What prospects now for the BNP?

As the British National Party (BNP) celebrate their three new council seats in Burnley it seems that BNP leader Nick Griffin's drive to make his party appear more modern, respectable and credible is paying off. This success will strengthen the hand of those who want to turn the BNP into a British version of far-right populist parties like Haider's 'Freedom Party' in Austria. But is the BNP capable of escaping its neo-Nazi roots and becoming an electorally credible far-right alternative?

NAOMI BYRON writes. Socialism Today No. 66, June 2002

THERE IS NO doubt that there is potential for a reactionary English nationalist force to develop to partially fill the current political vacuum. An opinion poll carried out by the Sunday Times this April - in the wake of Le Pen's vote in the first round of the French presidential election - showed that 53% of those questioned agreed that 'the British political establishment needs the same kind of kick as Le Pen delivered in France'. Twenty-two per cent said that they would vote for a credible party that stood for British withdrawal from the European Union (EU) and imposed 'far-reaching' anti-immigration policies.

Support for 'little England' policies is also shown in the core Tory vote, which has remained solid despite the scale of the defeats suffered by the Conservative Party at the last two general elections. On low turnouts the Tories have been able to outpoll the Labour Party, such as in this year's local elections where 34% of votes were cast for the Tories, or in the Euro elections of 1999 when they polled 36% with a strongly 'Euro-sceptic' campaign. Another indicator was the support won by James Goldsmith's Referendum Party in the 1997 general election, which polled 811,852 votes, and by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which won three seats in the European Parliament (MEPs) on an anti-EU platform in 1999 with a 7% share of the poll (696,000 votes).

The increased volatility of elections in Britain, as more voters choose either to abstain or vote against the mainstream parties, increases opportunities for socialists and the left. But it also opens the door to the development of reactionary and nationalist forces.

Nick Griffin, who took over from John Tyndall as leader of the BNP in 1999, is doing his utmost to make the most of these opportunities. As part of this attempt to shed the BNP's neo-Nazi image they have officially dropped their policy of forced repatriation in favour of one of 'voluntary' repatriation. The BNP have also changed other elements of their programme to try and make themselves more acceptable. Defending the dropping of their previous policy of a total ban on homosexuality, for example, the BNP's magazine, Identity, argued that: "As much as the BNP wants to drive homosexuality back into the closet where it belongs, such a policy is wholly unworkable and totally ridiculous. Worse still, it betrays a totalitarian mindset which is badly at odds with the essentially individualistic and live-and-let-live attitude of most Britons".

Their manifesto for this year's local elections, in a cynical attempt to appeal to the increasingly radical consciousness in Britain, claimed that the BNP "oppose the privatisation of council housing and will work to reverse the privatisations Labour have already forced through" as well as opposing "any proposed sell-offs of municipally owned properties such as parks and playing fields".

Contrast this to their previous position on privatisation, from the BNP's newspaper in May 1994, which argued "that the private enterprise system is the one which functions with the greatest dynamism and efficiency. We therefore favour most parts of the economy operating under private ownership and control".

This 'modernisation' strategy is aimed at consciously targeting working class ex-Labour voters. Paul Golding, the BNP's director of publicity, wrote in a guide to the BNP's local election campaign this year that local branches "must find a ward that is - or used to be - rock solid old Labour. One where the Tories are strong contenders, or where the Liberal-Democrats have used their own pavement politics to dig in will be no good - unless the Lib-Dems got elected on a subtly 'racist' ticket and are now running a pro-immigrant council.

"There are thousands of white working class wards with high levels of poverty, job insecurity and council neglect that show better than any academic political study the way in which New Labour has abandoned its traditional supporters. This is the political space in which we will get our first electoral breakthroughs. Don't even consider well-to-do middle class wards, or an area with a high immigrant population, as most whites on our wavelength will already have left".

This approach, combined with the increasing anger against New Labour and other mainstream parties, helped the BNP to get one of its best votes ever in May 2002. The BNP's highest votes were in Oldham and Burnley (although their best result in Burnley was in Cliviger-with-Worsthorne, a better-off ward where the Tories are strong contenders). But their successes were not confined to ex-mill towns in the North of England. In Castle & Priory ward in Dudley the BNP got 26%, while in nearby Sandwell the BNP got 24% in the Princes End ward. In Sandwell's Tipton Green ward the combined vote of the BNP and the 'Freedom Party' (a BNP split-off) was 31%. In Lewisham's Downham ward, in south east London, two BNP candidates got 19% and 18%, while in the Newham mayoral election in East London the BNP candidate got 2,881 votes (7%).

Can the 'modernisation strategy' succeed?

