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Filling the Vacuum

Following the BNP’s electoral breakthrough, some of the wiser heads among the mainstream parties are starting to analyse their success in similar terms to the IWCA. The similarities between us and them, however, end there.

On the 16th of June, in the wake of the BNP’s successes in the European elections, the Tory party chairman and key strategist Eric Pickles stated that the BNP were set to become “a very serious force in British politics”, in spite of the Labour and Tory parties collaborating to thwart them. His diagnosis of why the BNP were succeeding was straightforward: there is “an enormous disconnect between politicians and the electorate”, and “it is on those Labour estates where this kind of disconnect occurs… They [the BNP] have filled that vacuum which Labour retreated from so long ago” (BBC NEWS | Politics | BNP could be ‘very serious force’).

Pickles is not the first mainstream politician to come to this conclusion, or even to use this precise phraseology. Hazel Blears told the BBC last November that “If mainstream political parties leave a vacuum, people like the BNP will fill that vacuum” (BBC NEWS | UK | Blears sounds warning about BNP), and the Guardian that “we must recognise that where the BNP wins votes, it is often a result of local political failure. Estates that have been ignored for decades; voters taken for granted; local services that have failed; white skilled working-class voters who feel politicians live on a different planet. In such a political vacuum, the BNP steps in with offers of grass-cutting, a listening ear, and easy answers to complex problems” (Hazel Blears: How to beat the BNP | Comment is free | The Guardian). More far-sighted than both of these, Labour’s Jon Cruddas stated back in 2005 that New Labour was ‘leaving a vacuum in traditional communities which has been exploited by the far right’, and that “Much of the community feels disenfranchised by New Labour, which has consciously removed class as a political or economic category. It has systematically devised policies to appeal to specific swing voters in marginal constituencies… The white working class are beginning to develop a class allegiance with the far right; the Labour party has, in their eyes, deserted them” (Labour leaving room for racists, says MP | Politics | The Guardian).

This analysis will be already familiar to those who read the IWCA’s output. Indeed, this understanding of the dynamic behind the BNP’s success was what motivated the creation of the IWCA in the first place. In 1995 a group of individuals who would eventually go on to found the IWCA produced a document entitled, neatly enough, Filling The Vacuum. Attempting to map out the future in the wake of the BNP abandoning their (unsuccessful) strategy of street violence for a mainstream political approach and the creation of New Labour, the document stated that: “The working class is increasingly alienated from Labour, the BNP’s strategy is entirely reliant upon this alienation: ‘they really hate Labour’ etc. The total ineptitude and the tangible contempt that exists in some areas between Labour and its former constituency has locally and nationally begat the BNP… In straight­forward language, it is the politics of the Labour Party that has created the BNP [italics added]“. Over a decade later, with the BNP having gone from nowhere to two Euro MPs and a London Assembly member (the greatest electoral success ever achieved by fascism in this country, far eclipsing the NF or Mosley’s British Union of Fascists), with an MP their next goal, this belated mea culpa shows that the penny is finally dropping among the mainstream political class.

Conservative vs militant anti-fascism

The similarities between us and them, however, end there. The concern over the BNP in ruling class circles is motivated solely by the desire to maintain and protect the status quo from what is perceived as a radical threat (this includes Cruddas: his relatively early awareness derives largely from the direct threat they pose in his backyard). This is conservative anti-fascism, and it encompasses the political establishment as a whole, and their allies. It is intended to preserve a ruling class political consensus that over the last thirty years has destroyed the organized working class, caused inequality to reach its highest levels since records began, and has allowed high finance to remain unmolested and unreformed despite it plunging the economy into a near-abyss, rescued only by an unprecedented taxpayer-financed bail-out that will retard the British economy for years to come (as the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley has said: “It is still underappreciated just how close Britain came to a meltdown of its entire banking system so total that the cash machines would have stopped working. Businesses would have stopped paying their employees; parents wouldn’t have been able to feed their families” [Why in the end the cabinet just didn't have the stomach for a kill | Andrew Rawnsley | Comment is free | The Observer]. Conservative anti-fascism is intended to see to it that highly justified public anger remains contained and doesn’t lead on to something more dangerous, whether from the right or left (though at present the left is not a factor).

