Nothing is more important

Jon Cruddas and Nick Lowles argue that the rise of the far right presents a challenge that the left has so far proved unable to meet

June 3, 2008
5 min read

There is a tangible shift occurring in British politics. Gone are the days of traditional class politics, when the working class voted en masse for Labour and the more privileged for the Conservatives. A new force is emerging, which will, if left unchecked, prove disastrous for both Labour and the left in general.

Magnus Marsdal’s article talks about the changing politics of Norway and finds comparisons with the rest of western Europe. It is a phenomenon that is also taking place in Britain, albeit a few years later than in some other countries.

The British National Party (BNP) was formed in 1982 out of an earlier split within the National Front and for many years it languished on the fringes of politics. In 1999 Nick Griffin became its leader and his more political and media savvy approach enabled the party to exploit rising racial tensions in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in the summer of 2001. Since then, against a backdrop of rising Islamophobia, a growing eastern-European migrant workforce and New Labour’s fixation with Middle England, the party has risen steadily. It now has 55 councillors and last month secured a seat on the London Assembly.

And all this in a period of supposed economic success.

The BNP has long been dismissed as a cranky fascist party, made up of thugs, criminals and Nazis. While it is true that the leadership has its ideological roots in fascism, it is time we had a better explanation for the party’s rise and appeal.

Society in Britain, like much of the industrialised world, has become dislocated over the past few decades. Globalisation and the increasing dominance of international finance and corporations have shifted power far away from local communities. This, coupled with the loss of empire, Britain’s changing place in the world and even the possible break-up of the United Kingdom have all challenged the identity of many, particularly those towards the bottom of the economic ladder, who naturally are more concerned about change.

Politically, there has also been the growing divorce between the political parties and their electorates. The preoccupation with a small number of voters in a few key marginals has resulted in New Labour echoing the whims and prejudices of a mythical Middle England. Class has been removed as an economic and political category in Westminster discourse. Labour’s traditional voters feel ignored, taken for granted and even abandoned. At the same time, the Tories have for decades ceased to offer a real opposition in many traditional Labour areas, leaving a dangerous vacuum.

In 1968 US sociologist Don Warren described the emergence of the ‘middle American radical’ to explain the rise of right-wing presidential candidate George Wallace. He saw a radicalised group of voters, drawn largely from the skilled working class, who opposed the political and economic elites while simultaneously despising those who they regarded as undeserving poor. A white identity emerged that had no political articulation.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in today’s Britain. The Labour Party too often fails to articulate the concerns of large swathes of its traditional working class supporters. Over the past 20 years turnout has slumped in Labour heartlands. Suddenly, as the BNP has emerged as a political force, many are now turning out to vote for them. Towns like Stoke-on-Trent reflect this change. Only a few years ago Labour held every seat on the council. Today, it holds just 16 out of 60, with the BNP close behind with nine. The local ethnic minority population is comparatively small, suggesting that voters are flocking to the BNP for some far more fundamental reasons.

Nor is there much comfort for parties to the left of Labour. It is easy to blame New Labour for the rise of the BNP but few have questioned why the far-left parties fail to attract significant support from white working-class voters. If anything, the far-left vote has actually shrunk since 1997 and the occasional successes of Respect or the Greens have been based on specific ethnic minority communities or middle-class liberals.

Race is a prism through which many voters view their world but it is not the underlying issue. That is why immigration minister Liam Byrne’s attempts to quicken the introduction of the Australian points system will ultimately fail to deal with the political problem. He might hope to appease voters’ concerns over immigration but unfortunately he, like many others, is misunderstanding the rise of the BNP.

Britain might have been slower to see the emergence of a major far-right party than elsewhere but this could change very quickly. Next year’s European elections, contested under proportional representation, will give the BNP its greatest chance to break into the mainstream.

The rise of the BNP is not a passing phenomena. We must now debate new strategies for organisation and policy, counter- organise on the ground and deal with the material issues that lie behind its popular support. Nothing is more important for this movement.

Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham. Nick Lowles is editor of Searchlight magazine


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry