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Socialism Today 109 - May 2007

The resistible rise of the BNP

The far-right, racist British National Party (BNP) has been a growing force over the last few years. Going into this May’s council elections with around 50 councillors, it looked set to win more. NAOMI BYRON examines how the BNP has been able to build its position, and what can be done about it.

THE BNP HAS won votes and supporters from a wide variety of sources – from ex-Tory councillors who have joined the BNP in Kirklees, Halifax and other councils, to winning working-class, previously solid Labour seats, as in Barking and Dagenham in east London, where the BNP is now the second-largest party on the local council.

The BNP has developed an effective line in pseudo-left propaganda to win disillusioned Labour voters, including opposing privatisation of many public services and declaring support for workers’ rights and trade unions. This, of course, is no change of heart by the BNP’s leaders. It is a cynical ploy to attract support among the growing layers of the population desperate for a party that represents their interests.

The transformation of former workers’ parties like Labour into parties completely at the service of capitalism was initially celebrated by the ruling class as a sign of the triumph of their system. But their arrogance after the collapse of the ‘socialist’ regimes of Eastern Europe and Russia (in reality, bureaucratised, Stalinist states), and the ruthless drive of big business to increase profits at the expense of the working class, have created an enormous political vacuum.

All polls show that the vast majority of the population in Britain is to the left of the three main parties on issues like privatisation and the National Health Service (NHS). This enormous discontent and political vacuum exist alongside the political confusion created by the seeming ‘triumph’ of capitalism and the abandonment of the working class by the parties it set up to defend its interests.

On an international scale, the desperate searching of working people for a party that represents their interests has led to an explosion in new parties and political formations. Some represent the first, tentative steps towards trying to rebuild new parties of the working class: P-SOL in Brazil, WASG in Germany and CAP in Belgium. Some figures, like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, are at the head of populist movements arising out of mass struggles against privatisation, landlessness, etc, and have been pushed to the left under the pressure of the masses.

In Europe, where political consciousness is not as advanced as that of Latin America and where neo-Nazi and far-right parties are ready to exploit any new bandwagon, the growth of populism has often taken a rightwing form.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the most radical-sounding phrases among the far-right in Europe are voiced by the National Democratic Party (NPD) in east Germany where, in a poll in 2004, 79% (compared to 51% of west Germans) agreed that socialism was a ‘good idea’, but ‘badly implemented’. It is to appeal to these layers that Peter Marx, manager of the NPD parliamentary group in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state legislature, says: "We are a nationalist party with socialist concepts" which favours "the nationalisation of economic assets". "We want social justice. Our economic policy is that of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president". (On the March: How Germany’s Extreme Right is Making Gains in the Blighted East, Financial Times, 9 January 2007)

Political vacuum

IN BRITAIN THE rebranded, populist-style BNP has cleverly exploited the political crisis of the main three parties, whose vote has been collapsing. Blair was re-elected in 2005 on the smallest proportion of the popular vote ever.

The lack of major working-class struggles in Britain that could show a real alternative to the establishment parties and help in the formation of a new workers’ party, combined with the huge political vacuum that exists, help explain how a rich, public-school educated landowner like Nick Griffin has managed to pose as the saviour of the working class (or how the Tories, led by rich boy David Cameron, are now seen as more trusted on the NHS than Labour).

The mood of capitalist triumphalism that followed the fall of the Berlin wall helped push back socialist and class consciousness. Though the experience of life under capitalism is reawakening socialist ideas, a lot of political confusion remains. A growth in support for reformism – the idea that the state can intervene to make capitalism work more ‘fairly’, without ending private ownership of the dominant sections of the economy – will only be overcome through experience when the masses move into action. In the meantime, the BNP is doing its best to exploit the ideological confusion of the times when it argues, for example, that: "The BNP does not believe socialism is the effective solution for running all or most of the economy. But this is a matter of empirical experience, not abstract ideology, so we absolutely support socialism for those parts of the economy where experience has shown it to be effective. This basically amounts to social and physical infrastructure: things like schools, roads, and the NHS". (BNP Nationalist Economics Bulletin, 28 May 2006)

This shows the importance of genuine socialist ideas as a weapon to combat the growth of the BNP, to be able to explain how nationalisation under democratic workers’ control is different to both Stalinism and the bureaucratic, top-down nationalisation of public services in Britain in the past.

Socialist ideas also hold the key to exposing BNP propaganda on migration, which ranges from crude racism to a pseudo-class or ‘caring’ position: for example, when the front page of the BNP’s paper has the headline, Only Big Business Benefits from Cheap Foreign Labour (No.80), or when a BNP NHS leaflet (July 2006) states that "millions of African children die each year from curable diseases because Labour policy has stolen their nurses".

