Mike Luft does not look at all intimidating. With his diminutive stature, Rasputin beard, mild voice and muddied hiking shoes, it's hard to imagine him getting confrontational with anyone, never mind the British National Party (BNP). But Luft is secretary of Oldham United Against Racism, a group formed in response to fascist activity in the town that sparked rioting in the summer of 2001. With the local and European elections taking place on 10 June Oldham United's members have been spending most of the last few months pounding the streets, spreading the word about how racist the BNP really is. On this particular Wednesday, Luft is accompanied by two veteran peace activists, a couple from a neighbouring borough and the secretary of the recently resurrected local trades council.
The BNP currently has 17 councillors nationally. Against all the odds there are no BNP councillors in Oldham, however. Battered by the racial disturbances in 2001, the town just managed to keep the party at bay. Conditions for the neo-fascists to thrive in are in many ways as favourable as fellow Lancashire mill town Burnley, which now sports six (grossly incompetent) BNP councillors.
But on 10 June Oldham could lose its BNP-free status. The entire council is up for election (usually only a third of seats are contested at a time) following boundary changes, and this year electors will have three votes instead of the usual one. Labour councillors fear this might lead to "spread betting': loyalists giving their first vote to Labour, but opting for other parties as a second preference. In some wards the Tories are not even standing a full slate. The BNP says it will field 100 candidates across the region - and 600 nationally. That would entail the party spreading its limited number of activists pretty thin, but in the last local elections it averaged 17 per cent in the wards it contested.
On top of all that, for the European elections the party has invested a lot in trying to get its leader Nick Griffin elected as an MEP for the northwest - even bringing over to England the French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. With European Parliament seats being allocated in accordance with proportional representation, Griffin only needs 9 per cent of the votes cast. In 1998 he received a two-year suspended prison sentence when he was found guilty of distributing material likely to incite racial hatred, but success in June would give his party a frighteningly new political legitimacy and influence.
Although Oldham is only seven miles north of Manchester, the two places couldn't be more different. While Manchester celebrates multiculturalism, segregation in Oldham is absolute. The latter used to be the "King of Cotton', one of the UK's main textile centres. Thousands of immigrant workers from Pakistan and Bangladesh came to work on the looms in the 1960s, and were settled in enclaves reinforced by council housing policy. While the textile industry has all but collapsed a system of de facto apartheid remains. One resident likens his town to Israel and Palestine: "Asians will stop attacking whites when whites stop attacking Asians. The tensions are terrible.' Another local laments: "The vast majority of people don't think twice about blaming "Pakis" for everything. Racism is engrained.'
The larger manufacturing workplaces are almost exclusively white. Pakistani shop steward and Oldham Trades Council president Imra Shoaib reckons that less than 0.5 per cent of workers in her BAE Systems factory are from ethnic minorities. "Twenty per cent of Oldham voted for the BNP in the last elections. That means 20 per cent of people at work could hate me and what I represent,' she says.
Locals say it's largely due to their hard graft that the BNP has been kept at bay. Besides Oldham United, there has been a variety of groups and individuals involved. Somewhat belatedly, the local Labour Party has run a hard, anti-BNP campaign. Labour councillor Mohammed Azam of the national, black-led Coalition Against Racism has made inroads in getting fellow Asians represented on the council and in mobilising the Asian community. Oldham Women Against Racism put out pamphlets in Urdu and Bangla on how to vote. And Oldham Trades Council has become a successful campaigning body against the party - a phenomenon being repeated by trades councils across the north.
"All the different groups involved bring something different to the table,' says Shoaib. "We hit different types of people with different messages. And we cover more ground than other towns that only cover one or two groups.'
The focus of Oldham United is the local elections. But by exposing the fascists' lies and establishing itself in the localities where the BNP is cashing in on people's insecurities, it also hopes to undermine Griffin's European chances.
