|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 220 July/August 2018
Understanding the far-right threat
The political establishment has been rocked in recent years – and Trump’s election, right-wing populist gains in Europe and the Brexit vote fuel fears that the far-right is on the rise. The dangers are real enough. However, the potential for working-class action is often left out of the equation. As HANNAH SELL explains, its role in combating racism and the far-right is crucial.
Paul Stocker’s book contains some useful facts and figures on racism, the far-right and attitudes to immigration controls over the last century. However, for anyone looking for an explanation of the far-right’s growth, its limits and, most importantly, a strategy to stop it, the book falls short.
Many workers and young people will be alarmed by the recent growth of the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA). Based around football gangs they have been mobilising several thousand people on various demonstrations over the last year. On 9 June 2018 they and others mobilised up to 15,000 to march through central London demanding the release of the founder of the far-right English Defence League (EDL), Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, otherwise known as ‘Tommy Robinson’. Robinson has been jailed for contempt of court, to which he pleaded guilty. The offence related to his reporting on a trial while it was still in progress, as part of his campaign to whip up anti-Muslim prejudice. Robinson has recently been banned from Twitter but, prior to that, had 200,000 followers, only slightly less than Theresa May.
The march included members of various tiny fascistic groups but also mobilised a wider layer – angry and alienated after a decade of austerity. It was addressed by various figures from the populist and far-right in Britain and around the world, including Geert Wilders, leader of the Netherlands far-right PVV party, and Gerard Batten, the latest leader of UKIP. Steve Bannon, former advisor to Donald Trump, sent a message of support.
The forces involved are small compared to the numbers that can be mobilised by the workers’ movement and the left. Last year, for example, the police estimated that 250,000 took part in the Health Campaigns Together demonstration to save the NHS, which the Socialist Party played a central role in organising. Nonetheless, this is the largest street mobilisation instigated by far-right forces in many decades, and is potentially a very dangerous development. Analysing it in order to combat it is essential. Unfortunately, Stocker’s book is not useful for this, fundamentally because of its lack of a class analysis.
Causes of anti-immigrant attitudes
Throughout, Stocker puts the blame for the growth of anti-immigrant attitudes primarily at the feet of some abstract and apparently innate ‘public opinion’. He recognises, and gives numerous examples of, how different governments from 1905 onwards have implemented racist immigration controls but argues that they have mainly been reacting to the pressure of their electorates. On the post-war period, for example, he says: "Politicians sought to maintain order and at times to stick up for the rights of migrants, yet they were ultimately trapped within a prison of public opinion which demanded strict controls".
More recently, he does put more responsibility on the capitalist politicians – but for failing to combat anti-immigrant sentiment, not for fostering it: "Politicians made a fatal error in how they responded to anti-immigration sentiment, which had a dramatic subsequent impact on how immigration politics was framed. They rarely challenged the idea that immigration was a ‘problem’ and frequently claimed to have it under control".
There is a grain of truth in that, sometimes, different governments have felt they had no choice but to take measures to curb immigration – even if they did not consider it to be in the best economic interests of British capitalism. This is because they feared the destabilising results of not doing so, including the growth of racism and xenophobia.
What Stocker never attempts to answer, however, is where such prejudice comes from. Clearly, there can be a feeling that public services cannot cope with large numbers of people arriving from another country or that wages might be lowered as a result. What Stocker is warning of goes beyond that: an ingrained hostility to people from other countries, particularly if they are black or Asian. This is rooted in the capitalist system itself.
From its inception, one of the central contradictions of capitalism has been the tension between the existence of the world market and the fact that the system has developed within the framework of nation states. Which of these two contradictory trends is dominant is not fixed. We have lived through decades in which the globalising trend has been dominant and the world economy has become more integrated than ever before. Even so, the world’s capitalist classes remain rooted in their own nation states, where their wealth and power are based. In addition, the nation states have produced deep-seated national consciousness which cannot be overcome within the framework of capitalism.
