Daniel Trilling’s book is a useful overview of the far-right, especially focusing on the British National Party (BNP) and its electoral record. Trilling has interviewed those involved in the BNP locally and nationally, as well as those who opposed them, and crucially, those living in the areas where the BNP were active.
The book comes after the BNP has lost many of its council seats and is wracked with internal crises. The English Defence League (EDL), which is examined to a lesser extent towards the end, has also seen splits and its most prominent member, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, jailed for entering the USA under a false passport.
But the objective conditions that Trilling cites as contributory factors to the rise of the far-right still exist. The lack of affordable housing comes up again and again. Lack of jobs forms a key factor affecting areas where the BNP was able to gain an electoral foothold. Trilling also apportions blame to divisive and racist ideas perpetuated by big-business politicians and the media.
Some of the strongest sections of the book explore the changing situations that allowed space for the BNP to gain. In Burnley, immigrants from Pakistan were encouraged to come and work in the textile industry in the 1960s and seventies. However, low pay and unsociable hours meant that many of these workers ended up living in slum conditions in the areas around the mills. When this major source of employment disappeared, some clubbed together and invested in small businesses, but many remained in poor housing and conditions. During the 1990s, the council invested money to renovate some of the poor areas, where many of these Asian families still lived. The success of some Asian businesses, however, combined with council renovation in so-called Asian areas, helped to further stoke up resentment. Verbal and physical abuse directed at the Asian community caused a response, and Burnley exploded into riots in 2001.
The London borough of Barking and Dagenham used to be dominated by the Ford factory and the massive Becontree council estate. Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme for council house tenants was taken up by many workers earning a decent wage, leaving relatively little housing stock. As the majority of the factory shut down, many families moved out, with the housing put up for rent. Those who could not afford the inflated rents could not find anywhere to live in the borough. But, for those forced out of more central London boroughs, it was a relatively cheap area to move to. Over a comparatively compressed period of time, Barking and Dagenham changed from being largely white to an ethnic mix similar to the rest of London.
These factors are still at play today but, whereas in Burnley tensions over where investment was to take place crystallised the potential for the BNP to gain, now we are in an era of vicious cuts to services and employment. It could be the fight over shrinking job opportunities and services that provide greater opportunities for racist organisations to develop.
In Burnley, Barking and Dagenham and elsewhere, the growth of the BNP is accompanied by an increase in racist abuse. This is highlighted again and again throughout the course of the book. As Trilling explains, the outward appearance of the BNP is a heavily managed front. At core, leading members of the BNP, including Nick Griffin, have a strong pedigree in far-right and neo-Nazi ideas. Trilling’s book gives a historical overview of these political ideas and individuals from the post-war period onwards.
The book focuses on the evolution of the BNP and far-right ideas, but does so at the exclusion of giving more context of the general political climate, especially of working-class consciousness and organisations. In a separate section to the chapter on Barking and Dagenham, Trilling gives the example of walkouts at the Ford factory against foremen distributing racist leaflets. Actions like this have an important role in defeating racism, but the steps back that the trade union movement have taken have weakened this important pole of resistance. In fact, it is pointed out that some trade union members most likely did vote BNP in Barking and Dagenham and elsewhere, and a young RMT member is interviewed explaining why he did.
Trilling’s book ends with a telling anecdote. An anti-fascist protestor is explaining to a young man who has made anti-Bengali remarks that “there’s no point having a go at one another because of their skin colour or religion when the real division is between rich and poor. The young man replies ‘fair enough, but nobody was talking about this stuff before the [EDL] started’. [Trilling] chips in: aren’t we supposed to have political parties that can talk about this without it leading to a riot. ‘Yeah, so what does that tell you about them?’ he says”.
The huge gap that exists between the desires and aspirations of ordinary people and the capitalist political parties has left space for new parties to develop, including those on the far-right. Even since the heyday of the BNP, revelations such as the phone hacking inquiry will only have increased the sense of mistrust and distance.
Especially important is the betrayal of the Labour Party, from a party that had a working-class base and roots in communities to an out-and-out capitalist party. This is hinted at in the book, but the points are not developed.
Trilling explains the so-called ‘Strasserite’ ideas that BNP chairman Griffin was involved in arguing for in the National Front in the late 1970s, with the slogan ‘We Are Not Marxists – We Are Not Capitalists’. This is summed up in the book as “social security that guaranteed a basic standard of living – so long as you are white and British”. An echo of these ideas can be found in the BNP’s ‘support’ for the NHS and other public services, helping it to capitalise on fears when no other party was trusted with preserving and improving services.
