The British National Party (BNP) may be in decline, but to what extent are the main parties just taking up its concerns and its discourse?
A recent by-election in Barnsley continues the trend of the BNP being humiliated at the polls. But could it be that the decline of the BNP is connected to mainstream parties ‘stealing their clothes’? Is this trend similar to that in other European countries where coalitions and policies have given ground to the Far Right? Are there also signs that more principled anti-racist political trends are emerging to contest common sense racism to make sure the ideas as well as the policies of Far Right parties and groups are challenged?
There was a local council by-election in Barnsley on Thursday 13 October. The BNP candidate was on Norwegian killer Breivik’s e-mail list. He came second with 174 votes to Labour’s 1,257 (the Conservatives managed sixty-one votes). The obscure by-election also attracted the former BNP national elections organiser Eddy Butler to run the English Democrats’ campaign – they received 146 votes.
This perhaps signals the end of six-years of BNP prominence in the town – the weekly BNP town centre stall has also disappeared. There is plenty of evidence that the BNP’s national strategy to make itself respectable and electable has collapsed and the party has imploded. The street politics of the Islamophobic English Defence League (EDL) remains, as do nagging doubts about why the far-right is apparently in decline. It is possible it is regrouping in the guise of the English Democrats or within UKIP.
Perhaps there is also a more worrying explanation which mirrors developments in the rest of Europe. In various forms, far-right xenophobic ideas have been absorbed into mainstream governing policies through coalitions or electoral agreements with Islamophobic or far-right populist parties (the list is pretty daunting – Italy, Denmark, The Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Hungary and Austria).In Sweden the Social Democrats already in disarray have faced further splits on the proposals from the leader of Malmo city council, still a Social Democrat stronghold, to adopt a key policy of the Far Right Sweden Democrats to introduce a ‘temporary’ form of citizenship for immigrants.
Conservatives absorbing far-right policies
Recent developments here in Britain, perhaps suggest a similar process which has embedded key racist and xenophobic slogans into political and media discourses and into the very common sense of party policies. Certainly David Cameron, through two key speeches, one rejecting multiculturalism and recently on 10 October another to the Institute of Government restating a xenophobic immigration policy,  has attempted to ‘triangulate’ beyond the far-right absorbing its policies. No doubt David Cameron is attempting to repeat the success of Margaret Thatcher and her ‘swamping’ comments in 1978 which arguably stopped the electoral ambitions of the far-right National Front.
Certainly the Conservative party conference witnessed a serving home secretary borrowing a section of a speech from the xenophobic UKIP leader ridiculing the Human Rights Act, and the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Her speech and others perpetuated the centrality of the myth of the ‘foreign criminal’ in political and media discourses and debates. The Conservatives also thought it acceptable to invite Timo Soini the leader of the far-right party, The True Finns, to speak at a fringe meeting at the conference. UKIP had earlier featured him at its September Eastbourne Conference.
Common sense racism at the party conferences
The political parties’ conference season gave further evidence of the unwillingness of any major politician to challenge the common sense racism which underlies a great deal of current political debates. The language may be indirect, but the underlying messages are clear. It may be around ‘immigration’, it may be around allocation of social housing, or more directly around ‘foreign criminals’.
Labour politicians at their conference continued their mantra of previous ‘mistakes’ on immigration, although how much more ‘robust ‘ and xenophobic Labour immigration ministers like Liam Byrne and Phil Woolas could have been perhaps defies imagination. A point reinforced by the disgraced Woolas resurfacing in the Daily Mail declaring that ‘Theresa May was right to say human rights laws make a mockery of the way Britain deals with asylum seekers,’ as he released extracts ‘from an explosive diary revealing the ‘absurd’ degree to which the immigration service was hampered by court rulings on human rights.'
Labour, it has to be remembered, fuelled the current foreign criminal myths with a whole section of its manifesto in May 2010 headed ‘Crime and Immigration’, a manifesto written by Ed Miliband.