When necessary, capitalist classes have always been prepared to stoke nationalist feelings, for example, to justify war, or to attempt to play the divide-and-rule card to try and defend their rule from social uprisings and revolutions. Without analysing them, Stocker gives examples of this, such as the use of antisemitism by Winston Churchill and others to try and undermine support for the Russian revolution. He also refers to the growth in anti-Muslim prejudice over recent decades but does not draw out the link to the propaganda used to justify the imperialist invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their consequences in an increased number of horrific mass terrorist attacks.
Capitalism is now in a period of serious crisis leading to deep divisions on the best way to defend the system. In country after country sections of the ruling class have turned to nationalism, searching for some means to increase the social basis from which they can defend their rotten system. While this trend has been developing over years, it has now reached a qualitative new stage with the election of Donald Trump.
In Britain, the pro-Brexit wing of the Tory Party does not represent the view of the majority of the capitalist class and is, in the main, made up of a nationalist section of the upper-middle class and smaller capitalists who feel sharply how they have been pushed down by the forces of global capitalism. They yearn for an earlier, ‘easier’ age. They also recognise that playing the ‘little Englander’ card can give them an electoral base, either as part of the existing Tory Party or, in the future, in a new right-wing populist party.
What was the Brexit vote?
Stocker is particularly weak when dealing with his central theme of analysing the Brexit vote and its consequences. He is right to argue that the official leave campaign whipped up anti-immigrant and racist feelings in the course of the referendum – as did sections of the official remain campaign. Nonetheless, he does not understand what the Brexit vote represented, enormously overestimating the scale of the growth of racism and nationalism that has resulted from it. The book’s conclusion is: "Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, as well as ascendant movements on the far-right in Europe, pose the biggest threat to the liberal democratic order since the second world war". Brexit is considered a tipping point in a shift to the right by society as a whole.
The strong element of a class revolt in the referendum result is dismissed. On the one hand, Stocker derides as ‘mythical’ the idea that there was a ‘pro-EU elite’ arguing for remain. Yet the interests of British capitalism are best served by remaining part of the EU and, during the referendum, 80% of members of the Confederation of British Industry supported remain, as did the leaders of all the major parties in Britain. A host of international figures, including Barack Obama, were also roped in to try and win the vote for remain. On the day after the referendum, the Financial Times, newspaper of the capitalist class, declared: "The referendum result may well go down in history as ‘the pitchfork moment’," by which it meant the time when the mass of the population came for the elites.
The FT understood that millions of workers voted for Brexit as an elemental revolt against all they had suffered. Stocker does not accept this: "Brexit had less to do with economic factors than cultural ones". Were the wielders of the pitchforks motivated primarily by cultural factors, in particular, anti-immigrant feelings? A referendum is a binary choice in which there are bound to be all kinds of different motivations among voters on the same side. The capitalist class campaigned in the main for remain. However, among those who voted for it were also millions of workers and young people worried about jobs, and people repelled by the little Englanders of the official leave campaign.
Leave was led by right-wing nationalists. Nonetheless, it contained a strong element of a working-class revolt. Stocker references the Ashcroft polling conducted just after the referendum but its central conclusions do not back his view. Ashcroft found: "The AB social group (broadly speaking, professionals and managers) were the only social group among whom a majority voted to remain (57%). C1s divided fairly evenly; nearly two-thirds of C2DEs (64%) [generally the poorest section of the working class] voted to leave the EU".
Ashcroft also shows that immigration was a major, but not the central, factor for the majority of leave voters: "Nearly half (49%) of leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’. One third (33%) said the main reason was that leaving ‘offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders’." In the run-up to the referendum, anti-immigrant propaganda was being pumped out by the right-wing tabloids. Yet it was not this that had the biggest impact but the nebulous idea of taking control of decision making, which chimed with people who feel they are powerless and have no control over their lives.
New Labour culpability
That immigration was not the first issue – given how hard it was pushed – demonstrates a resistance to racism that exists among big sections of the population. It also shows the potential for the working-class revolt to have been channelled in a clearly left direction had Jeremy Corbyn been prepared to lead the campaign for a socialist, internationalist Brexit.