Other than conservative anti-fascism, the other Establishment response to the BNP has been the traditional middle-class one of appeasement and accomodation, such as when Dagenham’s other Labour MP, the loathsome Margaret Hodge, shamelessly indulged in racist ‘dog whistle’ rhetoric to the extent that the local BNP chieftain Richard Barnbrook sent her flowers, saying that “We must stop agreeing like this or people will think we are having a political agreement” (BBC NEWS | Politics | Hodge attacked for ‘BNP language’).

Our anti-fascism, however, is of the militant variety. Ours is motivated not by the desire to protect the status quo, but to protect and further the interests of the working class. As Filling the Vacuum puts it: “anti-fascism is by definition a rearguard action and fascism is the consequence, rather than the cause, of the Left’s failure… The function of anti-fascism is not to see the electoral threat from the Far-Right beaten back so that Labour and the middle-class Left can, as happened between 1982-92, turn their backs on both the social causes and their own collaboration in the political betrayal that gave rise to the NF and the BNP in the first place. The ambition of militant anti-fascism is not simply to see the Far-Right defeated and removed from working class areas: the ultimate solution is to see them replaced there. The BNP’s attack on Labour is from the Right and is racist, ultra-conservative and anti-working class. Our primary role is to guarantee that a successful challenge to Labour comes only from the Left”. The consequence of conservative anti-fascism is that “instead of being identified with a radical, pro-working class position, anti-fascism is seen to be defending the status quo, thereby practi­cally forcing people who want change to vote BNP, out of sheer desperation. They are literally driving people into the arms of the fascists”. Conservative anti-fascism gives the BNP a radical veneer which, by and large, they don’t deserve.

“The Right will always be weak so long as it is based predominantly on white collar support”

The BNP’s current pro-working class orientation is purely opportunistic, based upon the need, as pointed out by their founder John Tyndall, to “gain a sufficient majority among both main classes” on the grounds that “The Right will always be weak so long as it is based predominantly on white collar support”. A perfunctory look back through history will show other fascist movements which courted the working class whilst in the process of gaining power, and what they then did to the working class once power was obtained. Fascism is, at bottom, a hierarchical, pro-middle class, anti-working class doctrine. It is the educated middle class that has traditionally made the most enthusiastic fascists, and the working class that has produced the best anti-fascists. Accordingly, upon examination the BNP shows the same contempt for the lower orders that the middle class left and the capitalist class has so traditionally displayed (indeed, given that Nick Griffin is the privately educated son of a wealthy Tory politician, why should he be any different?). For instance, over the course of two articles in the BNP’s magazine Identity in 2008, Paul Golding -BNP councillor in Sevenoaks and former editor of Identity- denounces the concept of democracy. For Golding, democracy means that “politicians find their field of action severely curtailed to that which is popular. Everything that is done or adopted must be popular, lest the rug is pulled from under your feet by voters at the next polling day… When power rests with consent from voters, how can a government do what is right and what is needed, when these things happen to be unpopular?” (link).

Golding offers up his solution to this difficulty in the second article: “The very first thing a patriotic government must do is to revive the sacred institution and right of citizenship, which must come with several qualifications, not something which is just dropped into everyone’s lap at birth. Politics is a serious business, and the consequences of bad decision-making affect everyone. Therefore voting must be restricted to those who possess the requisite knowledge and education that enables them to make wise, prudent and intelligent choices. In ancient Athens the purest form of democracy existed, but unlike today voting was restricted to citizens, who became citizens due to service, intelligence and education. The creators of Athenian democracy in 508 BC would no doubt laugh at the presumption that everyone qualifies to part in elections, regardless of merit or qualification. Who are we to argue with some of the greatest men in history?” (link).

