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Socialism Today 131 - September 2009

Socialism Today 131 - September 2009The BNP threat

The election of two BNP Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in June was a success for the party leadership’s strategy of distancing the far-right organisation from its neo-fascist origins. But the drive for electability impacts not only on broad public perceptions of the BNP but on the character of the party itself. Understanding what the BNP is and where it is going is crucial, argues HANNAH SELL, to working out what needs to be done to defeat it.

FOR MILLIONS OF people across Europe, June’s EU elections sounded the alarm bells. Across the continent one of the clearest trends was growth in the electoral support of far-right, racist and nationalist parties. In the Netherlands, the far-right populist Party for Freedom (PVV) scored 17%, making it the second largest Dutch party. In Austria, the combined vote of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the split from it, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), was 17.3%, resurging from 6% in the 2004 elections. In Hungary, the anti-Semitic Jobbik party won three seats.

In Britain, the British National Party (BNP) got two MEPs elected, BNP leader Nick Griffin in the North West, and Andrew Brons in Yorkshire. Nationally, the BNP only marginally increased its vote to 943,000, 6.4% of the total. In Yorkshire and the North West its vote actually fell. Nonetheless, the collapse of Labour’s vote allowed it to make a breakthrough.

The nature of the European elections, where voters are more likely to use their vote as a protest than in national elections, was an advantage to the BNP, as was the electoral system, at least compared to first-past-the-post, which is a disadvantage to all smaller or less established parties. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that a national breakthrough in a general election is ruled out. While still having a limited electoral base, the BNP nonetheless now has around 50 councillors, three county councillors, and a member of the London Assembly, in addition to the two MEPs. The prospect now exists of the BNP being able to establish the same kind of semi-stable electoral support as other far-right parties across Europe.

In the 1990s, a number of these parties – in France, Belgium and Austria in particular – were able to emerge from obscurity and win electoral positions. The opportunity was created by the period of disorientation and retreat of the workers’ movement in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism, against the backdrop of the economic recession of the early 1990s.

The collapse of Stalinism allowed capitalist ideologues to go on a worldwide propaganda offensive against socialism – which they falsely equated with Stalinism – and in defence of their system. The workers’ movement was not smashed, but trade union membership fell and rights were restricted. While still fundamentally intact, albeit weakened, the movement was above all politically disorientated. In particular, it created an opportunity for the leaderships of the social democratic and Labour Parties to transform them into capitalist parties, New Labour being the pre-eminent example.

In some countries the far-right was able to step into and partially occupy the vacuum that had been created. In others, including Britain, the far-right was forced back by a mass mobilisation of young people and the workers’ movement. However, the economic crisis and the continued absence of mass workers’ parties have created new opportunities for the far-right. In Britain, this process has reached a critical phase. Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), which played a key role in the movements of the 1990s, will now need to come to the fore again as part of a movement to undermine and marginalise the far-right.

To do so successfully it is necessary to accurately analyse the character of the BNP’s support, the prospects for it to grow further, and the programme, strategy and tactics which would successfully undermine it. Unfortunately, while both do potentially useful campaigning work, neither of the major trade union funded anti-BNP campaigns, Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and Hope not Hate (initiated by Searchlight, the anti-fascist magazine), have been able to work out a clear analysis of the BNP or a strategy to defeat it.

Not the same as the 1930s

ONE IMPORTANT REASON for the mistakes of both UAF and Hope not Hate is that they describe the BNP as a fascist party and raise the danger of fascism coming to power if it is not defeated. This is not new. In the 1970s, and again in the early 1990s, the Anti-Nazi League (the antecedent to UAF) argued that fascism could come to power. Then and now, far-right parties represent a real danger of increased racist attacks and widening divisions within the working class, and mass campaigns and demonstrations against them are needed. However, they cannot accurately be described as fascist, and the threat is not comparable with the rise of classical fascism. Fascism in Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s was a mass movement, mobilising sections of the middle classes and unemployed and lumpenised workers, in order to smash the organisations of the working class.

In Germany in 1929, the middle layers of society – small businesspeople, managers, farmers and so on – made up around 50% of the population. The economic crisis and the development of hyper-inflation had ruined them, often leaving them even worse off than the working class, which at least had trade unions to protect its interests.

Potentially, these middle layers could have been won to the side of the working class and the struggle for socialism. However, the repeated failures of the working class to take power, as a result of the false policies of the leaders of the workers’ organisations, meant that a large section of the middle class was won to reaction, dressed up in the language of ‘national socialism’.

At the same time, the capitalist class, with its system in desperate crisis, was willing to bankroll fascism’s rise to power as the only means by which it could maintain its system – over the bones of the workers’ movement. In 1930, big-business funding of the fascists in Germany increased exponentially. As a result they won 107 seats in the Reichstag. Adolf Hitler afterwards recalled the "astonishing campaign" where "a thousand speakers each had a car at his disposal". Once in power fascism did act ultimately in the interests of capitalism, violently disassociating itself from its middle-class mass base as it did so. However, this was not without huge cost for the capitalists, who would be very reluctant to resort to fascism again, preferring when they cannot govern through capitalist ‘democracy’, to resort to a more straightforward military dictatorship.

Today is a very different situation to the 1930s. In Germany and Italy, the working class had missed repeated opportunities to take power. In Germany, there were two mass workers’ parties – the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the much smaller Communist Party (which nonetheless had 130,000 members in 1928). The leadership of these parties, in different ways, failed to lead the working class in a struggle for the socialist transformation of society – in the case of the SPD, consciously handing power back to the capitalists.

Today, the working class is not yet challenging for power. In Britain and many other countries, it does not even have its own mass party. The workers’ movement is beginning to regroup after a long period of confusion where its consciousness was pushed back. Nonetheless, the fundamental strength of the working class remains intact, it retains its capacity to struggle, and is potentially the most powerful force in society. The potential also exists to win large sections of the middle layers of society (in the economically advanced countries a much smaller section of society than in the inter-war period) to the side of the working class.

The far-right and the establishment

THE BALANCE OF class forces does not favour the growth of mass far-right or fascist forces. The capitalist class is prepared to use these parties to sow divisions in the working class, but it wants them kept on a short leash and is not interested in assisting the parties of the far-right to power. On the contrary, their inherent instability means that the ruling class would prefer these parties to remain marginal. One indication of this is the way that all the major capitalist parties in Britain have united in condemning the BNP.

The same thing happened, on a larger scale, in France in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen got through to the second round of the presidential elections. All the forces of the French establishment campaigned against Le Pen. This does not mean that far-right parties cannot be incorporated into local and even national government coalitions, as has been shown by the Northern League in Italy and the FPÖ in Austria. However, this is not a goal sought by the strategists of capitalism, but rather a reflection of the vacuum created by the weakness of its political representatives.

Where these parties form part of the government, all workers, but particularly those from ethnic and national minorities, suffer as a result, as the vicious anti-immigrant policies of Silvio Berlusconi’s government in Italy shows all too clearly. However, this does not represent fascism coming to power. The far-right parties today have emerged as electoral phenomena, not as paramilitary forces on the lines of the fascist militias of Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The fascist parties in the inter-war period used election successes to legitimise the power they had already built up on the streets, using their electoral gains to reinforce their physical assault on the working class.

Today, across Europe, despite the neo-fascist antecedents of many of the leaders of the far-right parties, these formations are not fascist-type parties with their own paramilitary forces (apart from small groups of thugs that still shelter within them in some countries). All rely on passive, electoral support, in large part from sections of the working class. Their memberships, in comparison to their votes, are very small.

The BNP has it origins in tiny neo-fascist groups. There are numerous quotes from Griffin, and other leaders of the BNP, showing support for neo-fascist ideas. In 1995, Griffin wrote: "The electors of Millwall [who elected the BNP’s first and short-lived local councillor in 1993] did not back a post-modernist rightist party but what they perceived to be a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan ‘Defend Rights for Whites’ with well-directed boots and fists. When the crunch comes, power is the product of force and will, not rational debate".

As recently as 1998, Griffin was found guilty of inciting racial hatred for holocaust denial. However, it is only by putting on a ‘respectable’ face and disowning its own recent history as ‘youthful’ mistakes that the BNP has been able to begin to make electoral gains.

Racism and nationalism

VILE RACISM AND nationalism, most sharply against Muslims, remain central to the propaganda of the BNP. It is noticeable that BNP strongholds tend not to be in the major cities, where communities are usually more mixed, but in working-class towns and suburbs near big cities, where racism tends to be more widespread. Racism and nationalism are combined with populist rhetoric against the ‘Westminster elite’ designed to appeal to working- and middle-class voters. This includes pseudo-left rhetoric, particularly on issues like the NHS and housing.

Unfortunately, some on the left believe that anyone who could vote for the racism of the BNP is permanently lost to the workers’ movement. In fact, racism is not the only or primary factor motivating many BNP voters. However, the factors which have made it easier for the BNP to gain an echo for racist and nationalist ideas do not only affect BNP voters. One YouGov poll showed that 87% of BNP voters considered immigration one of the key issues facing Britain, but 49% of the population as a whole had the same position.

Racism is part of the fabric of capitalist society, used at different stages by the capitalist class to attempt to divide the workers’ movement. However, there are particular factors which have created the possibility of increased racist and nationalist tensions in the recent period. In particular, globalisation – the export of production to cheaper labour economies and the import of super-exploited workers – has been used consciously over the last decade as a tool to maximise profits. Given the failure of the leaders of the labour movement to lead an effective struggle in defence of wages and conditions, this has inevitably led to an increase in nationalist hostility towards foreign workers. Now, when the working class is faced with mass unemployment, these tensions have been heightened.

In addition, the major capitalist parties consistently respond to the growth of the far-right by attempting to undercut them by stealing their clothes. Whether it is Gordon Brown’s speech on ‘British jobs for British workers’, the adoption of anti-Roma policies by all Czech parties, or the implementation of large parts of the Northern League’s programme by the Berlusconi government, the result is not the marginalisation of the far-right but the further growth of racism and nationalism.

Where socialists intervene effectively it is possible to cut across nationalist tensions. This was shown in February’s Lindsey construction workers’ strikes where, despite the initial appearance of ‘British jobs for British workers’ placards, the intervention of the Socialist Party and other militant shop stewards was able to ensure that the strikes were fought on a clear class programme and nationalism was increasingly marginalised. Nonetheless, the capitalist media’s completely distorted reports allowed the BNP, who had actually been chased away from the picket lines at the start of the strike, to use the issue to gain support and to claim to be standing up for workers. Two of the Lindsey strike committee in fact stood for the RMT transport workers’ union-led coalition in the European elections, No2EU–Yes to Democracy. This gives a glimpse of how a mass or semi-mass workers’ party – giving a political voice to workers in struggle – could cut across, not only the BNP, but the growth of racism and nationalism in general.

Who votes BNP?

THE INCREASE IN the BNP’s vote has largely come from people who would historically have voted Labour. The five areas where the BNP got its highest votes in June’s elections were Barking and Dagenham, Stoke-on-Trent, Thurrock, Barnsley and Rotherham, all areas where, in the past, a donkey would have been elected had it worn a Labour rosette. This is similar to other far-right parties across Europe, which usually started with a core of support amongst more middle-class and rural sections of the population, but have then made breakthroughs into working-class communities, often previous strongholds of the ex-social democratic or communist parties. Unfortunately, UAF’s leadership is not prepared to recognise this because it contradicts its simplistic analysis that to vote BNP is "to switch overnight to the fascists", and that it is excluded that workers would do so. This does not correctly estimate what a vote for the BNP represents and is also an idealisation of the working class, a case of seeing what you want to rather than what is actually there. Nor is it historically accurate, as classical fascism was able to win a small minority even of organised workers.

Following the European elections, UAF argued that it is wrong to suggest that "BNP voters are disaffected former Labour voters who have switched to the fascists because they believe Labour has abandoned the ‘white working class’." On the contrary, they suggest: "The bulk of the BNP’s support comes not from disaffected Labour voters but from ‘working-class Tories’," adding that most disillusioned Labour supporters abstained.

It is true that many ‘traditional’ Labour supporters abstained and that this was the primary reason for the BNP’s success. However, in other respects UAF’s analysis is inaccurate. The UAF suggests that the YouGov poll commissioned by Channel Four proves its case as it shows that a majority of BNP voters "prefer the Conservatives to Labour". An opinion poll gives, at best, a snapshot at a particular moment in time of the opinions of a group of people. However, this particular snapshot gives a much more nuanced picture than UAF suggests.

It is true that, when asked, "If you had to choose, which would you prefer to see after the next general election, a Conservative government led by David Cameron or a Labour government led by Brown", 59% said they would prefer a Tory government compared to only 17% for Labour, and 24% who did not know. However, this does not prove that BNP voters are traditional ‘working-class Tories’. On the contrary, the answers to three other questions indicate clearly that many of those interviewed were not. Asked who their parents had voted for, 47% said Labour compared to only 25% who said Conservative. Asked if they thought "that the Labour Party used to care about the concerns of people like me, but doesn’t nowadays", 54% agreed. Asked the same question about the Conservative Party only 17% agreed, whereas 43% thought that the Tories did not and had never cared about the concerns of people like them.

All of this indicates that, not of course all, but a significant section of those who voted BNP were people who had, in the past, looked towards the Labour Party, and are now deeply disillusioned with it. The fact that a majority of them – if forced to choose between New Labour and Tory today – chose the Tory Party, should not surprise anyone. As the 2008 Crewe and Nantwich by-election showed, there is now a section of working-class voters who are prepared to vote Tory to punish New Labour.

There is another section, particularly of older workers, with the crimes of Thatcherism etched into their memories, who would never vote Tory. Some will, ‘holding their noses’, even vote Labour at the next election to prevent the Tories’ return. It is not unexpected that there are fewer of these amongst BNP voters. However, even this has to be qualified. After all, 24% of BNP voters were unwilling or unable to choose between a New Labour and Tory government presumably because they saw both options as so repellent.

The need for a political alternative

THE GROWTH OF the far-right in general is directly related to recent economic and political developments. The single most important factor at this stage remains the absence of mass workers’ parties. The experience of the ex-social democratic parties in power, with their relentless defence of the interests of big capital, has left millions of working and middle-class people disillusioned and angry. The current devastating economic crisis has enormously sharpened this anger. In the absence of a mass left alternative, a minority has been prepared to protest by voting for the far-right. Where on the other hand new left formations have gained traction, they have often been able to prevent the electoral growth of the far-right. In Germany, for example, the existence of the Left Party has been the central factor in preventing the NPD making an electoral breakthrough on the national plane.

In Britain, however, there is not yet such a formation in existence. Nonetheless, there is anecdotal evidence that No2EU–Yes to Democracy, despite having been on the scene for only a few weeks, was able to have some effect on the BNP’s vote in areas where it had high profile campaigns. No2EU was also the only party to directly attack the BNP in its election broadcast, leading to the BNP putting in an official complaint against it. In Carlisle, where No2EU organised a number of anti-BNP protests, the BNP vote was markedly lower in the European elections than in the local elections held on the same day. In every ward that No2EU leafleted, the BNP vote went down. Similarly in Bolsover, where a Socialist Party member stood in one ward, the BNP vote in that ward, while still alarming, went down to 17%. In the two very similar neighbouring wards, which were only leafleted with material pleading with voters not to vote BNP, the BNP vote was 27% in one ward and 24% in the other.

These are examples, on a limited scale, carried out by only part of the trade union movement. Imagine, however, what would be possible if this approach was repeated on a broader scale? The most urgent aspect of anti-BNP campaigning, at this stage, is to fight to ensure that there is a far stronger, trade union and socialist coalition launched to contest the general election. Such a coalition, if it stands on a fighting socialist, anti-racist programme, could begin to cut across the BNP’s electoral support.

That is not to suggest that decisively undermining the BNP will be achieved simply by the launch of a coalition. Initially, it may receive a relatively modest vote, particularly given the electoral system in Britain. Proportional representation would make it easier for a new workers’ formation to make a breakthrough. However, the history of the formation of the Labour Party demonstrates that, even with an unfavourable electoral system, the potential to build a mass workers’ party exists.

The recent election of Joe Higgins as the Socialist Party MEP for Dublin, with over 50,000 first preference votes (12.4%), demonstrates the potential support that can be won for socialist ideas. However, this position was built up over a number of years in which Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party demonstrated in practise their capacity to defend the interests of the working class by leading important struggles. This included successfully defeating water charges, and Joe serving a month in prison as a result of the campaign against a severely regressive ‘bin tax’ (refuse collection charge).