This is even more the case given that, as Stocker correctly points out, the racist and anti-immigrant propaganda did not start spewing out of the right-wing gutter press during the referendum but has done so over decades. He refers, for example, to the campaign against asylum seekers which reached its height in the first years of the century: "Between January 2000 and January 2006, 8,163 articles in the Sun, the Daily Mail, Express and their Sunday versions mentioned the word asylum seeker. That is, on average, just under four per day".
New Labour, in power at the time, not only failed to counter this deluge but fed it, introducing – according to Stocker – six pieces of legislation designed to cut the number of asylum applicants while Tony Blair was prime minister. One interesting titbit was how they even coordinated with the Sun: "Journalist Peter Oborne said that he had acquired a copy of the ‘Downing Street grid’ – a timetable detailing likely news coverage of key events in the weeks ahead used by Number 10. The grid had the Sun’s campaign written down in advance of its launch, on the exact day in which David Blunkett would ‘concede’ that the government was struggling to control asylum and be quoted saying, ‘can’t argue with the Sun over asylum’."
New Labour, like the Tories before and after, implemented neoliberal policies in favour of the capitalist class that undermined the living conditions of the working-class majority. Unlike Labour in the past, which was a capitalist workers’ party – with a capitalist leadership but susceptible to pressure from the working class via its mass base and democratic structures – New Labour was free to act without hesitation in the interests of big business. This included presiding over the employers trying to lower wages, including by exploiting workers from other countries.
Stocker recognises that unprecedentedly large numbers of people moved to Britain after the New Labour government’s decision not to impose restrictions on workers coming from the countries that joined the EU in 2004. Between 2004-08 one million workers arrived. But he dismisses the effect on wages as ‘miniscule’. During this pre-crisis period, however, wages were only growing on average at 1% in real terms, and were declining in many lower-paid sectors.
Clearly, the blame for this lies with the employers who were, in the main, making fat profits while using whatever means they could – young, agency and migrant workers – to try and cut pay. To combat this process effectively would have required the trade unions to organise a serious struggle to increase wages for all workers regardless of their country of origin. In the absence of such a struggle, concern about the levels of immigration was inevitable.
This was especially true given the New Labour government’s cynical participation in campaigns to divide and rule. It helped lay the blame for poverty at the feet of those who had been forced to flee other parts of the world, often as a result of imperialist wars backed by New Labour. The relentless anti-immigrant campaign that has taken place over decades is bound to have had some effect on social attitudes, given that it has not been systematically combated by any mass force capable of appealing to the working class. That it has not had a greater effect – at least not yet – is testament to the degree of working-class unity that has been hard won over previous decades.
Role of the working class
One vital factor in combating racism has been the heroic collective struggles of black and Asian people to defend their interests. These have been most effective when they have been allied to the broader workers’ movement. Stocker only mentions the trade unions once, a passing reference to the 1950s: "Trade unions were often deeply hostile to black migrants and demonstrated ambivalence to the racism and discrimination suffered by black and Asian workers". This is partially true but is less than half of the story.
The workers’ movement was also the central force in combating racism in Britain. In the 1950s, for example, it was the railway workers’ union which played the leading role in getting rid of the colour bar in many London pubs. This flowed from a realisation that black and white workers had more in common with each other than the bosses, and that the only way to stop the workers from the Caribbean being used as cheap labour was to fight to convince them to join the union and launch a common struggle for decent pay. In the 1970s, trade unions were instrumental in the battle to defeat the far-right racist National Front.
It is as a result of these traditions that black and Asian workers formed a strong bond with the trade unions even though the majority did not come from an urban background in their home countries. In the 1970s, black and Asian workers played a leading role in many industrial struggles. The Grunwick strike against low pay in 1976, which largely involved Asian women, was one of the key battles of the decade. Even today remnants of this remain. In 2016, the proportion of workers who were trade union members was highest in the black or black British ethnic group.