The latest edition of The Failsworth Voice, the two-sided piece of A4 Oldham United is machine-gunning round today, reads, "well done Failsworth'. It congratulates the almost exclusively white neighbourhood for keeping out the BNP in the by-election that took place here last October. Nevertheless, being half Asian the BNP's past success in the area makes me nervous: it collected 34 per cent of the vote in Failsworth West in last May's local elections, and one Asian campaigner had sombrely told me to make sure I wore trainers in case I needed to make a quick getaway. But I'm pleasantly surprised. There are no high-rise council estates, graffiti or Union Jacks daubed with BNP slogans. The miles of terraced housing look clean and cared for - even gleaming in the unseasonable March sunshine.
Luft explains that the BNP's vote doesn't only come from white sink estates: in Failsworth it's a combination of young, first-time voters, pensioners insecure about their future and people pissed off with Labour because of its current ineffectualness on the council. "We've got the second highest council tax in greater Manchester. Where's our money going?' he exclaims.
What the crime-fearing pensioner and the young football fan have in common is the feeling that the system has abandoned them. "People here are disenfranchised,' says Luft. "They feel their vote means nothing, the political parties are not listening. The councillors put down people who ask questions.'
Into the vacuum swarms the BNP with its spurious radicalism: feeding on local concerns, but spiking them with a racial twist. Its task has been made easier by the way the right-wing press and the government have treated the tricky immigration issue.
Now that the neo-Nazis have kicked the big boots and crew cuts and are holding back from violence and provocative demonstrations, anti-fascist groups have had to develop a more sophisticated counter strategy. The personalised leaflet is just one example. "As part of the community, we can speak to local people about issues that concern them in a language they can understand," Luft explains. "The BNP is a bunch of outsiders coming in to exploit the vote."
He says that in the past the left has made the mistake of patronising voters. "[They] have come into the community acting as saviours. They use bullying language to defeat the arguments. It's not about alienating a community by calling it racist. People are proud of their community: their reaction is, 'if you're going to call us racist, we'll be racist'. The left needs to understand the locals have to be listened to, because if the campaign doesn't work it will be they who suffer the consequences."
The next step is to back up words with action. "We need to prove we care all year round," says Luft. And it's not just about overcoming the prejudices of white voters. Oldham United regularly visits Asian households to maintain good relations and "overcome stereotypical views they may have of white people". It has also helped to create a drop-in centre for asylum seekers, and it's involved in planning a full fortnight of activities for Oldham's diversity celebrations this summer. There's also mention of plans for living-wage and health and safety campaigns in the workplace.
The key to fighting the BNP, says Nick Lowles of the long-running anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, is to understand the ward the BNP is working in and emphasise community politics. "Every single bit of polling shows that crime and anti-social behaviour are always the dominant issues," Lowles says. "Sometimes dog shit and broken street lights are more important than the war in Iraq."
In the run-up to 10 June, 28 versions and 1.5 million copies of Searchlight's "European election special" newspaper have gone out to different areas across the country. The Merseyside edition, for example, carries a story about a recent trip by local students to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps and a piece about local war heroes.
Another tactic is to identify people who are anti-BNP and get them to exercise their vote - a strategy often used by political parties in election time. Hence Searchlight has teamed up with Unison to telephone-canvass key voters in the wards of six local authorities that are most under threat from the far right. In Calderdale, Halifax, for example, where Labour is currently polling fourth, they have found 500 anti-BNP people who didn't vote or voted for the Lib Dems (who came in a poor third) in the last local election. "We contact them regularly,' says Lowles. "If we can get half of the "no votes" to vote, we would have enough to beat the BNP." There's debate about whether to endorse particular parties. Searchlight doesn't do so; it asks electors to vote for who they think is best placed to defeat the BNP, or leaves it for the local groups to decide their position. Luft says: "If it was the case of having to vote for whoever could defeat the BNP, I would do it without compunction as a lifelong Labour voter."