Here, Golding shows the same contempt for the masses (including, presumably, many BNP voters and supporters) as the “old gang parties” the BNP so like to denounce. What Golding’s prescription is most redolent of is that of the major early twentieth century American political theorists like Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell, who were of the opinion that “When public opinion attempts to govern directly it is either a failure or a tyranny. It is not able to master this problem intellectually, nor deal with it except by wholesale impact. The theory of democracy has not recognized this truth because it has identified the functioning of government with the will of the people. This is fiction”; and “Regard for men in the mass rests upon no democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests. The modern propagandist, like the modern psychologist, recognizes that men are often poor judges of their own interests, flitting from one alternative to the next without solid reason”. The ideal for Lippmann and Lasswell was what the historian Alex Carey called a “propaganda-managed democracy”. Golding is at least more honest: he would strip away all pretences and do away with democracy altogether. But both fascism and liberal democracy are in agreement that the masses are mindless and incompetent, and that therefore effective democracy is impossible, impractical and undesirable.

Filling the Vacuum concludes by noting that if the BNP are to be not only destroyed but replaced in working class areas, then “we must also out-radicalise them”. The BNP’s radical response to the widespread, and correct, assumption that capitalist democracy is a sham is to simply dispense with it. Ours is to recognize that formal political democracy is meaningless unless popular, democratic control is also extended as far as possible to the economy and the workplace, where the key decisions about production and investment, that dominate our lives, remain under the control of a small oligarchy at the very top. Both capitalism and fascism oppose such a structure, which is to be expected (as an aside, Golding’s praise of the Athenian model is taken almost verbatim from John Tyndall. Tyndall’s view on who should control the economy runs thus: “The franchise should be ordered in such a way as to place greater voting power in the hands of those more qualified and with greater achievement to their credit. For instance, the head of a large engineering company should possess substantially more votes than his most lowly placed employee. We must dispense once and for all with the idea that when it comes to exercising judgement over affairs, everyone’s judgement is worth the same”). But worse, the left for most of the past century has opposed the notion of economic democracy as well, which goes a long way toward explaining its failure. If there is to be a new political formation in this country aimed at furthering the interests of the working class and facing down our common enemies in the BNP and Labour, economic democracy must be its long-term goal and philosophical centrepiece.

11 Responses to “Filling the Vacuum”

  1. Jeff Says:

    If even Tyndall could see that the right ‘would always be weak if it relied only on middle class support’, how long more must we wait for the left (outside of the iWCA) to return to the fundamentals?

  2. Paul B Says:

    There is an interesting analysis of the ‘lefts’ various anti fascist strategies on the Left Luggage site. Their conclusion?

    ” This is not simply a matter of chanting “unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration/ bullshit, come off it/ the enemy is profit!” as the SWP are wont to. It will involve painstaking community work, and it must involve concessions to the way people in areas at risk to the BNP see the world. More urgently, it will require socialists to leave the safe world of liberal anti-fascism and begin to put down roots in working class communities”

    Spot on, but we also need to think through how we engage i- and win – n the debate that the BNP are intent are creating. Useless ‘no platform politics like egging Griffin or harping on about gas chambers might make those responsible feel good about themselves but it won’t expose the anti working class nature of the far right.

    As I said on the previous thread I look forward to the outcome of the IWCA internal process now underway and what may come out of it.

  3. William Laws Says:

    I think the analysis, again, is correct, in terms of the need to out-radicalise the BNP. I reckon the easiest issues to focus on in terms of their immediate impact are housing and working-class debt. Its already clear the real extent to which the BNP’s racialisation of class questions lets capital off the hook in terms of housing issues.The recent IPPR/Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) survey has shown that only 1.8% of social tenants had moved to the UK within the past five years.
    Some 87.8% were UK-born and 10% foreigners who had been living in Britain for more than five years. The BNP focus on non-existent queue-jumping has resulted in attention being switched from the impact of privatisation , sell-offs and under-resourcing on social housing. Labour’s latest plan is to concede the need for more social housing, but only at the expense of funds allocated for repairs. The question,post-bail-out of the financial system, will be across the board, in pay, taxation, cuts-”who pays”-who foots the bill for the capitalist crisis?

