Wednesday, September 16, 2009

By soundbite or ballot-box

There are a couple of developments today that are worth taking note of. First of all, the government has indicated that it will send a minister, either John Denham or Jack Straw, onto Question Time to 'debate' the BNP leader Nick Griffin. Secondly, the Home Office has refused to ban an EDL protest scheduled to take place in Manchester next month despite a request from the city council that it do so. Though the Home Secretary has rightly identified these people as being in the tradition of the British Union of Fascists, it is fair to say that New Labour's strategy when dealing with the far right has mainly been one of accomodation and normalisation. I think this follows directly from their psephological analysis. Leading figures in the party are convinced that in order to remain a viable electoral force, it has to woo the "white working class". To them, this means acknowleding supposed 'underlying grievances', 'legitimate concerns' which the far right merely exploit and which they can address much better. Such a logic is partially indicative of how ideologically vacuous New Labour is. It is entirely reactive, and always seeks to deal with challenges from the right, and even far right, by attempting to occupy their space. But even the better Labour MPs can get sucked into this logic if they see the struggle as being won or lost primarily in electoral terms.

Another mistake is to see the fight mainly in media terms. We have to take the media issue seriously, of course, since most people's experience of antifascism will be, er, mediated. I was quite surprised a while back to see that Sunny Hundal had used the Guardian's Comment Is Free site to dismantle the arguments in favour of allowing the BNP onto the BBC. Whether I should have been surprised is another matter, but I was less surprised to see that he objected to my account of the Harrow protest last Friday. His main objection was one that also appeared in my comments boxes, which is that the media images of "brawling" (or "rioting" or "mobs") are destructive, not helpful. I am unsure to what extent Hundal believes the media representation to be accurate. He appears at some points to credit it, and blames the rough stuff on al-Muhajiroun. Yet, he also acknowledges Tony McNulty's point that the majority of people there were perfectly peaceable, that the teenagers who did go after the EDL were venting frustration and fury about the fascists' threat to the local mosque rather than being members of some far out sect. Still, the main conclusion appears to be that: "The impact of the MSM cannot be ignored – the UAF and Muslim groups also need to be savvy about how they’ll be portrayed on screens."

And this is undoubtedly a real problem. The majority of the British media is instinctively hostile to Muslims. I see, for example, that the EDL's promotional material for its Manchester bash consists of a montage of the most alarmist and misleading news stories about Muslims from the mainstream press. The news industry that produced those stories is obviously disposed to look askance at any group of Muslims engaged in protests. It is inevitable that if there are a few who toss traffic cones at the police, that is the image that will become the news. A few frustrated teenagers becomes 'Muslim rioters'. But I think to conclude that a protest depicted in this way is not a success, not worth celebrating, a "pyrrhic victory" as Sunny would have it, is to approach the issue from the wrong direction.

First of all, I think it is inevitable, given the EDL's approach, that there would be some sort of response from local people. One can denounce such a response, declare it irresponsible, insist that it would be better just to ignore the fascists, and so on. This is a response that some politicians in Birmingham preferred. Or one can intervene in it, with the hope of making it as broad as possible, and make a political argument about, eg, the necessity of defeating the far right by mobilising the anti-racist majority. If protesters understand that argument, they will understand the need for self-discipline. As has happened in a number of protests I have attended, people engage in useless adventurism because they mistakenly think that this is what works, or because they are impatient, or because their political outlook stresses the initiative of minorities. In this case, though, the number of people who actually did waste their time tussling with the police was miraculously tiny. Most people wanted to defend the mosque, which was by way of being a proxy for the local Muslim community that day. And in that, they succeeded. The response could have been far worse. The turnout could have been low enough for the EDL to successfully stage their provocation, and even go on a bit of rioting. The turnout could have been exclusively Muslim, which wouldn't have been good either. The politics could have been narrow and sectarian. Actually, what happened was that a large multiracial crowd saw off the fascists.

Secondly, an alarmist media reaction to antifascist protesters is not automatically a success for the far right. Given what the EDL has sought to accomplish - the physical intimidation of Muslims in the UK - the constant experience of being penned in, resisted by counter-demonstrations larger than themselves, and then bussed home by the police, cannot be inspiring. Their turnout on Sunday was apparently so demoralising that one of their number complained on the EDL forum, with the eloquence characteristic of that tendency, that they had been left with their "dicks swinging in the breeze" by fellow race warriors. If this experience is repeated in Manchester and Leeds, therefore, fewer and fewer of them will turn out. The EDL will take little comfort from the fact that the media is so hostile to Muslims if they themselves have been frustrated in their aims. What they seek is a repeat of what the far right sects accomplished in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001. In these cases, they succeeded in generating a racially polarised chaos with some local white people fighting on their side. The BNP plainly needs further episodes like this to expand its membership base. So when the booted-up streetfighting bovver-boys find they can't deliver because they are resisted by a numerically larger multiracial crowd, it is bad news for them as well.

A last point is that, just as the political class tends to adapt to realities created on the ground, we also tend to see the media become a bit more friendly to protest movements after they've been successful. We need a politically sensitive and media intelligent strategy, but we will see the biggest gains on those fronts when we have stopped the far right on the streets.