North West England: Keeping the fascists at bay

Submitted by Janine on 5 September, 2004 - 9:13

By Joan Trevor

It’s difficult to say whether support for the BNP, or the far right generally, has peaked. It’s certain that anti-fascists cannot be complacent.
Look at these facts and figures:
- 808,200 people, 4.9% of those who voted, voted for the BNP in last June’s European election. The BNP failed to have anyone elected.
However, the nationalist and, in their election material and the pronouncements of Robert Kilroy-Silk, racist UK Independence Party won 16.1% of the vote and got 12 MEPs elected.
The racist vote seems to have been split between the above two parties.
The website of the Institute of Race Relations News Network says: “Were it not for UKIP sharing anti-immigrant votes with the BNP, it is probable that BNP leader Nick Griffin would have been elected as an MEP in the north-west and Nick Cass elected as a BNP representative for Yorkshire and Humberside. In both of these areas, the BNP would have gained a MEP if a quarter of UKIP’s votes had gone to the BNP.”
- In the June elections, the number of BNP councillors around the country rose from the tiny number of 17 to the still tiny number of 21. They can do real material damage where they are elected, however.
In Epping, the three newly elected BNP councillors are trying to get a gypsy family evicted from land they own and have lived on for 14 years.
- The BNP got 4.7% of the vote for the Greater London Assembly, which did not win them a seat. Their mayoral candidate got 3% — 58,405 — of the first preference votes.
Attention on the activities of the BNP has focused on the north west of England, where they have six councillors on Burnley council and where they won 20% of the vote in Oldham in the last general election — although they have yet to win a council seat in Oldham.
A lively anti-racist and anti-fascist movement is being built in the north west. The purpose of the interviews on this page is to provide lessons — positive and negative — to campaigners in all parts of the country.
More information about anti-fascist activity:

Solidarity asked Mike Killian, spokesperson for Unite Against Fascism in the northwest, and Martin Gleeson, Secretary of Oldham Trades Council, about campaigning against fascists in the northwest.

You have been campaigning successfully against the BNP in your area. What is the reason for your success? Tell us something about your campaign.

MK: The Unite Against Fascism campaign has succeeded in uniting a wide layer of opposition to the Nazis — all the major unions are affiliated to, or otherwise supporting, UAF.
This meant we were able to produce an effective, hard-hitting leaflet with the TUC’s support — we distributed these door-to-door across Greater Manchester, Liverpool, and nationally.
We also got help from bands like Badly Drawn Boy to get the message across through a free gig in Liverpool.
Here in the North-West, we had active support from unions, councillors and election candidates, Jewish and Muslim activists, Quakers, students, musicians and artists, and top TV stars like Coronation Street’s Shobna Gulati. We concentrated on mobilising the anti-Nazi vote, the combined vote for the other parties — the Euro election turnout on 10 June was 41%, compared to under 20% at the last Euro elections.
In Oldham the BNP’s vote was lower than in 2003. (Total vote for six BNP candidates 4,754 or 19%, as against 7,835 for 10 candidates (26.9%) in 2003.)
And we hosted a number of big, public rallies, including a lively demo and blockade directed at Jean-Marie Le Pen, who came to meet BNP leader Griffin at a small hotel on the edges of Greater Manchester.
MG: It is easy to get the impression that the anti-BNP movement in Oldham has been a complete success, since, three years on from the disturbances in 2001, the BNP have not won a single council seat despite standing high-profile candidates such as party leader Nick Griffin. However, the closeness of some of the votes gives us no reason for comfort — especially in two wards, Royton North and South, where it was arguably the participation of UKIP candidates which saved the day.
The anti-BNP campaign has two strands: one is locally-based, led by Oldham Trades Union Council and the community-based Oldham United Against Racism; and the other is national input from Unite Against Fascism, which concentrated on the European elections.
The local campaign has concentrated on highlighting the ineptitude of the local BNP (a factor which has helped us enormously), and engaging with people on local issues which the BNP try to exploit. It is important to tailor the publicity to the particular neighbourhood, and to develop new messages over time.
This is not to say you cannot import ideas from elsewhere — the local campaign has drawn on Searchlight magazine’s resources, and Oldham TUC is part of a new network of local TUCs fighting fascism across the North of England. Generally, people understand that the BNP has racist ideas, but need an incentive to vote for somebody else. In the last elections this was achieved by increasing the anti-BNP vote (with the help of postal voting); but the BNP vote itself held up to near its previous levels.

