Monday, April 28, 2008

Anti-fascism and the left.

I couldn't make it to the carnival yesterday, otherwise I'd have pics and footage for you, but all reports I've heard indicate two things: 1) it was a massive success, and 2) the Left List rocked. At least 100,000 people turned up for the carnival, some thirty years after the original 'Rock Against Racism'. It is important that this was a success, because it will provide a springboard for the hard anti-fascist campaigning that is going to have to take place, especially given the threat of the BNP getting a seat on the London Assembly. In 2004, the BNP were 6,000 votes short of a representative on the Assembly. This time they may potentially benefit from a lower turnout (thus diminishing the total number of votes they need). A frequent talking point is also the collapse in support for UKIP (after the Kilroy fracas), presumably leading potential UKIP voters to consider the fascists. It looks as if there is little support for other right-wing competition like the 'English Democrats' (a bunch of nobody whiners whose candidate, from 'Fathers 4 Justice', has stepped down) or the 'Christian Choice' (led by a ranting sleazeball who is focusing his campaign against an East London 'mega-mosque'). Suffice to say that with the surge in racism across the UK, particularly against Muslims and Eastern Europeans, it is all too possible that the BNP will end up both with a seat on the Assembly, and with a sizeable new tranch of councillors across the country.

Secondly, it was important for the Left List to make a good showing, because it is the only radical left-wing vote available for both the mayor and the assembly. Ken Livingstone's weakness, resulting from his embrace of New Labour, has given the Tory press confidence to viciously attack him often in Islamophobic terms. The Evening Standard's obsequious support for Boris Johnson is matched only by the daily helping of ordure about Livingstone and his connections with Muslims, trade unionists and others reviled by the right-wing. The Standard doesn't seem to care that its Islamophobic tirades are helping the far right, but Livingstone is in a weak position to counter this because he is trying to mobilise a voting bloc on the narrowest possible grounds - depoliticised multiculturalism, no mention of the war, not enough for housing, privatization of the East London line, pandering to the interests of the City, unqualified defense of the police etc. Realistically, the biggest immediate concerns facing Londoners are the brewing recession, the collapse in available credit, the lack of affordable housing, obscenely high transport costs, the growing poverty and inequality in the city, long working hours and shit pay. The only mayoral candidate to talk seriously about this is Lindsey German. This radical message went down well at the recent Stonewall hustings. New Labour can't effectively challenge the BNP politically, and not only because they are quite often responsible for giving the BNP their best publicity (ie, Margaret Hodge). The reason they can't challenge the BNP politically is because they rule out in advance even the vocabulary that is needed to express the real problems that their policies do so little to attenuate and so much to aggravate. The sole occasion on which many New Labour MPs can be relied upon to talk about class is in the context of a rebarbative formulation about a supposedly marginalised 'white working class', which of course plays straight into the BNP's hands. You didn't see too many New Labour advocates of last week's national strike action.

Mobilising the anti-fascist vote is essential, but there has always been an argument about what that should mean: should anti-fascists act as vote-catchers for the Labour Party, for example? This strategy of backing the main centre-left party has dogged the French anti-racist organisation, SOS Racisme, and undermined its early militancy. Indeed, its core of activists has often been drawn from the Socialist Party (PS), have always been close to its leadership, and its president from 1999-2003 is a leading PS politician who favours immigration quotas. I doubt the efficacy of such a strategy. Similarly, while it is important to 'bash the fash', it is increasingly obvious that just pointing out that the BNP are a Nazi organisation engaged in various levels of subterfuge ("As long as our own cadres understand the full implications of our struggle, then there is no need for us to do anything to give the public cause for concern ... we must at all times present them with an image of moderate reasonableness") doesn't do enough to motivate people to vote against the BNP, especially if the mainstream candidates are an unappealing crop with almost identical policies. Any anti-fascist campaign has to unite, as the UAF website puts it, "the broadest possible spectrum of society" against the far right. The main strength for anti-fascists is that at the moment, fascists of the BNP ilk and their more explicitly Third Reich imitating milieu remain a tiny and largely despised minority. As such, there is obviously no question of such a campaign outlining in any detail a political alternative to the far right. So, there is an unmistakable need for a supplementary strategy by the left. Even in terms of just mobilising voters who might otherwise abstain, a radical left candidacy is important in combatting the far right - for example, more overall votes in London makes it harder for the BNP to get the requisite 5%. But in a much broader sense, of course, the fascists are thriving on social distress and alienation that they have no intention of alleviating, and which only a vibrant grassroots left rooted in the labour movement can begin to address.

The Nazi hardcore is minute, and any strength they obtain is a result of their ability to pull around themselves different strata of voters and passive supporters. By no means should we imagine that their current supporters are just stray left-wing voters who are tempted by the racist message, albeit many BNP voters will be former Labour supporters. The 2006 Rowntree Report on the BNP's electoral appeal found that their main strategy has been to appeal to 'lower middle class' voters, and their success has been not among the poorest wards, but in the slightly wealthier wards - those which you can imagine accruing smug epithets like 'respectable'. However, lower middle class voters are hardly privileged. Their precarious position means that they are exposed to potentially catastrophic changes in their life chances given a crisis of the system. Further, the Nazis would inevitably rely on being able to mobilise a substantial tier of working class voters with 'anticapitalist' rhetoric (this is already a crucial part of their strategy in the post-industrial north). Only if the systemic critique is articulated and the working class movement radicalised is it possible to counteract this. Put it another way - more than a decade of New Labour, and the strategies of accomodation hitherto pursued in much of the labour movement, has done nothing to hinder the far right.