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.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.