DOES THIS MEAN that the BNP can succeed in breaking out of its neo-Nazi past? While they have made some progress towards this, particularly in a small number of local areas, it will be very difficult for them to maintain these successes or achieve them on a wider scale.

The attempts BNP members have made to build a broad party have come up against problems very quickly, particularly new people being put off joining by the party's associations with neo-Nazi ideas and violence. Even a layer of their new membership, recruited on the basis of their changed policies, can be repulsed by the real views of long-standing BNP activists.

An early example of the difficulties that will occur can be seen in Burnley itself, where the BNP have built a certain local base. After watching Panorama's exposť of the BNP last year, particularly the section dealing with the BNP's previous policy of compulsory repatriation, Jim Cowell (the BNP's candidate in the Rosehill-with-Burnley Wood ward by-election that was then underway) publicly denounced the national leadership and declared he would consider leaving the party.

Arguing that "I am quite happy with the people over here", he went on, "it is unrealistic and unfair to suggest that they should be repatriated. They have as much right to be here as anyone... the only thing I want is for further immigration to be stopped". He added, "I don't believe in the politics of those in control of the party... the local lads are not extremist, it is the leaders I am concerned about".

Cowell has not left the BNP; in fact he stood in the same ward for them this May and came within 200 votes of winning. However, whether the BNP will be able to withstand this type of pressure in future, particularly the layer of newer members, remains to be seen. Mass demonstrations and campaigns against the BNP can increase this pressure and push many BNP members out of activity altogether.

This problem is particularly acute for the BNP given their organisational weaknesses. According to the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, less than 20 local people helped in the BNP's general election campaign in Oldham. Of the small layer of key BNP activists, most are hardcore neo-fascists with convictions and past histories that are extremely embarrassing to the BNP leadership and their new 'squeaky-clean' image. Many leading BNP activists still have links with Combat 18 (the neo-fascist paramilitary group set up by the BNP in the 1990s which continues to have a love-hate relationship with the organisation). This was underlined by the presence of Chris Jackson (BNP North West organiser) and other leading BNP activists at a C18 party in Oldham in January this year.

Nick Griffin was himself one of the most hardline opponents of the so-called 'modernisation' strategy until he decided to challenge John Tyndall for the leadership of the party (a battle he won in 1999). In 1995, for example, he wrote in the neo-Nazi publication, The Rune, that "the electors of Millwall [where BNP member Derek Beackon was elected to Tower Hamlets council in September 1993] did not back a post-modernist rightist party but what they perceived to be a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan 'Defend Rights for Whites' with well-directed boots and fists. When the crunch comes power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate".

Griffin's second-in-command and apparently an enthusiastic supporter of the BNP's new credibility drive is none other than Tony 'Bomber' Lecomber, the BNP's 'Group Development Officer', who was convicted on five counts for offences under the Explosives Act for an attempt to bomb the offices of a left-wing organisation in 1985. He was also jailed for three years in 1991 for attacking a Jewish teacher.

However, the BNP's shortage of activists will make it difficult for it to break out of its current position, making it even more crucial for Nick Griffin to keep a majority of the hardened neo-fascist members of the BNP 'on side'. This limits how far he is able to dilute the BNP's programme from its neo-fascist roots.

Big business and fascism

FASCISM IN ITS original form in the inter-war years was a mass reactionary movement, based on an enraged and desperate middle class and a section of the most downtrodden and despairing of the working class, which acted as an extra para-military wing to the capitalist state forces in smashing working class opposition to capitalism.

Historically, classical fascist movements have arisen in Europe at times of extreme economic and social crisis in capitalism, where the preferred methods of rule for big business - parliamentary democracy combined with often brutal state repression - were no longer sufficient to hold back workers' movements, yet mass movements had failed to overthrow capitalism because of mistakes or betrayals by the leaders of the workers' organisations. In this situation of an unstable 'equilibrium' between the classes, significant sections of the capitalist class have in the past been prepared to fund and politically back fascist movements to save their system, for example in Italy in 1922 and in Germany in 1933.

However, fascism saved big business at a price. The experience of fascism in Europe, particularly Hitler's role in provoking the second world war, made the ruling class as a whole much more wary of backing fascist movements.

Today the ruling class does not feel so much under threat. Also, more importantly, the potential social base of fascism is much smaller. The working class is much larger and many sections of what was considered to be the middle class (such as teachers, civil servants etc) have been pushed much further towards the conditions and consciousness of working-class people by neo-liberal policies.

Reactionary movements which can act as strike-breakers and attempt to split the working class are something that sections of the ruling class will look to support at some stage in the future, in conditions of economic crisis and political and social tensions far greater than those that exist today. At the moment, however, the BNP is an irritation and an inconvenience to the establishment in Britain and its political representatives.