How well do you think the BNP (and other far-right groups) are doing in your area and/or nationally? Are they are on the decline or on the rise?

MK: There’s no room for complacency. While BNP Führer Nick Griffin got nowhere getting a European Parliament seat, he did get 134,000 votes across the North-West. They still have six councillors in Burnley, the same as before 10 June, and they will try to use this as some sort of base to spread their poison. Nationally, they have just 21 councillors — nothing like the big breakthrough they planned, but they are still a danger.
So we have to be prepared to move, to unite as many people as possible in effective campaigning, whenever the BNP show their faces — this is likely to mean working to get the anti-BNP vote out in forthcoming elections.

MG: Although the BNP vote remains worryingly high in Oldham, there is evidence that this has peaked. We also know that the BNP are in some turmoil internally. On the other hand, the National Front have started taking an interest in Oldham again recently; and there was a story in the press about a new organisation called N9S on its way — but we understand that this is a splinter group of minor significance.
Nationally we hope that the recent BBC documentary The Secret Agent will have put a brake on the BNP’s progress.

What sort of policies have the BNP in the North West pursued when they have had councillors elected? Apart from the fact that they can use their positions to make propaganda, why should people fear their election?

MK: Griffin and the BNP once called for fences to divide whites from Asians in Oldham — this was after the local council erected a fence to stop people coming down a small track towards some flats where the mainly-Asian residents there had complained of harassment. But apart from some bizarre interventions like this, the BNP are notable for their lack of policies. In Burnley, their attendance at council meetings is abysmal — not one BNP councillor attended the 2003 budget-setting meeting, for example. And when the Guardian quizzed the BNP lead councillor Len Starr last April on any recent BNP initiatives in Burnley, Starr couldn’t come up with a single one.

MG: The BNP ran such a poor campaign in Oldham that it is not clear what their policies were this time, although they have made public interventions on paedophilia and alleged sexual activities in public toilets. In Burnley, where they have had a substantial group of councillors, they have failed to submit a budget plan to the local council for two years running.
People should fear their election because they will try to use their influence to stop initiatives which enhance community cohesion, and will abuse their positions by using the media to scapegoat asylum seekers and other minorities for any problems in the town.

What movement and policies can defeat far-right parties in Britain now?

MK: We need to extend the active, united campaign that UAF has launched, with more union involvement and public support from well-known individuals — this can in turn make it easier to involve regular people in leafleting their own street or workplace, in encouraging people they know to use their vote to stop the BNP.

MG: It appears that openly racist parties can be contained by continuous grass-roots campaigning at a local level. However, the large vote for the UKIP in the European elections indicates that there is still a large racist vote out there.
To defeat this, there needs to be a concerted effort from the main political parties to engage voters in a serious debate about the European constitution, the single currency and so on, so that the potential benefits of closer integration with the EU for ordinary people are discussed rather than the right-wing argument about giving up sovereignty.
Also the government needs to stop pandering to the far-right agenda on immigration, and give asylum seekers proper respect and support, instead of attacking them.

Not by propaganda alone but by bread and butter campaigns

Steve Silver, the editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, gave his views on successful anti-fascist campaigning in a recent issue of Red Pepper (issue 120, June 2004). We reproduce an extract here:

Once the elections are over we will need to continue organising in a serious and systematic manner if we are really going to drive the BNP back on to the margins of society. The only way to deal the party a fundamental defeat is by destroying their bases in our localities.
This doesn’t mean we need to produce an endless stream of anti-BNP leaflets. What is needed is work that shows the institutions of the anti-fascists — trade unions, democratic political parties, religious and civic bodies — have better answers to the concerns of ordinary people than the fascists, and that they are serious and relevant organisations.
This will need to be done not by propaganda alone but by painstaking day-to-day work on bread and butter issues — the very issues that the BNP exploits. These issues will change with the locality; it seems self-evident that only local people can determine what matters to them most — whether it is the closure of a hospital or library, or a hike in council tax. In some places, such as Oldham and Bradford, trades councils will be able play a leading role in this work. In other places different organisations are better placed.
Red Pepper

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