Opposing BNP with lesser evil

The Socialist Party does not offer any advice when it comes to the October 17 mayoral elections. Phil Hamilton reports

Apart from the contest in Hackney, where Paul Foot is standing for the Socialist Alliance, October 17 will also see the election of presidential-style mayors in Stoke-on-Trent, Bedford and Mansfield. Unfortunately, however, in none of the latter three will there be an SA candidate - or indeed any other candidate of the left. In Bedfordshire and Nottinghamshire there is an alliance presence, but in neither Bedford nor Mansfield did the comrades feel able to mount a challenge. In Stoke-on-Trent there is no active SA, largely because the Socialist Workers Party consists of just a handful of students in nearby Keele University. The Socialist Party is the largest leftwing force in Stoke, but it too did not seriously consider standing. Instead it launched the North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (Norscarf) and set up a local branch of its front organisation, Youth Against Racism in Europe, in order to oppose, Anti-Nazi League style, the British National Party's candidate, Steven Batkin. The SWP/ANL - for the most part from outlying areas - is also campaigning against Batkin. Although Norscarf's 'Stop the Nazi BNP and fight for free education, homes, and jobs' might be considered an advance on the ANL's discredited 'Don't vote Nazi' slogan, the content of the two are hardly different. Just what are Stoke voters supposed to do on October 17 - apart from not voting BNP, of course? Clearly no support can be given to Labour's George Stevenson, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent South. Stevenson is an obscure backbencher who claims his greatest achievement since 1997 is an "innovative" private finance initiative deal to open up Stoke's schools to increased profiteering. Then there are a range of independents of various political hues - no fewer than eight in fact. The most prominent is Michael Wolfe, the former boss of Stoke's citizens' advice bureau and the man who headed the campaign for an elected mayor in a referendum on the issue in May. The Tory candidate is Roger Ibbs, the council's current deputy leader. The result of the poll could be very close, with both Wolfe and Batkin expected to push the two mainstream candidates, picking up the votes of those disillusioned and disenchanted with both New Labour and the Tories. Wolfe, who is standing for the non-existent 'Mayor 4 Stoke Party', can hardly be described as a socialist, yet the SP seems to have been toying with the idea of backing him - leading local comrade Jim Cessford is said to be very close to him. Presumably the Mayor 4 Stoke Party is one of the new working class forces the left must relate to. However, a rally/pop concert organised by the SP's Norscarf on October 6 stopped short of endorsing Wolfe, who, although he turned up towards the end of the meeting, did not speak. Alan Weaver of the regional TUC ambiguously advised those present to give their first and second preference votes to those candidates "best placed to beat the BNP" and this was not challenged by SP speakers, who offered no advice. The event, held in the city's Jubilee Hall, saw just under 130 turn out for four hours of politics mixed with music. Encouragingly, well over half those present were youth - no doubt attracted more by the music than the politics. Unfortunately there were only one or two from the local Asian community - comrade Cessford ventured the opinion that local community workers had been leading a "whispering campaign", urging Asian youth not to attend. Neil Dawson, a local Labour councillor, began the afternoon of speeches by attacking the BNP for "spreading vile rumours" and thriving on the "culture of blame" whipped up by the mainstream press and politicians. He called on the audience to convince friends and work colleagues that the BNP is not only wrong, but a fascist party as well. This need to 'expose' the BNP set the tone for most of the other contributions. Raph Parkinson of the Unison NEC said that the BNP was against black and white workers' unity and argued that effective anti-fascism can come only through union involvement and policies focussed on welfare, not warfare. He believed that this sort of campaign had defeated the BNP's electoral ambitions in Bradford -as if the whisker by which they missed a seat is cause for celebration. Comrade Cessford of the SP, speaking as Norscarf president, recounted Stoke's history of workers' unity from the Chartists to the mass non-payment of the poll tax. But this unity had been undermined in recent years thanks to the collapse of the pottery industry, poor housing and health, and a cuts-obsessed city council. The far right has been using this backdrop to whip up hatred against the small group of asylum-seekers living in the city and the local Asian community. He noted that the BNP is gaining an ear in Stoke and expressed concern that it could pick up council seats next May. The immediate task for Norscarf, the comrade concluded, was not only to convince others about the true nature of the BNP, but to launch a 'charter for change' aimed at addressing the real working class concerns the BNP seeks to tap into. Naomi Byron, national secretary of the YRE, urged a 'no-platforming' of nazis. She performed a near-impossible balancing act between not calling for a state ban on fascists and arguing that they should not be allowed to "abuse democratic rights" by taking advantage of existing laws. Again she called for an exposure of the BNP's Nazi core, while fighting in the community against the conditions on which they thrive. Alan Weaver talked about the fight against the BNP in the unions and called on all to oppose BNP shop steward candidates whenever they stand. We also heard from 'Shaffy', an Afghan refugee, who talked about the appalling housing that immigrants face - he himself has to share accommodation with 16 others. He called on those present to support asylum-seekers and get involved in anti-deportation campaigns. Finally, Dave Nellist took to the microphone and characteristically delivered a storming speech. He attacked the BNP for seeking to divert attention away from the real causes of poverty, unemployment and poor services by scapegoating asylum-seekers and ethnic minorities. The real divide is between the rich, together with the government that serves them, and the rest. What we must provide, the comrade continued, is a socialist political alternative that unites communities against cuts and thereby undermines the BNP. From the floor, Martin of the ANL argued for a campaign that exposes the BNP as Nazis - presumably working class support will then miraculously drop away as it has done in Bradford, Burnley, etc. Reflecting the 'official optimism' typical of the ANL, the comrade reported that former BNP Fuehrer John Tyndall had set up his own website, a sign that the far right was "splintering" under the "pressure". Steve (SWP) called for united community action that, armed with the "arguments heard here today, will put the BNP in the bin of history". Writing in The Socialist, Andy Bentley of Stoke SP comments: "Unfortunately, some working people could vote for the BNP as a protest at New Labour's anti-working class policies nationally and locally. Temporarily, some mistakenly see the BNP as an alternative. The need is clearly becoming urgent to build a new mass workers' party to replace the now openly capitalist New Labour" (October 4). Clearly the achievement of a "mass workers' party" will require something rather more concrete than the negative 'lesser evilism' on offer from both Norscarf and the ANL. The place to fight for a working class party is the Socialist Alliance - abandoned by the SP last December. And if the left is able to mount a campaign against the BNP, why was it not possible to stand a united left candidate? Nevertheless, perhaps we should not be too critical. This was the largest leftwing meeting seen in Stoke for a considerable time and Norscarf does have some potential to reactivate working class politics in the city.