Today, reflecting the weakening of the trade union movement, more recent immigrants to Britain are concentrated in the most precarious and unorganised jobs. Key to combating low pay will be building united struggles of these workers to fight to improve their pay and conditions. The 2017 Barts hospital workers strike, with newer migrant workers to the fore, and the McDonald’s, Deliveroo and TGI Fridays strikes, give a glimpse of what is possible. Fighting for a trade union movement that launches a serious struggle in defence of workers’ interests is still central to pushing back racism in the modern era.
Overall racism declined
It is in large part thanks to the historic role of the workers’ movement, plus the struggle of ethnic minority groups for their rights, that racism has actually been decreasing over recent decades. For example, as recently as 1995 the British Social Attitudes survey showed that 73% of people would mind ‘a little or a lot’ if a close relative married a black or Asian person. When the same question was asked in 2017, 21% of people agreed.
Overall, attitudes have also become more positive to immigration. While it is true that polls show widespread concerns about the scale of immigration, the public outcry at the treatment of the Windrush generation was an indication that, particularly when faced with human beings rather than statistics, the overwhelming majority of people are opposed to racist immigration policies.
That is not in any way to suggest that racist and anti-migrant views are marginal or do not need to be combated. On the contrary, the number of race-hate crimes recorded by the police has increased from 35,944 in 2011/12 to 62,685 in 2016/17. On a generally upward trend, the biggest annual increase (27%) followed the EU referendum. This fits with the experience of many black and ethnic minority people who report an increase in racist harassment and abuse. However, it is probably also true that another factor is a certain improvement in the police recording of these crimes.
The figures for last year show less than 5% of recorded race-hate crimes came into the category of violence against the person with injury. While non-violent offences are often very serious, they were frequently ignored by the police in the past. Even the most serious crimes, including racist murders, were not reliably recorded as such by the police. The fact that they now feel under more pressure to do so is, in itself, a reflection of the increased anti-racist mood in society.
Clearly, however, the increased confidence of a minority to carry out racist crimes is dangerous and needs to be combated. Moreover, while opinion polls have shown a gradual decrease in racism over recent decades, there is no guarantee that will continue, particularly with prominent capitalist politicians whipping up nationalism. Nonetheless, there are important social forces, above all the organised working class, which remain a serious obstacle to such a reverse, provided they are mobilised.
‘Liberal democratic order’ under threat
The pessimistic conclusions of Stocker and numerous other commentators about the growth of reaction are not justified. In reality, their panic stems not from a rise in racism but from the capitalist elite’s sense that events are spiralling out of its control and it can no longer rule in the old way. Stocker echoes this when he argues that the ‘liberal democratic order’ is under threat.
The biggest difference between now and the previous era is a serious undermining of the authority of all the institutions of capitalist society, above all, of the capitalist parties. This flows from the crisis of capitalism, for which the working class has been paying over decades. In Britain, the proportion of gross domestic product that goes on wages has been shrinking for 30 years. If the share was the same today as it was in 1978, workers collectively would be taking home an extra £60 billion a year (in today’s money). In the ten years since the world economic crisis began, the driving down of workers’ living conditions has accelerated dramatically, with the longest period of pay restraint since the Napoleonic wars. This has been combined with widespread cuts, closures and privatisation of public services.
Unsurprisingly, the parties that have presided over that process – the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Blairite capitalist New Labour – have all had their popular bases severely undermined. Bizarrely, given its current incredibly fragile grip on power, Stocker argues: "The Conservative Party, on a radical right platform which promises to dramatically reduce immigration by taking Britain out of the EU, is now at its most dominant in British politics at least since the 1980s, possibly even the 1930s". Yet the Tories were unable to even win a majority at the snap general election. They are a party in decline, possibly terminally. In the mid-1980s the Tory Party was estimated to have around 1.2 million members. This was less than half its membership in the 1950s but more than ten times that of even the most generous estimates for its numbers today.