Particularly where the BNP has an established electoral base, it will only be undermined by a new workers’ formation proving that it is the party that genuinely stands in workers’ interests, in struggle over a period of time. The fact that this task will not be achieved instantaneously does not alter the fact that it is the only means by which the BNP can be defeated. In this sense, the struggle to defeat the BNP does not stand separate and apart from the general tasks facing socialists today.

Counterproductive tactics

THAT IS NOT to suggest that we do not need specific campaigns, and to adopt specific tactics, in order to tackle the BNP. However, the broad political strategy to defeat the BNP cannot be separated from the strategy to take the workers’ movement forward as a whole. Any attempt to separate it will inevitably lead to a false strategy for defeating the BNP. For example, Searchlight has correctly recognised that the BNP has made gains "through the widespread disillusionment of voters towards the main political parties, particularly Labour".

At the same time, however, its solution is to try and increase the vote for the establishment capitalist parties. Nick Lowles, editor of Searchlight, stated clearly: "Searchlight is not affiliated to any political party but we believe it is absolutely vital for the Labour Party to be at the forefront of local campaigning in Barking and Dagenham". Hammering the point home he added: "For the BNP to be beaten another political party has to win and in Barking and Dagenham that can only be the Labour Party. There is no Liberal Democrat organisation on the ground and the Conservatives have largely disappeared". Similarly, if less explicitly, UAF argued that in the European elections, "our focus should be on mobilising the anti-fascist majority by warning people of the threat posed by the BNP and urging them to get out and vote".

Campaigning for New Labour, never mind the Liberal Democrats or Tories, will never succeed in defeating the BNP. As Lowles himself recognises, "the single most important issue in Barking and Dagenham at the moment is the lack of social housing". He omits to mention, however, that it is New Labour, and the Tories before it, which are responsible for this. Given that it is anger with New Labour which is the primary force driving a significant section of workers in Barking and Dagenham to vote BNP, it is no surprise that Hope not Hate’s strategy has not significantly undermined the BNP vote but has instead tied the struggle against the BNP to Labour.

Hope not Hate’s campaigns, and those of the UAF, have been able, in some cases, to encourage a section of convinced anti-BNP voters to vote Labour in order to block the BNP but they cannot go beyond that. Brown was the first signature on Hope not Hate’s letter appealing against a BNP vote in the European elections, which can only have helped the BNP to increase its vote!

Physical attacks

HOWEVER, AN ELECTORAL alternative, while crucial, cannot be the only aspect of a struggle against the BNP. Across Europe, if not yet in Britain, attacks by small neo-fascist gangs are on the increase, primarily against minorities but increasingly against trade union and anti-racist activists. In Dortmund, Germany, 200 neo-fascist thugs armed with iron bars physically attacked this year’s trade union May Day demonstration. In Sweden eleven members of our sister party, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, have suffered serious physical attacks over the last 18 months.

Closer to home, Belfast saw the horrific driving out of Roma families by neo-fascist thugs. The response of the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland was a model of what needs to be done, combining organising defence of the Roma families’ homes with mobilising a demonstration of the local community and trade union movement, together with the Roma themselves, in a show of united strength.

The BNP currently distances itself from neo-fascist thugs and tends to even avoid organising demonstrations for fear that they would undermine its new clean-cut image. However, it would be wrong to imagine that increased BNP votes will not result in an increase in racism and racist attacks. As the recent threats against leaders of the UAF shows, the stewarding of demonstrations, organised community self-defence, and other security measures remain vital.

In fact, wherever the far-right has made electoral gains, an increase in attacks on minorities and trade union activists have followed in their wake. Generally, these are not carried out by members of the electorally successful parties, but by neo-fascist grouplets given confidence by the broader parties’ successes.

No platform?

THIS RAISES THE question of if and when the policy known as ‘no platform’ should be applied to the BNP. ‘No platform’ means that fascist organisations should not be allowed to have a platform for their ideas because they aim to destroy all the elements of democracy that exist under capitalism: the right to vote, to join a trade union, to strike and so on. The phrase ‘no platform’ originates in the battle against the National Front in Britain in the 1970s, and particularly in the student movement.

