What's driving the BNP?

The rapid growth in support at the ballot box for a nationalist party of the right has gone hand in

On a sunny day in Stanmore, north London, a motley crew of people gathers at the Tube station. An elderly man leans on a walking stick, a faded blue, white and red tattoo saying "Proud to be British" just about visible on his forearm. The tattoo might be older than I am. Bert, a sixty-something retired heavy-machine worker, is inappropriately dressed in a woollen jumper and beige overcoat. He lets out a yelp of approval when a truck with a Union Jack on its side - carrying "British Meat" - hurtles by.

Housewives in jeans and short-sleeved tops talk animatedly about the beautiful weather. Charlotte Lewis, a 35-year-old unemployed woman from Croydon, is wearing a loud gold lamé jacket and black jeans. She speaks with a south London twang: "Sometimes I get on a bus and I'm the only white person on there," she complains. "It's a bit distressing."

A white van swerves into view, beeping at the group of 15 men and women to move out of the way. Out steps Richard Barnbrook, dressed in a khaki suit and with a roll-up between his fingers. He has the look and swagger of an old colonialist. I can picture him leaping out of a jeep in white-ruled Rhodesia in the same manner he leaps out of his white van in multi-ethnic Stanmore. His two helpers, big men in T-shirts, unload boxes of leaflets headlined "The Changing Face of London". They show a group of smiling white women at a street party in the 1940s (the good old days) next to a picture of three women wearing burqas, one of whom is giving a two-fingered salute to the camera (the bad new days).

This is the London wing of the British National Party. Five days before the local and London mayoral elections, it has come to Stanmore and Edgware in north London - which have large Indian and Jewish communities - for some last-minute electioneering. Its members are confident, even cocky, about their chances of a seat on the London Assembly. "We'll definitely get one, maybe two," says Barnbrook, who is the BNP's mayoral candidate.

Barnbrook is a graduate of the Royal College of Art, who worked with the gay film-maker Derek Jarman in the 1980s ("Me and Derek and Tilda [Swinton] hung out together, and there was never a problem," he says). His fiancée is Simone Clarke, former prima ballerina of the English National Ballet and a fellow BNP member, who has a mixed-race child. "How can I be racist when I adore that child?" he says, when I ask if the BNP is anything more than a Johnny Foreigner-baiting party. Barnbrook, who leads the BNP's 12 councillors in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, insists the BNP is "concerned about lots of things".

"If I had to put our concerns in order of importance, I would say: housing, transport, health, education, the environment and law and order." So immigration isn't a concern at all? "Well, immigration impacts on all of those things," he says. "It causes overcrowding in housing, strain on the transport system, more pollution in the environment and it disrupts law and order."

I see. Behind Barnbrook's "respectable issues" there lurks the odious far-right idea that immigrants are the root cause of every social ill.

Cocky leafleteers

Barnbrook and his eager leafleteers have reason to be cocky. At the time of writing, many predict that the BNP will make important gains in the local and London mayoral elections. In London, parties must win 5 per cent of the vote in order to get a seat on the 25-member Assembly. That threshold was introduced by the government to allow minor parties such as the Greens to be represented, while keeping out the far right. In the last London elections in 2004, the BNP won 4.7 per cent of the vote - only 6,000 votes short of the threshold for gaining a seat. This time it is expected to win bigger, especially since the UK Independence Party (which won 8 per cent in 2004) is in disarray.

Around the country, the BNP has grown in local electoral strength over the past ten years. Under its founder, John Tyndall, the party was a racist menace but electorally insignificant, only ever winning handfuls of votes. That began to change with the election of the slick Nick Griffin as party chairman in 1999. He set about trying to improve the BNP's image. The party had won its first-ever council seat in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets in 1993. After the local elections of May 2006, it had over 50 council seats: 12 in Barking and Dagenham, and a smattering of seats in the north of England: mainly in Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and West Yorkshire.

"The BNP has tended to prosper in segregated poor, white communities in the north, and in parts of the south-east where there have been unexpected infusions of new immigrants," says Tony Travers, an expert in local government at the London School of Economics. The party's vote has grown exponentially at general elections, too. In 1992, it won 7,005 votes; in 1997 it won 35,832; in 2001 it won 47,129; in 2005 it won 192,746. What is behind the growth of the BNP? How has it managed to gain a toehold in local politics?

Many would argue that the party's recent success represents the re-emergence of flick-knife racism, even that "neo-fascism" is on the march. In fact, the expansion of the BNP can be seen as a product of mainstream political failure. The party - a ragbag of ageing skinheads, slick wannabe politicians and ditzy women with chips on their shoulders - thrives on disillusionment with the three main parties.

"There is research evidence that a lot of people who vote for the BNP are not aggressive neo-fascists, but rather are cheesed off with mainstream politics," says Travers. "The rise of the BNP can be seen as a grim indicator of the failure of the Labour and Conservative parties. If the parties functioned properly, then probably the BNP could be contained. Its supporters would be tempted away by old-fashioned Labour values or by the legitimate, centre-right nationalism of the Tories."

But today, Travers says, there is a "clustering in the centre" in mainstream politics, and a "collapse of the ability of the mainstream parties to win new members and supporters". The effect has been to allow the BNP to proliferate.

"If the other parties were doing their job properly, we wouldn't be here having this conversation right now," says Barnbrook. "I know we win votes because people are angry with the other parties."

Far from being a clear-headed neo-fascist party, the BNP comes across as a mess of contradictions opportunistically trying to pick up the votes of the disillusioned. For example, Barnbrook tells me the BNP has "no problem with black people". Someone clearly forgot to brief Bert, an older member of the BNP, who says "mixed marriages are just wrong because both races become denigrated". Bert has "no comment" on the question of whether six million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, yet Charlotte from Croydon tells me she was "really, really moved" when she visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam a few years ago. Barnbrook says the BNP has "nothing in common with the thugs of the NF"; Bert tells me the NF "are decent blokes". Most strikingly, where Barnbrook tried to convince me that "millions of Britons empathise and support our message", Charlotte reveals that a party stalwart advised her to walk to the top of a cul-de-sac and leaflet outwards. "It's safer that way," she says. "You can run away if people get angry."

With them for a day, I noticed two things about the BNP: its reliance on mainstream fear about immigration and its opportunistic exploitation of people's disdain for Labour, Tories and Lib Dems. BNP doorsteppers talk about Britain being "overcrowded" and claim immigrants are polluting our environment; they argue that Poles lower British wages. These are thoroughly mainstream ideas. They tell voters, in the words of Bert: "If you're pissed off with the rest, vote for the best!"

All parties should be concerned that the growth of the BNP over the past 15 years - from 7,005 votes in the 1992 general election to 192,746 in 2005 - has coincided with political malaise and cynicism across the UK.

Perhaps the best way to smash the BNP is to challenge the mainstream fear of immigration that it feasts upon and give voters something inspiring to vote for in its place.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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