    One way of out-radicalising the BNP would be to focus on organising physical resistance to evictions, and actions against bailiffs operating in our communities. We would be seen to be acting and organising others to act in the interests of our own communities, with the BNP activists forced to either join in or scab on pro-working class action-the BNP activists would be forced to choose between the needs of our class and the respectability agenda of Griffin et al.

    I’m not sure the Golding comments are entirely representative of the BNP today.The current BNP position re democracy is expressed as “to restore and defend the basic democratic rights we have all been denied. We favour more democracy, not less, not just at national but at regional and local level.Power should be devolved to the lowest level possible so that local communities can make decisions which affect them. We will remove legal curbs on freedom of speech imposed by successive Governments over the last 40 years. We will implement a Bill of Rights guaranteeing fundamental freedoms to the British people.We will ensure that ordinary British people have real democratic power over their own lives and that Government, local and national, is truly accountable to the people who elect it.” The 2007 manifesto makes clear that the BNP are in favour of “popular democracy”, with elected parish councils sending recallable delegates to district,county and new regional councils. Its possible to show that this would in fact engender less democracy, not more-because district,county councils and the proposed regional councils would be unelected but we need to be clear that under Griffin , BNP propaganda has foused on increasing democracy, not abolishing it.

    The main issue will remain having to demonstrate that the BNP’s racialisation of class questions is against working class interests.

  4. Gonzo Says:

    As usual, an excellent analysis from the IWCA. Frustratingly, you and your ideas remain marginalised and the wider Left continue to demonstrate complete incompetence on the issue of tackling fascism.

    Currently, it seems the Green Party is the only radical, progressive party capable of mounting a sustained and viable anti-fascist counterattack. They may not be the hardened working-class militants you’d like, but they are the best we have and a damn sight better than the Trot left.

  5. DBrum Says:

    It will be interesting to see the what the ‘New Workers’ Party will look like because we know it will be coming. The SP, along with the RMT backed National Shop Stewards Network, have hinted at this for a while. I predict that’ll be shaped along similar lines to previous attempts and fall in line with Trot/Marxist organising structures. Working Class issues will be ignored yet again.

  6. Paul B Says:

    A bit harsh on the SP DBrum. The composition of their membership is more working class than other ‘left’ groups. Their focus this year has been pretty much exclusively around Linamar, the engineering construction wild cat strikes and Visteon. Hardly middle class issues – and in each dispute their members played major roles, critically because they were workers on those sites/factories rather than middle class students ‘intervening’ in issues they know sod all about.

    That said the CNWP and the NSSN are indeed both SP fronts – the recent NSSN conference was real SP ra ra stuff – and No 2EU can only be described as a total disaster for exactly the reasons you describe.

    I guess the need to ‘build the revolutionary party’ will always lead them to short term recruitment work rather than the patient, long haul work that IWCA have correctly identified as necessary (although of course the strength and hallmark of Militant used to be its patient work in the LPYS, estates and workplace)

  7. Paul B Says:

    Very interesting meeting in London last night regarding the Vestas occupation. Like Visteon, Lindsay, Waterford Crystal the occupation and protest have not been organised or led by a union (there isn’t one a Vestas which is an strongly anti union employer) or any lefty group.

    Vestas clearly represents the ‘new waves of protest and organisation by working class communities throughout the country’ that the IWCA predicated at the time of the Visteon occupation. Interesting too that green capitalism is now revealed as no different to other forms of capitalism, an obvious point which seemed to have stunned some of the greens at the meeting.

    The lad from the factory who spoke was clear that the workers at Vestas – previously a divided mute group – have clearly recognised that no-one else would or could fight for their jobs better than they could. The working class communities on the IOW have very little other employment other than Vestas and the holiday industry and there are 60 workers for every vacancy already. 1,000 jobs (600 at the factory and 400 who supply it) are on the line – this is a fight to save their factory and their community.

    Inspirational stuff – please support the occupation by donating money to the workers.

  8. chuck wilson Says:

    As usual a stimulating analysis that brings some much needed clarity to the issues that face us.The no platform/BNP are nazis has very little impact where I live and is absolutely useless if you have a couple of fairly articulate local BNP members who are prepared to argue/discuss politically their policies.They have attacked the banking issue and mps expenses from a left and populist position. What has been useful is hitting them where they are weak and that is spelling out the impact of their positions on council housing, trade unions etc. This is an area where that we could develop further.Unlike the cobweb left we also have something to say on crime and antisocial behaviour and drugs that goes beyond the BNPs ‘shoot the first ten’.One of the problems with ‘anti fascism’ is that whilst it has splet out what it is anti , it rarely spells out what it is in favour of.

    One of the issues that I don’t think we clarity on is where the IWCA ( and I speak as an avid supporter)stands on the industrial struggle that the SP and others focus on. I am not advocating a position ,as they do ,on the primacy of the work place or have any illusions about the ‘labour movement’ .Nor am I suggesting strike chasing.However in advocating the IWCA and similar formations as a trade union for the community it would be amiss not to consider our position on trade unions per se.

  9. Dave S. Coventry Says:

    I agree with your analysis. The rise of the BNP has been created by the policies of New Labour and the failure of the Left Groups to fill the vacuum on the Left. In the case of the Socialist Alliance and the SSP, the SP and SWP sabotaged both. Their internal bureaucratic regimes and sectarian refusal to join United Fronts make them a blockage on the road. The only way is to build from below in the workplace, in community campaigns and in working class areas. Last month I became Chair of our local residents’ group. It’s hard work but it’s much more creative than slogging it out arguing with local hacks.

  10. Paul B Says:

    The antics of the ‘left’ go far deeper and are much worse than merely attempting to set up fronts and dominate alliances. The role of the UAF/SWP/Middle class left in the events in Birmingham at the weekend is the latest low and over time will be a major set back for those attempting to build progressive working class politics.

    Misguided, opportunist, stupid – and all the time playing into the hands of the BNP – they are a joke but a dangerous one.

    For those of you interested have a look at the ongoing debate on Urban 75 where SWP apologists/middle class lefts are predictably proclaiming Birmingham as some sort of ‘victory’ for anti fascism. It’s hard not to despair because some working class people believe that these clowns are the ‘left’ alternative to the far right. Not hard to work out which side they will choose is it?

  11. John C. Todmorden Says:

    The trouble with leftist political thought is that its all about utopian ideals of anti capitalism and everybody being on an equal footing. I share these motives and would love to live in such a world where everything is peaceful, everything is nice. Such a utopian system would take many decades if not centuries to be fully implemented. The problem is that while these debates stroll along at a snails pace, about the way forward, the one downtrodden group, the working class, will continue to struggle. The working class need immediate action to pick them off the floor. The working class haven’t got any longer to wait. They need an immediate change to the policies which have suppressed them for too long and perpetuated their miserable existences. The disastrous immigration policy, brought about by the middle class liberal left, which further suppresses wages, directly creating an uneven playing field of a system within which the working classes are supposed to compete. The benefit culture which keeps the low paid down and further creates an unfair system. In my view the low paid workers are propping up at their own expense, the long term unemployed and those not genuinely sick claiming benefits. We need to get away from this idea that all the working class holds a chip on its shoulder and someone owes them a living. Most of the working class just want fairness with their common man which would still apply to the worker in a non capitalist system. You want an end to identity politics but the working class are the one marginalised group at the moment which is constantly overlooked. The working class need specific help to bring them up to the level of other identifiable groups. The BNP may well be capitalist at heart and have some reprehensible views but they offer policies which the ‘working’ class believe can make an immediate and positive change to their lives in the short to medium term. If leftist working class organisations neglect these issues parties like the BNP will fill the vacuum.

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