Even on a relatively minor scale, the BNP was able to prey on Labour strongholds by carrying out simple tasks, such as getting hedges cut, organising litter-picking, and sorting out other similar small complaints. Whereas the local Labour Party had taken these votes for granted, the BNPs internal instructions to “act like a councillor before you become one” paid off. Telling voters that “we’re the Labour Party your parents voted for” explicitly made the link between what Labour used to represent and the space that it has left behind.
The reflection of this process in Labour’s dramatic loss of votes after its landslide election victory in 1997 meant that the BNP could win seats in the context of historically low turnouts. Mobilising a section of voters alienated from Westminster parties and influenced by racist ideas, the BNP was able to win council seats and MEP positions on the basis of a relatively small section of the population.
This development was cut across in 2010 when the general election, with a substantially higher turnout than local election contests, was untypically held on the same day as that year’s local elections. This saw a relatively increased turnout of the Labour vote, with the hope that Labour would at least be better than a Tory government. The BNP, having won seats in previously Labour areas, suffered a disastrous loss of councillors as people voted along national lines in the local polls. However, as Trilling points out, the BNP’s absolute vote increased even in those elections, a warning for anti-fascists not to rest on their laurels.
The book points out the hypocrisy of newspapers running dubious exposés of preferential treatment for migrants while carrying articles condemning the far-right racist BNP. Undoubtedly, as Trilling highlights, falling circulation, especially for print media, and fear of losing an audience pushed some newspapers towards ‘shock’ journalism. But for organisations such as the BBC, whose ‘White Season – is white working-class Britain becoming invisible?’ was broadcast around the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers-of-blood’ speech, they are feeding into a broader agenda of stoking racist tensions.
Big-business politicians’ role in promoting racist ideas is also part of the narrative. Whether it is Thatcher repackaging Powell’s racism, or the Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrat mayor travelling to Bangladesh to tell people the borough is ‘full up’, capitalist politicians have had a key role in propagating and legitimising racist ideas. New Labour’s propaganda demonising Muslims, as part of the build-up to the Iraq war, helped to single out a section of society that has especially been targeted by the BNP and the EDL.
All of this is locked in with a call-and-response routine with the far-right, where the BNP and its ilk push further, and Westminster politicians make more explicitly racist comments in an attempt to out-flank them. Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking, commented that a lack of housing in the area was a direct result of immigration, for example.
Trilling shows that many of these attempts to steal the BNP’s clothes are explained away by statements such as ‘not all BNP voters are racist’. But in challenging big-business politicians’ justification of their racism, he goes on to muddy the water of his arguments by leaning towards the idea that its voters are incurably racist. What is missing from this is a vision of what a mass working-class movement with a positive programme linked to an anti-racist message could do. A movement along these lines could undermine the BNP’s support by actually pushing back cuts and winning housing and other services and uniting people across different backgrounds.
However, the tactics of the anti-fascist movement are left largely unexamined, and no attempt is made to map out a future strategy. Passing praise is given to Unite Against Fascism and Hope not Hate, but both organisations adopt a single-issue, apolitical approach to anti-racist campaigning. This can be reduced to an attempt to get Labour to replace the BNP in council chambers, without addressing other factors.
Trilling interviews Sam Tarry about the Hope not Hate campaign in Barking and Dagenham in 2010, but it is telling that Tarry is now the Labour chief whip on that council, which has just passed £18 million-worth of cuts. The late Julie Waterson, then a leading member of the SWP, is quoted on the situation facing the anti-fascist movement in 2003: “[The] Anti-Nazi League was no longer the cutting edge, people were disillusioned with New Labour, which made it hard to get people out on the streets”. Bear in mind that Waterson was talking about Britain a few months after over one million people had marched against Blair’s Iraq adventure!
Although the point is not made explicitly, from the narrative of this book it is absolutely clear that there is a need for a political movement against the far-right, which takes up its false and divisive ideas but also offers a positive alternative.
Organisations that have racism as a fundamental component of their ideology, such as the BNP and EDL, have suffered big setbacks recently. But there is a danger that one or both of these organisations could regroup, or new ones could develop that prey on the huge gulf between working-class people and the establishment political parties. The development of Golden Dawn in Greece, and far-right organisations elsewhere in Europe, highlights this potential. But Greece also offers the example of Syriza, where an emerging left-wing political party can rapidly play a national role, offering the chance to undermine racism in society. In Britain, too, this is an important step to enable us to rid ourselves of the menace of the BNP, EDL and the far-right.