the media and organs of government) left the way open for Tony Blair’s general election victory.
At that stage, the electorate were so disillusioned with the existing government that they would probably have elected any Labour leader provided he or she appeared competent. And Blair, like Smith, was obviously highly able. When he was elected, it may have looked as though the people loved him, but I don’t believe they did. They were just desperate for something better.
Veteran left winger Tony Benn used often to frustrate young activists by finding kindly things to say about politicians with whom he disagreed. However, when Blair was elected as Labour leader, I recall Benn grimly saying only one thing – that Blair was “the most right wing” Labour leader ever to be elected.
Following Labour’s general election victory I met with a group of Labour Party members. Many of them were ecstatic. After we parted I commented to my husband that I didn’t think it would take too long for disillusionment to set in. I shall never forget his reply. He said thoughtfully, “The danger is fascism, because when you get a really right wing Labour government which lets down its natural constituency, where else do they go? They’ve already been let down by the Tories. Unless Labour is very careful they’ll go to the BNP.”.
I’ve thought of his words many times over the years, as the gap between rich and poor has widened and assaults upon our civil liberties have gathered pace. Gordon Brown may have devised means of ameliorating some extremes of poverty, but the overall drive of the government has been to maximise profits for the rich. The result is that Britain is now openly referred to as a ‘tax haven’ for the very wealthy.
As Tony Blair has strutted the world stage and socialised with the rich and powerful, the country’s health service has lapsed into crisis, its education system undermined by poor standards and endemic bullying. Social relations have been poisoned by inequality and injustices which the government has done little to challenge.
The government has prosecuted war and occupation in Iraq at the cost of countless lives and many millions of pounds, while claiming all the while that it cannot afford to build or repair essential council houses, or provide vital medication for NHS patients, or keep threatened hospital wards open or pay for the personal care of sick elderly people.
The public sees its political leaders associating with multi-millionaires, protected from crime, living in luxury and increasingly divorced from any normal way of life. The ‘cash for honours’ scandal is shocking precisely because it horrifies no one. It may sicken people, but Blair’s government is now so besmirched by financial scandal that nothing surprises anyone any more.
According to a recent report by the Rowntree Foundation I in 4 British people has considered voting BNP and in a recent interview Government Minister Margaret Hodge M.P. claimed that as many as 8 out of 10 her Barking constituents may consider voting this way. In the current political situation, it is hardly surprising.
Hodge said Labour leaders had failed to “listen” to white working class concerns about demographic changes which have brought increased numbers of black people into previously white areas. She shielded herself from accusations of ‘playing the race card’ by saying the Labour Party should promote “very, very strongly the benefits of the new, rich multi-racial society which is part of this London for me”.
Hodge took no personal responsibility for the alienation of white working class voters in her constituency. It seems not to have occurred to her that she, a Blair cheerleader, is the face of Labour for her constituents and may just have some responsibility for their disillusionment – and the crude racism it fuels.
A visit to the BNP website reveals that it is tapping into a rich seam of alienation and discontent. It barely mentions racial matters, asking potential supporters if they are:
“Feeling despondent or depressed, perhaps bewildered by daily events?
• Feeling angry about news the newspapers and television stations are reporting?
• Feeling ignored, abandoned and forgotten by Blair’s regime?
• Feeling ripped off by the Big Brother Government and the corporate giants?
• Feeling exploited, over taxed but unrepresented on your local council or in parliament?”
The website comforts alienated readers by stating “You are not alone.”
In so doing it uses a tactic deployed by many other far right and fascist parties in the past. It offers an illusion of solidarity, a distorted mirror image of the real fellowship which should be provided by genuinely democratic political organizations and trade unions.
In short, the BNP appears to provide what Labour and other parties ought to offer, but all too often do not – a willingness to listen and to fight injustice. It is a lie, but one which has worked for fascists before.
People are once again disillusioned and desperate for something better. They must be offered genuine leadership, for if they are not they will turn to demagogues.
In France, young people have taken to the streets to defend working conditions. In the USA illegal Hispanic immigrants are on the march. In Britain our own local authority workers have taken up the baton of protest in defence of pensions.
These are all signs of hope, for if ordinary people have the will to resist injustice, and the capacity to organise, they can keep their leaders in check – and fascism cannot take hold.
We live in dangerous, but interesting times.