Mike Ion: BNP stokes flames of racism, Labour must lead fight back

Written By: Tribune web editor
Published: May 30, 2009 Last modified: May 30, 2009

Mike Ion would like to see the Prime Minister give his personal backing to a ‘coalition of the willing’ to counter the prejudice and poison of the far right

WE HAVE known for months that the British National Party has been busy exploiting the economic crisis and could end up winning seats in the European Parliament on June 4. One reason for the BNP’s growing support has been its ability to exploit genuine local grievances. Now the debacle of MPs’ expenses claims will only exacerbate distrust of the political establishment and could turn even more people towards the far right.

Stoke is one place where the BNP might make gains. The city has a fine record of promoting and defending fairness. It is the birthplace of Hugh Bourne, the 19th century campaigner for children’s education and equal treatment for women. Now, sadly, increasing numbers of people seem to be listening to the BNP’s bigoted message.

The BNP has begun to develop a network of suburban supporters – people openly willing to admit to supporting a racist political party and who do so with pride and patriotic fervour.

Any increase in backing for the BNP raises all sorts of questions about how progressive politics deals with the rise of the far right. Labour has long argued that we should do whatever it takes to tackle xenophobia and racial hatred wherever it surfaces. The key question is how best to do this.

One way to begin is to stop simply talking about the symptoms of dissatisfaction and address the underlying problems that have caused some traditional Labour supporters to embrace the far right. The BNP often does best in so-called “forgotten” white areas, where erstwhile Labour supporters say they feel alienated from modern political discourse and that no one in the mainstream is listening to them.

Unemployment, social deprivation, the lack of educational achievement, high crime rates, drugs and people from different ethnic backgrounds living apparently separate lives, which encourages the growth of myths and rumour, have all contributed to the rise of the far right.

One BNP tactic is to target those who have traditionally supported Labour, but feel neglected by this Government. Many of these people think they have only two options: not vote at all or vote for the far right. There tends to be a lack of what might be described as a “safe space” for ordinary working people to air their grievances. They can struggle to find the language to express themselves without being accused of racism.

Gordon Brown has been too quiet about the BNP. He would send out a powerful message to Labour’s core supporters if he threw his weight behind a call for a new “coalition of the willing”, constructed to blunt the advance of the far right by addressing some of the genuine concerns of white working-class voters, while forcefully challenging those complaints that have no factual or legitimate basis.

The Prime Minister should back the creation of a multi-racial, multi-faith and cross-party movement that could help to unite the great majority of people in Britain who are repelled by the BNP’s rhetoric. Brown should explain that the reasons for Labour taking on the bigots and the bullies of the far right are not purely tactical and strategic. He should make it clear that the values underpinning the labour movement demand this be done.

Stoke is just the sort of place where people want to be treated fairly. They don’t want favours or special treatment for themselves or their neighbours. The majority of people in Stoke hate what the BNP stands for and would love to get back to voting for Labour from conviction, not just convention.

Mike Ion was Labour’s candidate for Shrewsbury and Atcham at the 2005 general election