The attitudes of ‘Blue Labour’ peer Lord Glasman, who had called for a total end to immigration in July, resurfaced in his own contributions at fringe meetings at the conference. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls and former minister Hazel Blears called for controls on internal EU migration. No-one at the conference questioned the Labour Party’s strong support for the Coalition policies of absolute opposition to any resettlement of refugees from Tunisia and Libya or ‘sharing the burden’ with Italy, Malta and Greece.
Margaret Hodge ‘reiterated calls for resources such as housing to be prioritised for those who have lived in Britain for longer’ and as the Guardian put it ‘Her comments come as Labour has conceded that it must do more to woo white working class voters’. (Interestingly, the term ‘white working class’ which has no basis in research or history has become a mainstream, ‘common sense’ term for pollsters, politicians and the media.) In housing, this controversial political rhetoric has now come to be embedded in policies of local allocations to ‘established’ residents. Westminster council has seized on the notion and proposed a ten-year residency qualification for its housing waiting list. Excluding migrants from waiting lists last surfaced in the 1970s, was found to be discriminatory and racist then, and it is now. It is based on racist myths repeatedly refuted by extensive research that ‘they’, (the immigrants), take ‘our’ houses’, but politicians of all parties have now embodied the myth into public policy.
Responses to Dale Farm
During the political party conferences, the resistance of Irish Travellers to eviction from Dale Farm started to surface at their barricades and in the courts. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) disclosed that Labour central government funding for Gypsy and Traveller sites had simply been redirected by councils often because of local opposition.
Ironically Ed Miliband himself had supported local opposition to this spending on a site in his own constituency in Bentley in Doncaster in 2010. At the beginning of the Dale Farm eviction he supported the Conservative council in enforcing the eviction notice: ‘The law does have to be upheld right across the country whatever background people are from, wherever people are.' By 30 September he was saying, ‘I don’t think Basildon Council has handled this situation very sensitively. Of course the law has to be enforced, but it must be done in a way that’s sensitive … and alternative sites needed to be sought.'
This was a gradual move back to the relatively progressive policies of central government on sites, if not rights, under Labour from 2007. It is still a long way away from the devolved Labour administration in Wales whose policy document on Gypsies and Travellers was published at exactly the same time as Ed Miliband’s cautious statements on Dale Farm. In Wales the ‘Travelling to a better future’ policy document is described as a ‘new deal’ for Gypsies and Travellers on services, sites and stereotyping and is unequivocal, even multicultural, in tone. The Welsh government’s equalities minister Jane Hutt is clear the policy is about rights: ‘Wales is a diverse society with a rich mix of cultures and traditions. Gypsy and Traveller culture and heritage forms part of this diversity … (the policy framework) sets out a culturally sensitive and relevant agenda for Gypsies and Travellers in Wales … It highlights Wales’s unique position and commitment to Gypsies and Travellers and our continued commitment to equality issues, community cohesion and human rights in Wales.'
In contrast, the political debates on Dale Farm in England included the flagship BBC ‘Newsnight’ programme presenter Jeremy Paxman contemptuously deriding the United Nations spokeswoman for mentioning ‘culturally sensitive policies’ as relevant. Only Labour’s MEP for the East of England, Richard Howitt, was willing to raise the issue of human rights of Dale Farm residents and the anti-Gypsyism of the statements and actions of Basildon Council and the Coalition government.
The response from the Conservatives to Dale Farm was indeed predictable – after all the Coalition government had contributed public funds as part of the £18m cost of the eviction and both Eric Pickles and David Cameron supported Basildon council. Eric Pickles also boasted that the Coalition was to introduce even more draconian laws to criminalise squatting, which had been widely reported as legally irrelevant, but actually aimed at ‘illegal’ encampments by Gypsies and Travellers. Gypsies and Travellers will also lose the right to legal aid to defend themselves against roadside evictions. Eric Pickles has also recently backed a further eviction at Meriden.Thus the use of anti-Gypsyism by politicians in public statements and election campaigns (read an IRR News story: ‘Playing the Gypsy “race card”‘) and now in policies continues to determine the reality of Gypsy and Traveller everyday life. As an official EHRC Research report puts it, ‘The pervasive and corrosive impact of experiencing racism and discrimination through an entire lifespan, and in employment, social and political contexts’.
