Driven by neglect

Driven by neglect

First, the employment minister, Margaret Hodge, voiced fears that up to eight out of 10 white working class voters in her Barking constituency might be tempted to vote BNP - which is standing in seven of the 17 wards, and secured 16.9% of the vote in the 2005 general election (in neighbouring Dagenham it got 9%). The respectable anti-fascist Searchlight group, for one, has predicted that the BNP will get something like 20-30% of the vote in Hodge's area.

Explaining her worries to The Sunday Telegraph, Hodge offered the view that Labour supporters are getting angry at the lack of affordable housing, and increasingly blame immigrants - and hence the Labour government's immigration policies - for their predicament. As Hodge put it, "They can't get a home for their children, they see black and ethnic minority communities moving in and they are angry. When I knock on doors, I say to people - 'Are you tempted to vote BNP?'. And many, many, many - eight out of 10 of the white families - say 'yes'. That's something we have never seen before, in all my years."

Instructively, Hodge went on to complain that there had been a "lack of leadership" from the top of the party on the whole question of race/anti-racism. So, when it comes to areas like Barking and Dagenham, the Labour Party "hasn't talked to these people" - thus "they are not used to engaging with us because all we do is put leaflets through doors", and therefore "part of the reason they switch to the BNP is they feel no one else is listening to them" (April 16).

Second, as if the BNP was not having a good enough week already, the Joseph Rowntree Trust revealed the next day that up to 25% of voters "might vote" for the BNP. True, the research (conducted by the Searchlight Educational Trust and Vision 21 - "a company specialising in research and community consultation") was based on exit polls of just 539 voters and focus groups carried out during the 2003 local elections in Burnley, Oldham and Calderdale - in areas that have had a relatively high level of sustained BNP presence and are classified as overwhelmingly 'white'. Nevertheless, this was the type of fillip that the organisers of election campaigns for smaller parties can only normally dream of.

Despite these publicity successes for the fascists, there is no reason for working class organisations to brace themselves for a BNP government post the next general election. However, there are lessons to be learned - both about the parlous state of mainstream bourgeois politics and, vitally, about the failure of the left so far to take advantage of the disarray of our enemies.

Hodge's observation that the Labour Party "hasn't talked to these people" is a significant one - although not in the sense that she means it. Labour has always been a hybrid political formation - a party with a working class base and a leadership fully committed to the maintenance of the system of capital. Historically, this has gone hand in hand with a constant struggle between its left and right wings. While at times they are at loggerheads, snarling insults and threatening the other with wholesale expulsion, ultimately their relationship was symbiotic, rather than irreconcilably antagonistic.

Logically, therefore, the relative strengths of the left and right have to be explained by wider developments in society. Thus, the ascendancy of the Bennite left in the early 1980s must be understood as a product of the 'wobble' from left to right in the aftermath of the bitter experience of a rightwing Labour in power until 1979, hamfistedly attempting to impose austerity measures on the working class. This also produced the substantial rightwing split from Labour, the Social Democratic Party, which effectively condemned the party to the wilderness of opposition for 18 years.

The huge defeats of our class in the 20th century - culminating in the collapse of bureaucratic socialism and, domestically, the strategic defeat of the 1984-85 miners' Great Strike - has precipitated another 'wobble'. This one in favour of the rightwing, bourgeois pole of Labour, of course. The weakness of the proletariat - its effective political disappearance as an independent factor in society that has to be taken account of as any sort of social collective - has meant that Blair's wing of the party has felt little need to make concessions to it. This is despite the fact that it continues to provide the mass, atomised electoral base of Labour.

Thus, it has become commonplace in political discourse - and not simply that of the revolutionary left - to talk of the emergence of a political vacuum. The working class has all but lost any independent political representation in contemporary society - what new political force can seriously offer itself to fill the space increasingly vacated by Labour?

Whatever its modest successes on May 4, the BNP is simply not a viable vehicle to present any serious challenge to the mainstream parties and their hegemony. Yes, it can win some electoral ground amongst the more demoralised and disorientated sections of the white working class, but it is simply too tainted with Nazism to make a breakthrough into mass politics.

A serious electoral setback for it would likely shatter the fragile truce between those who aspire to replicate the modest successes of the likes of France's Le Pen or Austria's Haider and the unreconstructed national socialists. However, the progress of the BNP could serve as an example, or inspiration, to others with far-right and fascistic predilections. After all, up to now Britain has remained pretty unique in western Europe in having no rightwing, radical-populist movement with some appreciable parliamentary representation - and everything tells us that the left will be singularly ill-equipped to fight such a menace.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is - how would the Marxist left fight such a development? Frankly, as it is presently constituted, pretty abysmally, we would suggest. For all the ubiquitous talk of a 'new workers' party' doing the rounds in left circles, it has so far failed to seriously address itself to filling the vacuum at the heart of working class representation with something genuinely viable - that is, Marxism. In fact, we are actually witnessing something rather strange. In their desperation for success, important sections of the left have actually aped not simply the crass opportunism of 'official communism' from the mid-1930s onwards, but even approached the task in a way that parallels what the fascists have done.

