It feels very odd to find any comfort from the local election results, but there is one outcome worthy of a small sigh of relief. The British National Party did not do as well as it might. It is true that it got Richard Barnbrook, its most personable, if absurd, figurehead, onto the London Assembly. But overall the party had a net gain of just ten councillors across the country, when it was hoping for, and many of us were dreading, some two or three assembly members and 40 more councillors.
It seemed that the BNP had everything going for it. It was exploiting the pumped-up fear of extremist violence and Islamophobia, aided by the media obsession with immigration and migration. The sudden media pre- occupation with the anniversary of Enoch Powell's notorious 'rivers of blood' speech could hardly have been better timed. The party's claim to have taken over Labour's traditional role as the defender of the working class has had a great deal of resonance and could have put it in a strong position to take advantage of Labour's collapse.
There are two obvious reasons for its comparative eclipse. The first and most obvious is that Cameron's Tories swamped the BNP as they did Labour. But the second is that the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight and the trade unions combined in vigorous community- based campaigns against it, involving literally thousands of activists across the country. Nick Lowles, of Searchlight, says, 'We have never had so many people involved in the anti-BNP campaign before. Against the odds, both political and climatic, decent people took to the streets and campaigned strongly for "hope not hate".'
It is great to have something we can celebrate and I think we should. But most of these 'decent' people were from the left and we need to build stronger defences against the BNP across the board. Far from being down and out, the BNP is now a well- organised modern party and next year it will be seeking seats in several regions in the Euro elections, where low polls will assist it.
Combating the BNP involves an adjustment in the way we regard and describe the party, along with a surer and wider approach in society and in local government.
First, natural though it is to loathe the BNP, too often the left discourse sounds like an echo of the hate the BNP exploits. This is especially harmful when angry or violent expression spills over onto the people who vote for it. 'Decent people' can and do vote for the BNP, often with some shame, true, but defiantly nonetheless. It is not a protest vote, but a demand to be heard.
So tear off the party's veil of respectability. Expose and broadcast the vile things that its members say and do. Keep watch on the performance of its councillors, show up their incompetence, deride the irrelevance of their statements and policies, complain to the local government Standards Board.
On the wider front, it is important to encourage people to take a robust approach to combating the BNP, especially in local government where councillors and staff often feel inhibited, either by fears that attacking the party gives it the 'oxygen of publicity', or that exposing the myths it propagates as lies will somehow breach electoral law. In the last election, a council official rang me and said that the other party leaders wanted to make common cause against the BNP offensive, but feared to draw attention to it.
Councils across the country have a duty to promote good race relations and social cohesion: combating the BNP's lies simply fulfils this duty (on this point, see the Cohesion Matters website at www.cohesionmatters.co.uk).
Even in the Labour Party, I have experienced a reluctance to take on the far right. The most extreme example of this came some years ago when I was one of three people standing for election in Hackney. The agent (a man with real anti-fascist credibility) ordered us not to take part in a debate with the National Front candidate, Derek Day, a violent thug and prominent racist, on the estate where he lived and not to canvas the estate. The agent even came to the meeting to order us out. We stayed, trounced Day in the debate and won over people on the estate as we canvassed. In the pub one evening, my colleague's handbag hit the table with a big thud. She was carrying a hammer, 'just in case'.
I don't advise carrying a hammer. But it is vital not to compromise or be intimidated. Resolute, informed, principled and persuasive argument is the way to combat the BNP.