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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