The problem with these strategies is that they require loads of local knowledge, human resources and money and they only affect a small area. But Oldham United and Searchlight are not acting alone. The BNP's recent successes have led to a dramatic increase in anti-racist and anti-fascist activity across the country, much of it stemming from the labour movement. And by giving the anti-fascists an official boost and much-needed resources, the unions have won new credibility. "We have a real chance to broaden the role of trade unions in a way that the anti-war movement didn't,' says one union official. "We need to engage with young people. It's a real challenge for the labour movement."
In the northeast the unions have played a crucial role in reaching out to the young, working-class male - the BNP's core voter, according to a recent study. Searchlight Educational Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust looked at exit polls of 539 voters and focus groups at by-elections in three northern towns where the BNP had potential or actual success last October. More than one in three men aged 18 to 25 voted BNP. "Political parties have all lost the young, working-class man,' says Lowles. "These people would have been Labour voters 10 years ago, but the trade union movement is not the same as it was back then, and so they've never voted Labour."
In Sunderland, Unison and the regional TUC are among the founders of the coalition North East Unites Against the BNP. Together with ANL and GMB, the coalition held a "Love Music, Hate Racism' festival last month that became the largest ever anti-fascist event in the region. More than 15,000 people turned out to groove to the beats of Mad Professor and the Infidels, among others. North East Unites has also been handing out flashy gold flyers. "Imagine a Britain with no pizzas, M&S, Sol Campbell or Trevor McDonald," they warn. "Pure... Pure evil. Use your vote. Keep them out." Unison has also been holding anti-fascist training for its shop stewards. "We're focusing on our membership," explains a local branch secretary. "It's essential that we acknowledge the problems and challenge the myths in our own organisation, and equip workers with the confidence and knowledge to address them."
Back in the northwest groups are trying a slightly different tack to complement Oldham United's localised campaign. Manchester Against Racism (MAR) and Azam's Coalition Against Racism are closely modelled on the national campaign Unite Against Fascism (UAF). Launched in February UAF is an unprecedented alliance of veteran Anti-Nazi Leaguers, city hall anti-racist campaigners, and union heavyweights and MPs. Backed by Ken Livingstone and the TUC, it aims "to unite the broadest possible spectrum of society" to counter the threat of the extreme right gaining an electoral foothold.
UAF and its affiliates say they're most worried about Griffin being elected as a Euro MP. They have thrown their resources into getting the vote out to prevent this. "Our focus is to involve as many people as possible and leaflet as widely as possible," says MAR chair Colin Barker. The different coalition groups never say who to vote for. "It doesn't matter as long as it's anti-BNP. We don't talk party politics in MAR: there are too many conflicting interests. Otherwise we'd probably back Labour," says Barker, who is himself an SWP member of George Galloway's Respect.
The coalition estimates that a turnout of more than 35 per cent is probably required to stop Griffin from getting elected. But this will be no easy task: in the 1999 Euro elections the turnout in the northwest was the lowest in the country - a measly 19.5 per cent. "What we want to do is use the votes of Manchester and Liverpool to counterbalance areas where the BNP is stronger," says Barker.
MAR's stretch is wide. At its launch rally in January at Manchester Town Hall 450 people came out from an array of backgrounds that included faith organisations, refugee groups, schools, political parties and so on. The coalition has already distributed at least 2 million leaflets. "I've never known anything like this," Barker enthuses. "We have mosques and churches taking our leaflets and helping distribute them. It's a scene not dominated by sectarianism."
Back in Failsworth, Luft is pleased with Oldham United's performance thus far. "We haven't met much hostility compared with last year,' he says. "People's attitudes are changing. The BNP has been noticeably absent, but we're not complaining.' A young, mixed-race woman opens her door as we drop a flyer through her letter box. "The BNP... They're like fascists, right? I won't be voting for them.' Something seems to be working. We won't have to wait long to find out just how well.