The BNP has gone to great lengths since the 1990s to 'clean up its act', as it were. Overt, electorally suicidal neo-Nazi imagery has been purged and the street-fighters of yesteryear are now suited and booted. The process has not been without conflict, of course. Hence the internal row over its decision to select the grandson of an asylum-seeker, Sharif Abdel Gawad, to fight a seat in next month's local elections. Gawad, whom the BNP describes as a "totally assimilated Greek-Armenian", was chosen to stand in the Bowling and Barkerend ward of Bradford as part of the 'new look' BNP strategy.

Whatever the tensions, the process is clearly having real effects on the image the organisation presents to the political public - the BNP's election manifesto, for instance, consists of a 12-point list of pledges to: lower taxes; save town centres and green belt; shrink bureaucracy; action against corruption; equal treatment; transport that works; asylum clampdown; no waste disposal charges; zero tolerance for anti-social behaviour; education - end 'trendy' failure; no asset sell-offs, and restore local democracy (BNP council election manifesto).

Apart from the strident anti-asylumseeker stance, quite frankly, this is more or less the same sort of anodyne platform that sections of what passes for the Marxist left believe is most suitable for working class consumption. So, while the BNP hides its national socialism from the eyes of the electorate, the SWP also appears to believe that Respect should not mention the 'S' word - not even the non-class, milksop version of it, as it exists in Respect's lame name.

This is a disastrous course for the Marxist left precisely because it cannot build in the same way as the populist right. In fact, genuine working class politics must start from an understanding that it will initially be in an minority - not because we wish to maintain some sort of clinical ideological hygienic zone around our ideas, but precisely because they are counter-intuitive. They strive to get beneath the surface appearance of developments in society and politics and thus run against what appears to be commonsensical. Marxist - that is, genuinely true, working class - ideas will start from a minority, fight to gain a committed audience and from there to a majority.

Thus, whatever their subjective intentions, in their crass impatience to win the allegiance of the masses, leaders of the SWP or the Socialist Party will take their organisations in the direction of articulating popular prejudices or chauvinistic common sense - the very ground that even the BNP, let alone some larger and more serious rightwing project, is so much better at occupying than us, of course. The hard fight over the question of immigration controls is an instructive example here, I think.

Socialist Worker's 'What the SWP stands for' is increasingly assuming the form of an interesting historical relic without any future practical use - the political equivalent of a belly button. Thus, we can still read in it that this organisation is apparently against "everything which turns workers from one country against those from other countries" and - as a consequence of this - the comrades "oppose all immigration controls". This contains an important truth - that state control of the international movement of the working class fosters divisions that fatally undermine the ability of any particular national contingent of the proletariat to defend its own interests.

But precisely because this 'hot' issue of immigration - surely one of the BNP's winning cards - is a hard one to argue, the left ducks it. As SWPer Elane Heffernan put it to one comrade who questioned why the open borders position was not to be pushed, it would be like talking to a "brick wall" with most workers (Weekly Worker March 23).

Thus, in practice as opposed the dusty corners of the 'What the SWP fights for' column, George Galloway - brother number one in Respect - sets the operative parameters on this policy question for the coalition with his disgraceful remarks to the Morning Star, where he argued for a form of 'controlled immigration' "based on a points system and our own needs". After all, it is common sense that "every country must have control of its own borders" and that "no-one serious is advocating the scrapping of immigration controls" (Weekly Worker February 24 2005).

The SWP-Respect refuses to challenge the chauvinist ideas held by millions of workers for exactly the same reasons as the Socialist Party's Hannah Sell once explained, with admirable candour. Calls to scrap immigrations controls are "utopian" precisely because what she defined as "most advanced sections of the working class" do believe in them. (In fact, most advanced workers do not - this is precisely one of the criteria that characterises them as advanced and not medium level or even backward in political terms.) For this reason, it was a bad idea to "write down what is blatantly true and we all believe" - because adherence to that truth puts us in a minority, initially (Weekly Worker March 15 2001).

The left's quick-fix schemes to win political influence are doomed and its impatience could spell the end of it as anything recognisable as a Marxist current in society.

There is no doubt that the BNP - which currently has 20 councillors - is mounting a relatively substantial election campaign. It will be standing 356 candidates and at the BNP's campaign launch on Good Friday, Nick Griffin declared that the organisation was aiming to add "another 15 or 20 seats".

We shall see - in the 2005 general election the BNP raised its overall share of the vote from 0.5% to 1.2% - winning 192,850 votes from a base of 47,219 in 2001. It also gained some measure of support during the 2004 European elections, increasing its share from 3.9% to 4.9% - but did not come close to actually winning a Euro seat. However, having said that, Searchlight has issued an electoral analysis which rather speculatively asserts that the BNP is within reach of 5% of the vote and that could - if true - see it winning 70 council seats.

The left should take note, but understand that the relatively good showing of the BNP - if that indeed transpires - is actually a minor symptom of a much greater malaise.

First, that of the decline and demise of working class politics, even in the attenuated form of old-style Labourism and 'official communism'. Then, that of the inability of contemporary, managerial forms of establishment politics to connect with masses of deeply alienated people in our society - the lame ideas put forward by Gordon Brown for 'reclaiming' the union flag from the likes of the BNP are unlikely to re-connect people with a bullish sense of national purpose and cohere British workers, the Smiths or the Patels, around the endless myths and inventions of the nation.    

Lastly, and most importantly for us, there is the programmatic crisis of the left. Labour has more or less deserted the field of political representation of the working class, leaving a yawning space that can at least start to be filled by Marxism.

But where is the left?