An article written for a Cambridge Student Magazine, comments from good socialists welcome:
In May 2006 11 BNP Councillors were sworn in to Barking and Dagenham council. On the same night a 30-year-old Asian man was attacked outside a station in Barking. Four white men set upon him, shouting racist abuse; he was stabbed repeatedly, left for dead, and had an England flag draped over him. This is the most extreme end of racism in Britain, but it is the reality of what can happen when despair overtakes hope, and fascist ideas are allowed to take hold.
The BNP had, in their election literature, proclaimed the elections a ‘referendum on Islam’, a chilling claim when thought through to its logical conclusion: ‘vote BNP, we’ll get rid of those nasty Muslims’. Exactly what they intended to do with the 1.6 million Brits who defined themselves as Muslims on the last census doesn’t bear thinking about, but is it really a surprise that they were able to make such political capital out of this slogan? In the months building up to the election we had seen the mainstream press jockeying to see who could print the most offensive anti-Muslim cartoons, all in the name of ‘free speech’. At some point the right to offend had been transformed into a duty to demonise. Both press and government rhetoric was filled with proclamations of the need for Muslims to understand and conform to ‘Western values’, and the actions of a few were then defined as the actions of an entire population.
The ‘war on terror’ agenda that is being pursued by both Bush and Blair has made Muslims a target of both casual and institutional racism. Much in the way the old ‘sus’ laws made young black men guilty until proven innocent, the anti-terrorism laws and recent furore over ‘foreign criminals’ disproportionately cause the harassment of young Muslims. Within two years of the bill’s introduction in 2001, 300 people had been arrested, while only 3 had been charged, and none for terrorism. Saqib Almas, a British citizen, was arrested in May and threatened with deportation to Pakistan, branded a ‘foreign criminal’ because he has dual nationality and a few petty convictions for which he has already served punishment. For his sister, Sam, the consequences are clear: “At a time when the BNP is getting large votes in parts of London, anyone with any common sense would realise that what the government is doing is making the situation even more volatile.” In a recent Gallup poll it was found that 40% of Americans think Muslims should carry some sort of special ID. The very fact that such a poll was carried out betrays the climate of racist hysteria that is being encouraged.
The government is, wittingly or not, fanning the flames of racism, and must be vigorously opposed, but this alone is not enough. Nor is it enough merely to challenge the BNP at every level, though that too is imperative. It is also vital to address the despair and powerlessness that drive people to vote for the far right in large numbers. Part of answering the question, ‘why would a working class person in a council house vote for the BNP’, is considering the question, ‘why would she vote for anyone else?’ The big issue in Barking and Dagenham was said to be council housing and one of the BNP’s more odious election claims was that all the newly built social housing in the borough had gone to immigrant families. Whether this is true or not is unimportant. The borough is faced with a massive housing crisis; the part rent part buy housing pushed by the government is unaffordable for many of those who need it most.
A vote for New Labour was a vote for more of the same, something which these voters simply could not do. It didn’t matter how much anti-fascist campaigners told people not to vote BNP, and believe us we tried, as long as that meant voting Labour, Tory or Lib Dem instead we were fighting a losing battle. The reality of the BNP successes was a collapse in the vote for other parties; Labour’s last resort was Margaret Hodge’s attempt to motivate Labour supporters by warning of the BNP’s potential. Many people couldn’t bring themselves to vote for New Labour’s policies, and didn’t vote at all. Meanwhile Hodge’s absurdly exaggerated claims galvanised the hardcore of the BNP and made them seem a serious option for disillusioned voters.
The situation in Barking is best contrasted with that in a neighbouring borough. Tower Hamlets was where Derek Beacon was elected in 1992 and where the BNP had made several historic gains. In May they stood one candidate, who was trounced. In Tower Hamlets residents had fought battles with the New Labour council over housing stock transfers, the council having to resort to victimisation and ignoring ballot results in order to achieve its goals. The issues in Tower Hamlets and Barking and Dagenham were largely the same. So what was different? In Tower Hamlets there was an alterative. In 2004 Oliur Rahman became the first Respect Councillor in Tower Hamlets, and in 2006 he was joined by 12 more. Respect had united people across the borough in opposition to council house sell offs, public sector cuts, and the racist anti-terror laws: The people of Tower Hamlets were offered a genuine choice between a council that ignored what they had to say and a party that gave voice to their problems. Instead of the Racist scapegoating of the BNP there was the unity and hope offered by an organization people felt could represent their grievances.
The successes of Respect show another possibility. Where a voice is given to the genuine concerns of people over attacks on their public services and the lack of public housing, it is possible to cut through racist myths and lies. It is vital to fight the lies of the far right through organisations like Unite Against Fascism, but this cannot be enough until those people who vote BNP, and those who no longer vote at all, are offered a real choice. An alternative to the consensus of privatisation and cuts must be built, and one based on hope, not on hate. Respect, I believe, can provide that.