How Labour legitimises the BNP

People don’t vote for the BNP: they vote against New Labour and the rest.

The BNP gets a staggering amount of press coverage: columnists queue up to prove their liberal credentials by pasting them, while Nick Griffin is rarely off our screens. Yet he's the leader of a small, poorly financed, internally divided party that is never going to be a major force in a first-past-the-post political system. So what's going on?

What is going on is the betrayal of the British working class and a political symbiosis disguised as opposition. The Labour Party no longer pretends to represent working-class people: it's far too busy fluffing our spectacularly incompetent City elite. And into Labour's old role is stepping the BNP, promising not only local jobs, services and communities, but that the party has changed its old racist ways.

The liberal reaction to this is disastrous. I've written a play about the rise of the BNP, called A Day at the Racists, during which I debated Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking (where of course Griffin is challenging her). I was shocked at her argument -- basically that the BNP are a bunch of simple racists and therefore any decent person should vote Labour. That kind of patronising disrespect for the legitimate frustrations of her constituents also gives the BNP legitimacy -- it makes them seem like they have something important or original to say, something that mainstream society doesn't want you to hear.

Everybody wins -- except the disenfranchised working class, whose real needs remain conspicuously unmet by any political party.

The thing liberals fail to see about the BNP is that they are a repository for ordinary working people's desire to get their dignity back. (In that sense, they have a lot in common with Islamists. Both see liberal mainstream society as misrepresenting and exploiting them, and so they hit back in a way calculated to cause maximum offence to liberal sensibilities. Maybe they should get together.)

People don't vote for the BNP, they vote against New Labour and the rest. And those people feel treated unfairly by the unequal free-market society that not only Westminster politicians and corporate flacks, but also liberal media types benefit from. They are angry at you.

What makes the BNP important is not that they are going to win seats, but that they show the limitations of liberal capitalist democracy. In that sense, they are an outrider for the hypothesis of my play -- a post-racial, "tolerant" nationalism, a neo-fascism that anyone can join, embodied by a mixed-race Asian character who becomes a BNP candidate.

In real life, the BNP themselves are so besmirched with racism, not least in the public eye, that they will never be the party which makes that argument credibly. But somebody will, and liberal capitalist democracy right now doesn't have an answer.

Anders Lustgarten's play "A Day at the Racists" has a one-off performance at the Broadway Theatre in Barking on 16 April.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.