The fascist British National Party (BNP) made a major electoral breakthrough when it won two seats in the European elections in June. BNP leader Nick Griffin won a seat in the North West region and Andrew Brons won a second seat in Yorkshire & Humberside. Across the country the BNP polled 943,598 votes (see table 1).
Going into this election Nick Griffin had a lot to be confident about. He described the political situation as the “Perfect Storm” for the BNP. The British economy is in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, unemployment is rising and millions are anxious about what the future will bring. It was against this background that the expenses scandal broke. The Tories were exposed with shocking claims of servants’ quarters and “duck islands”, but it was the corruption of Labour MPs that provoked deep bitterness among Labour voters—despite everything working class voters still expected more from Labour. There was another critical ingredient: the popularising of the slogan “British Jobs for British Workers” first used by Gordon Brown but then taken up by groups of striking construction workers.
We have BNP members on local and county councils, one in the London Assembly and now two sitting in the European Parliament. The BNP hopes this will make it a legitimate party and part of the political establishment.
Worryingly, during the election campaign sections of the Labour Party tried to downplay the threat of BNP election victories. They were backed by some sections of the media. The Independent published an editorial with the headline “Stop Exaggerating The Threat Of The BNP”. Even the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight claimed the BNP election campaign had come off the rails.1 This clearly was a mistake and one that should not be made again.
Table 1: European election results 2004 and 2009 for the UK (excluding Northern Ireland)
|Number of MEPs (2004 figure)||2004 BNP vote||2004 UKIP vote||2004 BNP plus UKIP||2009 BNP vote||2009 UKIP vote||2009 BNP plus UKIP|
|East Midlands||5 (6)||91,860 (6.5%)||366,498 (26.1%)||458,358 (32.6%)||106,319 (8.7%)||201,984 (16.4%)||308,303 (25.1%)|
|East of England||7 (7)||65,557 (4.3%)||296,160 (19.6%)||361,717 (23.9%)||97,013 (6.1%)||313,921 (19.6%)||410,934 (25.7%)|
|London||8 (9)||76,152 (4%)||232,633 (12.3%)||308,785 (16.3%)||86,420 (4.9%)||188,440 (10.8%)||274,860 (15.7%)|
|North East||3 (3)||50,249 (6.4%)||94,887 (12.2%)||145,136 (18.6%)||52,700 (8.9%)||90,700 (15.4%)||143,400 (24.3%)|
|North West||8 (9)||134,959 (6.4%)||257,158 (11.7%)||392,117 (18.1%)||132,094 (8%)||261,740 (15.8%)||393,834 (23.8%)|
|South East||10 (10)||64,877 (2.9%)||431,111 (19.5%)||495,988 (22.4%)||101,769 (4.4%)||440,002 (18.8%)||541,771 (23.2%)|
|South West||6 (7)||43,653 (3%)||326,784 (22.6%)||370,437 (25.6%)||60,889 (3.9%)||341,845 (22.1%)||402,734 (26%)|
|West Midlands||6 (7)||107,794 (7.5%)||251,366 (17.5%)||359,160 (25%)||121,967 (8.6%)||300,471 (21.3%)||422,438 (29.9%)|
|Yorkshire & Humberside||6 (6)||126,538 (8%)||228,666 (14.5%)||355,204 (22.5%)||120,139 (9.8%)||213,750 (17.4%)||333,889 (27.2%)|
|Wales||4 (4)||27,135 (3%)||96,677 (10.5%)||123,812 (13.5%)||37,114 (5.4%)||87,585 (12.8%)||124,699 (18.2%)|
|Scotland||6 (7)||19,427 (1.7%)||78,828 (6.7%)||98,255 (8.4%)||27,174 (2.5%)||57,788 (5.2%)||84,962 (7.7%)|
|Total||72 (78)||808,201 (4.9%)||2,650,768 (16.1%)||3,458,969 (21%)||943,598 (6.2%)||2,498,226 (16.5%)||3,441,824 (22.7%)|
However, it is important to put the BNP’s electoral gains in perspective. It did not witness a massive surge in support. Overall its national vote went up by 135,397 from the 2004 Euro election figure, increasing its share of votes by 1.3 percent. Griffin’s share of the vote only increased by 1.6 percent. The number of votes for the BNP in the two seats it won was lower than in 2004.
There are two reasons why the BNP was able to win its two Euro seats. The first was the collapse of Labour’s vote. Labour came third behind UKIP with just 15.7 percent of the vote, an all time low. The result in Wales was like a punch in the solar plexus for Labour. They were beaten into second place by the Tories—this is unprecedented. In the South West and South East regions Labour came in fifth with just 7.7 percent and 8.2 percent of the vote respectively. The second reason was the low turnout. Only 33 percent of the electorate voted. We have to continue to call on people to vote to keep the BNP out. If 5,000 more people had voted Green in the North West, Griffin would not have won a seat.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that despite its clever attempt to politically reposition itself as a respectable party of the right the BNP remains a fascist party at its core. I also want to look at the rise of the BNP and the factors that have propelled it to the centre of the political arena. I write these lines just two days after the results of the elections were announced. Across the north of England we have witnessed a number of protests against the BNP, and when Griffin decided to call a press conference outside parliament hundreds of Unite Against Fascism activists gathered at a few hours notice and chased him away. Across the country the election results and such protests have provoked debate and raised the question “How do we stop the BNP?”