The New Labour government are determined to stem any further growth in influence of the BNP because such a development would be a major cause of political instability and increased racial tensions. They are terrified that even the limited current successes of the BNP could provoke a massive counter-movement, as Le Pen has in France and, on a lesser scale, the BNP did in Britain in the mid-1990s.

It was this movement of tens of thousands of people that defeated the BNP and shut their headquarters in South East London. New Labour is desperate to prevent a new generation of radicalised young people becoming politically active as a result of the threat posed by the BNP. This is why they are attempting to use the BNP as a bogeyman to scare people away from supporting 'extremism' - by which they mean socialists and the left, as well as the far-right.

In their short-sighted fashion, the government have been trying to make difficulties for the BNP. In conjunction with the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), New Labour have been looking into legal ways to curtail the BNP's activity, for example the possibility of banning BNP councillors from voting on issues such as housing, regeneration, and education policy, unless they publicly renounce core BNP policies.

We would call for the council workers' unions, for example, to refuse to service the BNP councillors, denying them access to tenants' records, employees' details and other council facilities. The type of legal measures proposed by the CRE, however, implemented from above in isolation from a mass movement against the BNP (and alongside continuing Tory policies from New Labour councillors), could only increase support for the BNP. Imagine the impact, for example, of BNP councillors protesting publicly that they have been legally banned from voting against the proposed privatisation of council housing stock that New Labour is trying to push through.

Filling the vacuum

WHAT IS NEEDED to cut across the BNP's support and marginalize them politically are mass demonstrations against the BNP organised in combination with a major campaign to politically expose them and their real agenda. In the long term the only way to prevent them or another far-right force growing is to build a strong socialist movement to give genuine answers to the social and economic problems capitalism has created.

The lack of a new mass workers' party, that could unite the existing left alongside newly radicalising layers of young and working class people, has given the far-right extra opportunities to grow. If the miners' leader Arthur Scargill, for example, had taken the decision to develop an open, inclusive and democratic party when he launched the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in 1995, that could have helped prevent the current growth in support for the BNP. Instead, with a closed and undemocratic structure, and with policies that failed to reach out to the new layers, the SLP became a wasted opportunity.

Class struggle is, however, beginning to re-emerge in Britain. A strong and militant trade union movement would help cut across the racist prejudices that have been developing and hardening, demonstrating that class unity is necessary to win struggles.

Even then, however, the problem of the far-right would not go away altogether. The inability of capitalism to provide security and good living standards to the majority of the population is increasing. The embracing of capitalism by New Labour and other ex-workers' parties throughout the world, and the political vacuum on the left that this opened up, has created a more confused or mixed consciousness. There will be movements where progressive and class conscious ideas could gain wide support but, without a strong socialist force or in the absence of workers' struggles, reactionary ideas could also gain a wide hearing.

In Britain one such issue could be the euro, although it is still far from certain that the Blair government will risk holding the referendum that is necessary before Britain could join the single currency. Opposition to the euro could become a rallying point for the left. Cuts in public spending, privatisation and other neo-liberal measures are a central plank of the euro project. Movements against these could crystallise opposition to the EU and to New Labour in a class-based, progressive direction.

However, given the number of wealthy businessmen who oppose British entry into the euro, and the nationalist slant of the anti-EU coverage of the media, it could also be hijacked by the right and become the issue around which a broader, populist far-right force develops in Britain. This possibility can only be helped by the pro-euro position taken by many trade union leaders, including John Monks, leader of the TUC.

The Referendum Party collapsed after the death of its creator James Goldsmith, a wealthy businessman and establishment figure, while the UKIP is also an unstable formation. One of its three MEPs resigned from the party in March 2000 and it has been continually consumed by ego-clashes and arguments about infiltration by the BNP and other far-right groups. However, the large protest vote attracted by the Referendum Party and UKIP showed the potential for a more serious 'English nationalist' party. The 'up-to-£10 million' figure spoken about by multi-millionaire businessman Paul Sykes when he discussed funding the UKIP during last year's general election - and the £2 million offer made to the UKIP to withdraw from key seats by Tory peer Lord Rannoch - shows the money that a section of the ruling class would be prepared to use to defend their interests, even against the rest of the establishment.

In the event of big class movements challenging big business and the government in Britain how much more money and influence would be forthcoming to a new populist far-right force, perhaps built around the 'personality' of a big business leader or public figure, like Berlusconi's Forza Italia movement or the Pim Fortuyn phenomenon? Certainly, in that situation a much larger section of the British ruling class would be ready to fund a serious right-wing alternative than would contemplate doing so at the moment. But the strength of the movement that develops against the 'new, improved' BNP now will be an important factor in limiting how far they will go.

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