The Books Interview: Matthew Collins

The author of "Hate: My Life in the British Far Right" explains what drives people towards extremist groups like the BNP and the National Front.

You joined the National Front as a teenager in the late 1980s, but became disillusioned after taking part in a BNP attack on an anti-racist meeting in south London. Was that a moment of revelation, or part of a more gradual process?

I wasn't a stranger to violence. But that was the moment when I realised that actually, I wasn't fighting Red Action [anti-fascist militants] at a tube station, I was kicking little old ladies' heads in. With very young brains, it takes things a long while to sink in, but that was my starting point, the first time ever I just thought 'this is what it looks like'.

 

By that point your whole social life was structured around the NF...

From the age of about 15 I was a social pariah. I remember girls who I used to go to school with who were in love with Wham!. They had Wham!, George Michael, Take That - whatever - to talk about. And I had the National Front.

 

Had you found it hard to make friends at school?

No, I had no problem making friends. Good friends, nice people. But I thought they didn't understand me and I wanted to shock them. Also I was racist, beyond belief.

 

You suggest in your memoir that you picked up racist attitudes from your father, who left the family home when you were a young child.

He was an Irish immigrant who [himself] suffered discrimination and I just felt why should my dad suffer that. And why should I suffer that? Was I the first person in this country to say I'm white and I'm working class and I'm getting a raw deal because of it? Actually I'm not.

 

You grew up on a council estate in south London. Did your family they feel at all like you were sticking up for them – working-class whites – in any way?

No, there was no racism at home. My dad wasn't at home, you understand. My family were like, isn't life just hard enough without this? But the left never came knocking on my door, offering me an alternative.

 

Do you feel you were let down by the left?

My school was mixed, and middle-class teachers lectured us about anti-racism, but no-one ever affirmed it was ok to be where we were from. They were all going on about diversity, let's celebrate your neighbour who is different to you. Well, why not celebrate class? We're all going home to dads on the dole tomorrow.

 

Did you come to share the anti-Semitism of committed far-right activists?

Oh yeah. All that anger you're feeling, all that disappointment – that's the Jews doing that to you. Thank god! Thank god it's someone. It wasn't my hormones that were making me horny nine hours a day, it was the Jews doing it! Thank god for that.

 

Why were the BNP able to win votes in the 2000s?

New Labour thought that this country would work on the strength of faith communities. How do we connect with the Asians in Bradford? Through their mosques. How do we connect with the Sikh Asian community? Through the gurdwara. This country used to have an Asian youth movement, of all faiths, that were opposed to fascism, but the only way to get ahead under New Labour was to go to your temple or your church or whatever. White working-class people don't go to church. If you want to talk to the white working class who do you talk to? Paul Gascoine? Ebay? Who? No-one.

That's where [BNP leader] Nick Griffin came in: identity politics. He exploited the lack of leadership among the white working class.

 

Labour's current enthusiasm for “Englishness” seems like a roundabout way of addressing this oversight.

It's shit. You can print that. Listen, sexual equality in parliament, excellent. BME representation, fantastic. Quite rightly so. But all of these things would have been covered by actually having class equality in parliament. How about getting some working-class people in there?

 

You fled Britain for several years after exposing the neo-Nazi group Combat 18 in a 1993 TV documentary. Since your return, you've been an anti-fascist campaigner. Did you feel obliged to do that?

Not obliged, I wanted to do it. I hated them – the BNP, National Front, C18, EDL. Every time I hear their rubbish, I hate them.

 

And then you began writing a memoir. Had you kept a diary?

Well, because I was a mole [passing on information to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight], there were notes. But it was a nightmare to write. I couldn't write, I didn't know how. It was just a jumbled mess. And it was really painful – some things I left out were unbearable.

 

The book has to tread a fine line between making people understand your motivations and chasing sympathy.

I've been as honest as I could ever be. I wouldn't do it again. For an autobiography you need two things, I was told by a colleague: you need two dead parents.

My mum's read the book, she's never commented on it. She just said: “well done”.

 

Hate: My Life in the British Far Right” is published in a new edition by Biteback (£8.99) on 12 July

Matthew Collins now works for Hope not Hate. Follow him on Twitter at @matthopenothate

Matthew Collins (centre) during his days as a member of the National Front. Photograph: Matthew Collins.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.