Joe Priestley, a writer on the BNP’s website, criticises the Tory-supporting columnist Sir Max Hastings for supporting immigration in the following terms: "What Hastings means is that British working-class people won’t do what immigrants will do for the price immigrants are prepared to do it – or rather what the likes of Hastings are prepared to pay. He doesn’t want a working class, he wants a serf class, and whether it consists of white British people or sub-Saharan Africans is of no concern to him and his ilk". (The Establishment Right and Immigration, 7 April 2006)

Yet however loudly the BNP shouts that it is pro-worker, the issue of migration shows that it has no solution. The new ‘Solidarity union for British workers’ that the BNP and other far-right groups have been pushing, argues that trade unions should not try to recruit or organise migrant workers because they might go home if they lose their jobs, and too many of them have been working less than twelve months and "during this twelve-month period what a union can do for them is limited": "49% of those registered are in casual jobs, often as agency temps [who] do not have full employment rights". (Migrant Workers Q&A, Solidarity website)

In fact, it is only the socialist policy of recruiting and organising migrant workers into the trade unions, alongside other agency and casual workers, which can successfully fight against the bosses’ ‘race to the bottom’ in pay and conditions. Organising the most ‘precarious’ workers was how many of the non-craft trade unions were originally set up, with the significant involvement of socialists and Marxists.

As soon as workers actually move into struggle the BNP supports the bosses. In 2005, when millions of low-paid workers were defending their pension rights against government attack, the BNP claimed: "The fundamental cause of Britain’s looming pensions crisis is the fact that the average Briton is not saving enough money for his or her retirement", and that "a gradual increase in the retirement age... is reasonable". (BNP Economics Bulletin, 5 December 2005)

It then tried to blame civil service workers – whose average pension is £4,800 a year – for government attacks on local government workers’ pensions: "Having given central-government employees a sweet deal of retirement at 60, the government is having difficulty forcing local-government employees to make up the loss by accepting a 65 retirement age". (BNP Economics Bulletin, 26 March 2006)

When a huge movement began in France in March 2006 against the CPE (a law which allowed employers to sack young workers without giving a reason for the first two years of employment) the BNP backed the French government. "Laws creating employment rights beyond what businesses can afford can be counter-productive. France is notoriously burdened by such laws, which is why the French government has been trying to change them". (BNP Economics Bulletin, 12 March 2006)

What is fascism?

THERE IS NO question that the BNP’s leaders and key activists are convinced neo-Nazis who, if social, political and economic circumstances allowed it, would attempt to build a mass fascist party. However, the current political and economic situation makes building a fascist or neo-Nazi party of any significant size impossible.

Fascism is a mass movement that aims to smash the working class and its organisations. Classical fascism came to power in Italy and Germany after world war one, financed by sections of industrial capital, such as the Ansaldo metal trust in Italy and Krupp in Germany, and supported by huge armed militias. In October 1920, Mussolini assembled 30,000 Blackshirts and 20,000 members of fascist ‘unions’ in Naples for his ‘march on Rome’. At the end of 1930, the Nazi SA militia (the ‘Brownshirts’) had over 100,000 members.

Fascist movements came to power during a major economic and political crisis in capitalism. Economically, capitalism was in a catastrophic position but the working class had not succeeded in taking power because of the betrayals and mistakes of its leaders. Profits had plunged, particularly in manufacturing.

Fascism used radical language to attract support from the ruined middle classes and the unemployed. It even used pseudo-socialist demands to attract sections of workers. At a meeting organised by the SA soon after Hitler had come to power in 1933, one member declared: "Our revolution... has only begun. We have not yet attained any of our goals. They talk about a national government, and national awakening... What is all that? What matters is the socialist part of our programme... We have only one more enemy to conquer: the bourgeoisie!" (Quoted in Fascism and Big Business, Daniel Guerin) These elements in the Nazi party were brutally crushed, beginning with the ‘night of the long knives’ in June 1934 when the leadership of the SA was murdered by Hitler’s regime.

Industrial capital financed fascism’s rise to power not only to smash the working class to save capitalism, but specifically in order to increase their profits and power in the economy. Fascism in Italy smashed national wage agreements and forced workers to accept wages fixed by their employers. Even the Italian press under fascism conceded that nominal wages were halved between 1927 and 1932. In the first two and a half years under the Nazis in Germany wages were reduced by between 25-40%. Four hundred thousand unemployed workers assigned to public works in 1934 received only a few commodities in kind on top of their unemployment allowance. Around 250,000 young men conscripted into the labour service were paid just over 15 marks a month (when on average wages varied between 80-150 marks a month).

