Monday, 3 September 2007

Tactical Errors in Stoke-On-Trent

The BNP attempted to force the Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent City Council to issue a public apology after he said that he would not work with any of the seven BNP councillors on the local authority. At full council meeting in August, BNP councillors Neil Walker and Michael Coleman put forward a motion declaring that the mayor's comments were 'undemocratic', that they were 'against the core values of the council' and that they required a 'retraction and a public apology from him (the mayor)'.

In his response to the motion, the Mayor said that BNP policies would take the council backwards and that he had never been discourteous to BNP group members. He referred to some of the BNP's political beliefs and said that a vote for the BNP was a vote for negativity. Councillors from the other parties shared the same views and said that there was a need for the council to say 'no' to racism, fascism and extremist behaviour. They added that these were not concerns against individual councillors, just the BNP as a whole.[1]

Unfortunately this is yet another example of a failed tactic, namely to quarantine the BNP in order to discredit their policies and make their members powerless. Stoke City councillors appear to believe that they are still living in the 1970s and 1980s when far right groups held street marches and expounded openly neo-Nazi beliefs (e.g. John Tyndall: "Mein Kampf is my Bible"). Under the leadership of Nick Griffin, the BNP has made itself appear respectable to the electorate: the boots and braces are out; the smart suits have come in. The BNP stopped holding street marches in 1994. We are in a different political climate where the BNP behaves just like any other party: they deliver leaflets, canvass voters in their own homes and organize fundraising events. Whatever the underlying beliefs of the far right party, working class people appear to be voting for the BNP in ever increasing numbers. This is because they are dissatisfied with the policies of those political parties who traditionally represent them. The BNP have become a respectable but dangerous alternative for disenfranchised white working class voters.

From a different angle, it could be argued that refusing to work with elected members because of their political views offends the electors who voted for them. If working class people voted for the BNP, then they did so in good faith. They decided that the BNP candidate for their ward was the person best suited to representing them in the council chamber. They expressed a democratic wish in a perfectly legal way. If the BNP candidate is elected and the other councillors refuse to work with him, is this not a slap in the face for the people who voted for that party? The BNP councillors do not just belong to a political party: they are individuals who have chosen to give up some of their time for the community. There have been some well-publicised examples of BNP misdemeanours but this is not the image they like to give on the doorstep.

There is also a deeper political reason for the rise of the BNP in working class areas like the Potteries. Since 1994, the Labour Party has been moving away from its traditional Socialist beliefs and has won over large sections of the middle class which arguably brought it to power in 1997. At the same time, the old Communist Party disintegrated into rival sects along with Trotskyist groups and a political void developed on the Left. There is now a large section of the population which has become fed up with New Labour's rejection of social solidarity and collectivism as a means of achieving social change. In the eyes of many working class people, the Labour Party has replaced Socialism with a form of Thatcherism which includes a superficially social democratic gloss. Who is going to vote for a party which enthusiastically follows a neo-Liberal agenda of privatization and de-regulation? Who would want to stick their neck out for a party which believes there is nothing wrong with company directors earning 100 times more than their employees? Who is going to support a party which introduces initiative after initiative for increasing the 'individual economic aspirations' of working class people without understanding the environment they live in or their traditions of solidarity and community? Who is filling the void? With the notable exception of the Independent Working Class Asssociation in Oxford, the far left seems to be shuffling around making the same political mistakes as it always has been, largely because of its middle class and academic membership base.

The increasing success of the BNP is as much a result of decreasing turnout in local elections as it is about increasing votes for the far right. To put it simply: Labour voters are staying at home on polling day. There may be Labour voters moving over to the BNP in protest, but a more common reaction would be to stay at home. It must be borne in mind that the turnout for the three wards in Stoke where the BNP were successful in May this year was around 30.1% - meaning approximately 69.9% of residents in each ward did not bother to vote.[2]

The Left must learn some very harsh lessons in order to defeat the BNP effectively or we will find ourselves in much murkier waters than we are now.
[1] Summary of the business in section 32 of the council minutes on 2nd August 2007 taken from the Democratic Services section of Stoke-On-Trent City Council website.
[2] Averages calculated using
results published on the aforementioned website.