A new climate of anti-Gypsyism is becoming more entrenched in English and Westminster politics and the political media. Around the time of Dale Farm, police decided to charge Irish Travellers elsewhere with ‘slavery’ offences (later modified to forced labour charges and at present untested in court).This implied connection with other Irish Travellers at Dale Farm was accepted even in the columns of the ‘liberal’ Observer.. The BBC’s Panorama also, perhaps coincidentally, screened an expose of ‘trafficked’ Roma child beggars in London on 18 October.
Inside the Westminster bubble and beyond
In Westminster politics the dangerous xenophobic rhetoric around immigration and ‘foreign criminals’ continues. The Coalition parties perhaps believe they can hold on to power and divert attention from the realities of the worst economic crisis for eighty years with this populist rhetoric. The Labour opposition seems stuck with a xenophobic rhetoric aimed at winning back key marginal seats.
We have the unedifying spectacle of mainstream parties absorbing rhetoric and policies to pander to an imagined racist electorate, and to triangulate beyond far-right parties for electoral advantage. The problem is that ideas and rhetoric ‘have legs’, they actually produce social harm. Irish Travellers and their supporters were tasered at Dale Farm by riot police and the images were beamed across the world. The politics of this will not have gone unnoticed in Europe where Berlusconi and Sarkozy have also sought to win political support by ‘clearing’ Roma ‘camps’ in Italy and France.
Politicians in Westminster should perhaps look beyond their bubble to Scotland where the Social Democratic SNP won a landslide victory with pro-immigration policies, or Wales, where Welsh Labour is championing diversity and challenging racist stereotypes of Gypsies and Travellers.
In a remarkable volte-face David Blunkett one of the most ‘hardline’ of Labour Home Secretaries has identified these same trends in current Labour policies and argues ‘it is becoming almost fashionable on the left to be xenophobic’. He tells his Labour colleagues that ‘you can’t outdo the Conservatives in relation to immigration’ and says that the idea the answer is getting tough on anyone seeking to enter Britain is a message of despair’.
Perhaps the anti-racist campaigning of Ken Livingstone in London could persuade Labour that multiculturalism is not a ‘toxic brand’ but actually electorally popular. Livingstone’s chapter ‘In praise of multicultural London’ in the new book Defending Multiculturalism: a guide for the movement is a hopeful sign.
Also the voice of the trade unions has surfaced in Westminster with former UNITE official Jack Dromey, now shadow housing minister, declaring, ‘We will need to address the key issues that drive hostility towards immigration including housing, stagnating wages, the increase of unskilled work, and workers rights. And we must do all this without demonising the good men and women who come to Britain to enjoy a better life. Who help build Britain. Who have helped make Britain what it is today.'
In Europe there are some indications that the dangers of absorbing and pandering to xenophobic populism after the Breivik murders in Norway are being realised by electorates. In Denmark a left Social Democratic coalition victory, with an 87 per cent turnout, has broken the ten years of power and influence for the anti-immigrant Danish Peoples Party. Eleven anti-racist MPs were elected for the Left Unity List in the 179-seat parliament. In Switzerland, the largest political party at federal level, the openly xenophobic Swiss Peoples Party, has suffered its first electoral setback for ten years.
Far-right and fascist ideas are OK in football
Back in England, extremist sympathisers and their parties may be in electoral retreat in Barnsley and elsewhere, but the ideas and political rhetoric which sustained them are still around and go unchallenged. After all only the GMB union protested when Swindon Town was allowed by the Football Association this year to appoint a self-confessed former fascist as manager. Paolo di Canio had regularly given the Fascist salute in his playing days with Lazio. The England manager Fabio Capello was also only mildly criticised for an outburst earlier in the year supporting far-right anti-immigrant policies in his native Italy.
The Guardian sports team treated Swindon fans’ relationship with their new right-wing manager as a bit of a joke. They should apparently ‘Eat up their zucchinis and get behind him with more voice and more than a half-full ground. They could be on to a marriage made in madness. It might even be a laugh.'
Perhaps then there is some way to go still in campaigning against common sense racism in English social and political life. But at least Barnsley can now claim to almost be a ‘BNP free zone’… at last.