Labour passports in both countries meant that no worker could get another job without the agreement of their previous employer. Fascism also supported an aggressive foreign policy, fed by nationalism and racism, but which also assured massive profits to industry through rearmament.

Fascism is a particularly brutal form of capitalist dictatorship. Its mass base allows it to atomise and demoralise the working class for a whole historical period. But it is also a means of last resort for the ruling class, which fears losing control of its state to a fascist party. This is particularly true today, after the experience of Nazi Germany, whose territorial claims began to threaten the interests of other European powers and plunged the world into world war two.

The capitalist ruling class much prefers to rule through the mechanisms of parliamentary democracy where possible, with the ‘checks and balances’ it imposes on the state executive through elections, the media, and an independent judiciary. Its reasoning was revealed, once again, in a discussion in The Economist magazine after the death of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in December last year. In 1973, when Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, The Economist supported the military coup (The End of Allende, 15 September 1973). But on balance, an Economist editorial concluded 33 years later, "most dictators are economic bunglers. A few get the economy right, as Spain’s Franco did after 1958", but democracy has the "ability to bestow legitimacy" on pro-capitalist policies. Pinochet rolled back the gains the working class had won under Allende, but "elsewhere in Latin America, free-market reforms were enacted by democracies" without the ‘mistakes’ of Pinochet and his economic advisors who "could work as if they were in a laboratory" without any checks. (The Economist, 16 December 2006)

If parliamentary democracy proves inadequate to defend the interests of the ruling class, however, it would rather turn to elements in the army – such as Pinochet – which it thinks it can rely on to protect the interests of big business, than turn political power over to fascism. Of course, in extreme circumstances where it comes down to a choice between socialist revolution and fascism, big business would choose fascism every time. Clearly, we are nowhere near such a situation at the moment.

Today, the ruling class is exploiting the lack of workers’ parties and fighting trade union leaders to massively intensify the exploitation of the working class. Company profitability in the UK is at record levels – over 15% for the non-financial sector including 10% for manufacturing. All over the world the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) that goes to corporate profits has been rising. The Financial Times pointed out: "If profits are gaining their share of GDP, some other sector must be losing. And it is labour that has suffered". Goldman Sachs estimates that around 40% of the increase in profits over the past five years has been taken from labour compensation (wages and benefits). (The Wages of Growth May Yet Be Too Costly, Financial Times, 29 July 2006)

While the working poor struggle on the edge of disaster, "the super-rich – the thousand richest individuals in Britain – have seen their liquid assets increase by 79% in five years, to an average £70m each". (Super Rich, James Meek, The Guardian, 17 April 2007)

Democratic rights in Britain have been massively curtailed over the last 25 years. Britain has the most repressive anti-trade union laws in the OECD countries. The Criminal Justice Act 2001 made it an offence to ‘disrupt lawful business’, such as picketing your own workplace or protesting against the actions of the company. ‘Anti-terror’ legislation allows the police and government to place ‘suspects’ under house arrest virtually indefinitely. Police powers are handed out to private companies along with profitable immigration service contracts. When they can do all of this through parliamentary democracy, why would they need fascism?

The BNP’s role

THE BNP IS an embarrassment to the ruling class, not a useful tool. While the ruling class is quite happy to use racism in a controlled way, it fears that the BNP’s presence could stoke up tension and lead to political instability – like the riots in 2001 – which would harm its profits.

The only far-right group which so far has received any substantial business backing is the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has just been rescued from potential bankruptcy by another wealthy donor. However, at this stage, most UKIP backers are from the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party and support it mainly to exert pressure on the Tories rather than encouraging it to develop as a party in its own right.

While the BNP plays a significant role in stoking up racial and religious tensions anywhere it has a base, it is the policies of New Labour and the prejudices whipped up by the media that are mainly responsible for the rise in racism and attacks on asylum seekers, Muslim, black and Asian people.

The ruling class is also opposed to the BNP because it is terrified that its growth could provoke a counter-movement which could act as a radicalising force in the way that the movement against the BNP did in the 1990s. Instead of a section of the ruling class financing the BNP and encouraging it to attack workers in struggle and stir up prejudices, it has attempted to discredit and marginalise the BNP. But the methods chosen have actually helped the BNP.

New Labour’s attempts to win disillusioned voters back from the BNP have only shifted the political debate to the right and given the BNP more room for growth, for example when the former minister David Blunkett said that schools were being ‘swamped’ by asylum seekers’ children.

The prosecution of BNP leader Nick Griffin and Mark Collett for incitement to racial hatred after both were recorded making racist remarks in a BNP meeting – describing Islam as a ‘vicious, wicked faith’ and comparing asylum seekers to cockroaches – was a political battle that the BNP was bound to win however the case went. If they were convicted it would make them martyrs. If they were acquitted they could parade as being persecuted by the state but found innocent by a jury of ordinary men and women. Then, after they had been acquitted once, the prosecution was relaunched, giving them the opportunity to be acquitted again!

