Saturday, February 13, 2010

UAF conference

Today's Unite Against Fascism conference was excellent, strategically useful, analytically incisive, and just the right side of argumentative. It did admittedly have some most peculiar moments. For example, Margaret Hodge MP pleading for support and solidarity from a room full of anti-racists angry about her recent Daily Mail article. I have little time for Hodge, as previous posts on this blog make abundantly clear. However, there is no question that the main issue in Barking this coming election is to stop the fascists. The BNP have gained some of their strongest votes in Barking and Dagenham. In the 2009 European elections, during which the fasicsts gained almost a million votes, their highest number of first preference votes were attained in Barking and Dagenham, almost 20% of the total. Boundary changes and disaffection with Labour could be enough to give the BNP control of the council in the local elections and possibly even give Griffin a parliamentary seat. As Martin Smith pointed out, this is part of the BNP's explicit strategy, and we cannot afford to be as complacent as some anti-fascists were before the Euro elections. So, while I'm not going to go out asking people to vote for Labour, or advocate for Hodge, I am going to do what I can to make sure the BNP are driven out of that borough.

Another oddity was Yasmin Alibhai-Brown swerving suddenly from excellent points to, in my opinion, very poor ones. She fumed about condescending middle class liberals urging her to 'understand' racism and fascism, and somehow come to terms with and deem acceptable the fact that growing numbers of people would like to get rid of her. Quite right. But then, seemingly contradicting herself, she made some appalling arguments about Muslims not sorting out the "hotheads" within their own ranks, and stated that they shared some of the blame for the rise of the far right (thus rendering it more 'understandable', you see?). She rightly argued for unity among the oppressed, recalling the great anti-fascist mobilisations against the NF in the Seventies, but allowed this to segue into a rant against the term 'Islamophobia'. Still, she was not among those liberals vacantly defending the promotion of the BNP on Question Time or pretending that there was anything to 'debate' with fascists. She rightly pointed out that many on the right hate the BNP because of some idea of 'Britishness' they have, but then made the bizarre further inference that perhaps the right hated fascists even more because of their identification with Britain's role in WWII. Oh, I think not. I think all the evidence shows that it is right-wing voters who are most susceptible to the BNP's message. And I think Yasmin is torn between some very decent anti-racist politics, and the very dubious conclusions that her liberalism leads her toward.

Perhaps the most surreal moment of the whole event was near the end when someone tapped my shoulder to inform me that members of the English Defence League were outside. It transpired that 25 of the scum had gathered outside in the hope of kicking some heads in. They were massively outnumbered and eventually the police arrived and they didn't manage to batter anyone. So it was a quixotic bid on their part - but it does show how confident and arrogant some of these filth are becoming.

The conference also had some extraordinarily inspiring moments. I found Leroy Rosenior, the ex-footballer who runs Show Racism the Red Card, very personable and moving. Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the NUS Black Students Officer, stood in for NUS president Wes Streeting and made a fantastic and incisive speech, tearing into mainstream politicians who made excuses for racism and conceded territory to the BNP. And one could not but admire Assed Baig who has just faced down an extremely nasty, vitriolic, racist campaign against him in Staffordshire University instigated by BNP activists. That campaign centred on an attempted vote of no confidence in him as Student Union president, and though the opposition attempted to pretend it was about something other than racism, it quickly degenerated into accusations that Baig was the first step toward Sharia law, etc.. In the last days of the campaign, racist graffiti and swastikas appeared on the university exterior, with "Fuck off N*****r", "No P*kis" and other similarly improving sentiments spraypainted on the walls and pavement. The opposition leader, contacted about this, claimed that the signs weren't swastikas, but actually Hindu love symbols. Baig won the vote, but it was clear that the atmosphere of intimidation and racism had been a horrible ordeal.