However, even in the 1920s and 1930s it was not the case that Marxists would never debate with fascists. The working class could have defeated fascism in Germany and Italy, even at a late stage, had it been mobilised in a mass movement, including an armed anti-fascist militia. However, while this was the main task, it did not preclude occasional debates with the fascists in order to undermine them. The German Trotskyist, Oscar Hippe, describes in his memoir, And Red is the Colour of Our Flag, how, for example, Marxists debated with Goebbels at a Nazi public meeting in 1932.

Today, ‘no platform’ is relevant in some circumstances. Although the BNP has had to distance itself from its fascist origins, its leadership would still undoubtedly like to build a fascist organisation if it was able to. In that sense, it is correct to attempt to prevent them from being offered a platform. However, while it is valid to argue this point of view, this does not overcome the problem that, through its electoral gains, the BNP has established a platform. In this situation, it does not make sense, for example, to refuse to share a media platform with them, as the UAF has done, if the net result is that the anti-BNP arguments are not put.

This does not mean that ‘no platform’ has no application. There are instances, where the BNP does not have a base and the need to prevent it getting one is widely understood, where a ‘no platform’ policy can be implemented. This is the case in the trade unions, and also in communities and universities where the BNP has no support. However, to be effective even here the policy must be based on mass campaigning and the mobilisation of the widest possible layers against the BNP, rather than an attempt to impose the policy unilaterally by a small minority.

Trade unions and student unions should maintain and implement the position that BNP members are not welcome in their ranks. The Prison Officers Association was right to expel BNP members from the union, as were the Lindsey strikers when they chased the BNP off their picket lines.

The position of the civil servants union, the PCS, which argues that BNP members should not be able to work in the public sector, is also correct. One reason for this is that working in public services often means having access to confidential information about individuals, and taking decisions which can have an enormous effect on their lives. The detrimental effect of having a BNP member as a teacher is also clear. However, it is also, and more fundamentally, a question of fighting to strengthen the power of the working class and to increase trade union control of workplaces. In the private sector, in cases where the trade unions were strong enough to implement it, we would be in favour of a similar policy being adopted.

In fact, it is only the power of the organised working class which is capable of implementing such a policy. In the past there have been a number of strikes against BNP or NF members being allowed to work in public-sector workplaces. One example of a successful strike to remove a leading BNP member from a civil service social security workplace was in Hither Green in 1988. This strike was led by Socialist Party member Onay Kasab who is now, ironically, being witch-hunted by the right-wing leadership of UNISON on a completely false charge of racism!

Of course, there will sometimes be instances of trade union members who have joined the BNP but are not fully aware of what it stands for. In such cases a campaign needs to be conducted to explain to ordinary trade unionists why BNP members are not allowed in the union. Such a campaign would also hope to convince loose BNP members to leave the BNP rather than the union.

Mass action is vital to undermining the BNP. If the trade union movement was to mobilise for a mass demonstration of workers and young people against the BNP, under clear class slogans, this would begin to undermine the far-right. Unfortunately, at the moment, a majority of trade union leaders want to restrict the unions to funding organisations like UAF and Hope not Hate, rather than organise against the BNP in their own right.

Trade union demonstrations around slogans like ‘jobs, homes and services not racism’ and ‘unite and fight for jobs for all’, would be able to make a class appeal to workers attracted to the BNP, whilst at the same time showing the weight of opposition to this vile party. Those from outside the trade union movement, including members of the capitalist parties, would of course be able to take part in such demonstrations. However, it would be the trade union movement, rather than New Labour politicians, that would be setting the agenda, thereby creating a real possibility of marginalising the BNP. By contrast organising around slogans like ‘Nazi scum off our streets’ does not effectively reach out to anyone beyond convinced anti-racist activists.

In the coming months, the Socialist Party and the YRE will be stepping up their campaigns against the BNP, but also arguing within the workers’ movement for a strategy and programme – a key part of which is the struggle for a mass workers’ party – that could effectively channel the widespread horror at the electoral growth of the far-right into a movement capable of defeating it.


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