The media, while they denounce the BNP, have given it enormous publicity. They have also prepared the ground for its growth by whipping up racism even more openly than the BNP. Even when former BNP candidate Robert Cottage and his friend David Jackson were arrested in Burnley in October 2006 for possessing explosives ordered on the internet, the coverage was minimal compared to the blanket coverage given to any official allegation of ‘terrorist plots’ by Muslims.

So, what is the BNP and how much further can it grow? The leaders of the BNP are neo-Nazis and white supremacists who have temporarily abandoned the strategy of building a neo-Nazi party in favour of gaining wider influence through a party that is far-right, populist and racist. They have partially succeeded and are likely to continue gaining support and councillors at a local level – even possibly representation in bodies elected by proportional representation like the Greater London Assembly – particularly in the absence of a credible working-class alternative.

The BNP is still a threat to the working-class, aiming to "weaken its ability to fight and resist" (Fascism and Big Business, Daniel Guerin). At this stage though, it plays the role of sowing division and spreading ideological confusion. And its presence helps to encourage racial tension and attacks, for instance, the brutal murder of Asian taxi driver Mohammad Parvaiz in Golcar, Huddersfield, in July last year. It is no coincidence that this happened in one of the areas of Huddersfield where the BNP has been doing most work.

We need a new workers’ party!

AS BOB CROW, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said after the 2006 local elections: "It is clearer than ever that New Labour is turning working-class voters away in droves because it is trying to out-Tory the Tories. Working men and women need policies that put their interests first, not the failed Tory policies of privatisation, PFI and giving big business everything they ask for". (The Guardian, 6 May 2006)

Working people need a new political voice that stands for our interests, not the big business interests of the main parties or the racist, right-wing con of the BNP or UKIP. The growth of the far-right is a warning that should not be ignored. New parties, of course, cannot just be declared. The WASG in Germany came out of the massive protest movements against the ‘Hartz IV’ social cuts. The CAP in Belgium was launched in the wake of a general strike against government cuts including restrictions on the right to early retirement, as well as the need for a left alternative to counter the extreme-right, nationalist Vlaams Belang.

But to passively wait for conditions to be perfect for the launch of a new workers’ party in England and Wales would be a huge mistake. Socialists, trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners and anti-racists should be taking every opportunity to build a positive alternative to the anti-working class politics of the main parties and the far-right, including putting up candidates in elections.

Votes for socialist and many anti-cuts candidates are more conscious than votes for the BNP, which is an easy protest vote. But the local elections in Kirklees in 2006 show the potential for left, anti-cuts candidates to cut across the BNP’s support. Jackie Grunsell, a Socialist Party member standing for the Save Huddersfield NHS campaign, won a seat on Kirklees council with 2,176 votes – more than any BNP candidate in Kirklees. The BNP candidate standing against her was pushed into second-last place with 564 votes – 9% of the vote compared to the BNP’s average of 18.4% across 23 wards in the area.

The BNP claims to be recruiting record numbers of people – its annual statement of accounts reported a membership of 6,008 in 2005 (down from 7,916 in 2004). But it will be even more difficult for the BNP to keep new people attracted by its ‘left’ face as active members.

However attractive some of its slogans may appear, anyone who reads the BNP’s material regularly will quickly realise that it is pervaded with an obsessive racism. Undercover BBC journalist Jason Gwynne filmed BNP members, including one election candidate, in 2004 admitting to a violent assault on an Asian man, pushing dog excrement through the door of an Asian takeaway and saying that they wanted to kill Asians and attack mosques. (Going Undercover in the BNP, BBC website) Even elected BNP councillors, like Maureen Stowe in Burnley, have become disillusioned and left once they saw what the BNP was really like. But the difficulty in retaining new members does not mean it cannot still win votes, or even continue to grow as an electoral force.

How can the growth of the BNP be halted? Bureaucratic measures or legal bans will only help it pose as radical and anti-establishment. Appeals to vote for the main parties to keep the BNP out are also not working. Likewise campaigns that depend on ditching politics in order to get the ‘maximum unity’ against the BNP become just a cover for New Labour, the Tories and Liberal Democrats to look anti-racist and democratic while continuing the same pro-big business, racist policies that opened the door to the BNP in the first place.

Effective criticism of the BNP needs to be linked to a positive alternative based on opposing the policies of the main parties and campaigning on the class issues – jobs, wages, defending public services – and opposing racism and other divisive ideas.


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