There are a few key points to come out of the conference. The BNP are organising electorally, and they are shipping in all their activists to areas of local strength, especially to Barking and Dagenham. Experience shows that the BNP are adept at toning down their message and softening their racism in pre-election periods. They use low-key forms of racism to mobilise the broadest possible layers of voters before the election, then afterward harden their position. With members in the European parliament, they now have a lot of money to invest in this propaganda facelift. And their activists are known to mobilise by the dozens, and do have a go at their opponents if they get the chance. So, it is necessary to outnumber the BNP's activists. It is necessary, through doorstepping and leafletting, to challenge their racist lies and also undermine their attempted dissimulation about who they really are and what they represent. They want to mainstream fascism, and take it upmarket, but they're never that far from their neo-Nazi roots, or their street-fighting milieu. And hammering that message home is a very effective first step in attacking and breaking up the BNP's voting base. It isn't enough, though, for reasons I will come to in a moment.

At the same time, the EDL are organising another challenge. The EDL works something like this: organised Nazis provide the funds and the ideological and organisational spine; right-wing football casuals and sadistic thugs provide the footsoldiers to attack and terrorise Muslims, Asian communities, and - as today's abortive siege demonstrates - antifascists. They are rehabilitating a tradition of racist street violence that hasn't been seen on any scale since the 1970s. As Ken Livingstone pointed out, they have repeatedly engaged in riots and organised racist violence that would result in screams of bloody murder if the culprits were Muslims - but they are largely ignored. And the same media which has been puffing the BNP has a way of dismissing opponents of these thugs, claiming that antifascists are 'just as bad' and that it would be best just to stay away. Events don't bear this out, as the EDL tend to be only more violent when they aren't out-numbered - a point that Dawn Butler MP underlined. At any rate, the old 'just as bad' chestnut won't be available now. Because as a result of today's conference, several Labour MPs including ministers, and a number of trade union leaders, have given their backing to the important anti-EDL mobilisation in Bolton on 20th March. Butler also committed to seeking to ban EDL events on account of their repeated and demonstrated propensity to end in waves of ultra-violence - and if she couldn't achieve that, she would support the largest possible mobilisations against the EDL. Not an insignificant statement, I thought, from a cabinet minister.

The size of the combined electoral challenge and street mobilisations amounts to the largest fascist threat that the UK has ever seen. In the short run, this will be met by mobilising the broadest possible coalition against the fascists on whatever terrain they organise. But it isn't enough. There is a broader climate of racism that New Labour has been encouraging since it took office in 1997, beginning with Jack Straw's attack on Roma gypsies. That slow drip of poison into the national political atmosphere, encouraged by the government and whipped into a frenzy by the press, has seen concerns over immigration and race shoot to the top of polls as an important concern of voters, whereas before it wasn't even an issue. The constant stream of invective against asylum seekers, Eastern European migrants, gypsies, and Muslims, has resulted in the kind of climate that fascism can grow in. And these different forms of racism are mutually reinforcing, not competing. A speaker from the Jewish anti-racism group, JCORE, pointed out that while antisemitism is not at the same level of intensity as Islamophobia, it is shown in research by Pew that those who one of the biggest predictors of anti-Muslim racism is anti-Jewish racism. Those who are most hostile to Muslims are also the most likely to be antisemitic. That's true right across the board. So, a sustained ideological attack on the kinds of officially mandated racism that are providing the fascists with their alibi is long overdue.

This climate of racism, though, catches on the way it does because at some level it helps explain people's experiences of the world. Far right voters are disproportionately lower middle class rather than poor, but that doesn't mean they are not frightened of poverty, unaffected by economic insecurity, and not stressed out by harder working conditions and a more competitive labour market. They interpret these problems in a racist fashion, by blaming immigrants for taking jobs and driving down wages, and by blaming Muslims and ethnic minorities for making Britain a less pleasant place to live. Their dream of petit-bourgeois respectability and upward class mobility is threatened by economic insecurity, and their ideological preconceptions makes racism an attractive response. Neoliberalism is thus the practise that produces conditions which make racism a more comprehensible point of view for many people. It is also the stultifying neoliberal consensus that turns people off politics, causes them to stop voting, and gives fascist votes increased weight as a result. So, it is necessary - as one speaker said - to fight fascism with the sword as well as the shield. Yes, fend off the immediate challenge, but also provide a hopeful alternative that can provide a real answer to the failures of the system.