Stocker also suggests that the Tories are united around a ‘hard Brexit’ position. In reality, however, they are engaged in a civil war, resulting in the government being at constant risk of collapse. This reflects the struggle by the overwhelmingly pro-remain British capitalist class to find reliable political representation for their interests. The Tory Party – their traditional choice – is no longer reliable, but it is preferable to the even less reliable option of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Meanwhile, the Boris Johnson wing of the Tory Party, as shown in the referendum, is happy to whip up nationalism to try and secure a social base. Inevitably, this gives oxygen to the far-right and potentially gives it room to grow. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to conclude that, at this stage, the serious strategists of capitalism want to see the growth of far-right forces which they cannot control. Stocker correctly points out that the capitalist class was alarmed by the growth of the British National Party (BNP), with its neo-fascist origins, and seized on Nigel Farage and UKIP, promoting it as a ‘safer’ protest party. Farage "had appeared on the BBC’s flagship political debate programme [Question Time] 31 times by 2017 – making him the eleventh most regular panel member".
Far more frightening to the capitalist class than the growth of the BNP was the fear of the growth of a mass party of the working class with a socialist programme. The lack of any mass working-class political representation over recent decades has been an enormous bonus for the capitalists. It has also left a vacuum into which right populist ideas can step. With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, a possible route to the creation of such a party has been opened.
The relentless smear campaigns against him give a small glimpse of the lengths the ruling class would be prepared to go to in whipping up reactionary ideas in order to try and mobilise against a socialist government. The enthusiasm for Labour’s election manifesto in the snap election a year ago also gives a glimpse of how a mass movement could be mobilised in support of such a government, cutting across reaction. It is estimated that a million of the people who voted Labour in that election had previously voted for UKIP.
Erroneously, Stocker suggests that the 3.5 million extra votes Labour won showed "Corbyn’s success was indicative of the growing prominence of identity and values as opposed to economic interest – something we witnessed during the Brexit vote". Of course, it is true that many people from a middle-class background – especially young people – voted for Corbyn’s programme, alongside numerous workers who had previously broken with Labour during the Blair era. But they did not do so primarily for reasons of ‘identity’ but because Corbyn was promising something different to the low-paid work, unaffordable and insecure housing, and very expensive education system that have been all successive capitalist governments have had on offer. Had identity or their attitude to the EU referendum been the central issue they would have chosen another party, perhaps UKIP or the Liberal Democrats.
Unfortunately, there is absolutely no certainty that the start made in winning ex-UKIP voters will continue. Consciousness is not fixed. Workers who are one day repeating the tabloid smears about Jeremy Corbyn can vote for him the next if they feel he is fighting for their interests. If he appears passive or retreats in the face of the attacks of the capitalist class and the Blairites, however, the smears can again become dominant. Look at the situation in Derby, where the right-wing Labour group – which has implemented massive cuts in local services – lost control of the council in May as a result of a seat being won by UKIP. Now Rolls Royce is making huge redundancies, with 1,500 jobs to go this year alone.
Imagine the support Labour could gain in Derby if it was to launch a mass campaign to stop all job losses, demanding the immediate nationalisation of Rolls Royce – something a Tory government was forced to do in 1971 – and pledging that an incoming Labour government would immediately nationalise it with compensation paid only to small shareholders in genuine need. Even some of that tiny minority of workers who are currently expressing their anger by marching in support of Tommy Robinson could be won to such a programme. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the Labour leadership has not made a statement on the issue. Even the local left-wing MP, Chris Williamson, has only called for workers’ representation on the board!
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has not at this stage resulted in Labour being transformed into a workers’ party. It remains two parties in one, as was again demonstrated by the 75 Blairite MPs who defied the Labour whip to vote in favour of Britain accepting all the neoliberal rules of the EU single market. As long as Corbyn continues to maintain unity with the pro-capitalist wing of Labour there will be a limit to how far he can cut across the racism of the right.
Defeating this potential new far-right force in formation, therefore, is not separate to the general and immediate tasks of socialists. They include campaigning for a fighting, democratic trade union movement that wages a serious struggle for jobs, council homes, pay, benefits and decent public services. And for the transformation of the Labour Party into a workers’ party with a socialist programme.