What is fascism?
Ever since Benito Mussolini and his fascists took over the Italian state in 1922 and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party was handed control of the German state in 1933 socialists have attempted to understand the political phenomenon of fascism and Nazism.2 Trotsky’s writings remain key texts in any analysis of the nature of fascism. He argues that what distinguishes fascism from other forms of dictatorship is the methods it deploys, its ultimate political goal and the social base of the movement.
Many people believe that virulent racism is the key component of a fascist party. Of course racism and anti-Semitism are profoundly important to fascists. They use racism to hold their supporters together and create a scapegoat for discontent. But the main aim of fascism is not restricted to the annihilation of one racial group within society. For example, Mussolini’s Blackshirts did not use anti-Semitism to build their organisation. Since then fascist parties have increasingly used racism as a way of gaining support. The victims vary from country to country. In Hitler’s Germany the main target was the Jews; in Hungary today it is Roma Gypsies.
However, there is much more to fascism than racist ideology. Its primary aim is to destroy working class organisations and democracy, and to install a dictatorship. Trotsky argues:
Fascism is not merely a system of reprisals, of brutal force and of police terror. Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society… To this end the physical annihilation of the most revolutionary section of the workers does not suffice. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organisations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three quarters of a century by the Social Democracy and the trade unions.3
For most of the time ruling classes have no need for fascism. They control society and make profits through democratic institutions, relying on the fact that the majority of people accept the way the system works most of the time. On occasions they use parts of the state to quell disorder. However, during times of major social crisis the state can find itself unable to defend the status quo. It can find that its armies are prone to mutiny and mass uprisings can make the police ineffective. In such a situation the very existence of capitalism is threatened. It is at such junctures that the ruling class can turn towards fascism. Fascist organisations can only take power under certain conditions. The first is that sections of the ruling class have to be so desperate that they feel compelled to abandon bourgeois democracy and throw in their lot in with the fascists. The other is that the fascists must have proved that they are powerful enough to smash the working class. To achieve this they have to be a mass party.
Fascism is different from other counter-revolutionary movements in another important way. It is a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie—shopkeepers, doctors, low-level officials, foreman and the self-employed. This class occupies a contradictory position in society. When capitalism is relatively stable the petty bourgeoisie tends to tail either the main capitalist parties or the parties of the working class. But during extreme economic crises the petty bourgeoisie can look to create its own movement—a movement of despair.
Members of this class are individualised and isolated, and during political and social crisis these tendencies are often heightened. The capitalist class is usually able to ride out the storm by living off the wealth it has accumulated; the working class has its trade unions that give it some protection against the ravages of the crisis. The petty bourgeoisie believe that they suffer most. Their small businesses often go to the wall first and their savings can be eaten away by inflation as the stocks and shares they own are rendered worthless. Their status in society is also threatened. They fear the long drop into the working class or, worse, unemployment. The shame of bankruptcy eats away at their soul and it is at this point that their prejudices and jealousies come pouring out. They are drawn to organisations with a radical rhetoric against the system, whose focus of activity is on the street. Fascism articulates their fears and it also articulates their political aspirations. It talks about protecting the “little man” from the “twin evils” of capitalism and communism. This does not mean that fascist parties do not win support among people outside the middle class. The bigger a fascist movement becomes the more it is able to recruit from the unemployed and from sections of the working class.
In the 1920s and 1930s fascist parties built mass movements based on the middle class, but they could not take power without the political and financial support of the ruling class. Hitler’s Nazis were bankrolled by business leader Fritz Thyssen and other sections of German capitalism. Mussolini’s fascists were backed by the Pirelli brothers and other industrialists.4 The fascist parties offered the ruling class a solution in the form of a mass movement of counter-revolution.
Fascist movements use a dual strategy of building brute force on the ground and creating a “respectable” political facade. Hitler developed a similar strategy in Germany in the 1920s. At first he tried to seize power by force with the “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923 but this ended in humiliation and defeat for his fledgling Nazi Party.
Fascism has never taken power in a country simply through elections—fascist parties have always been handed power by ruling classes in crisis. So Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933 as Germany’s rulers faced an extreme economic crisis that they feared could spark a workers’ revolution. Mussolini’s fascist party arose out of former veterans of the First World War who organised themselves into right wing gangs to attack socialists and trade unionists. Mussolini combined these gangs with a “respectable” nationalist political organisation. At first Italy’s rulers were suspicious but by 1922 their fear of the rising workers’ movement overcame their distrust and Mussolini was granted power.
The cost of Hitler’s Nazi Party taking power was a catastrophe. It led to the destruction of the most powerful working class in the world and culminated in the Holocaust, the systematic murder of six million Jews and millions of “Slavs”, Gypsies, gays and lesbians, the mentally ill and the disabled.
The legacy of the Nazi regime poses a real problem for today’s fascists. If they ape their political messiahs—Hitler and Mussolini—they find themselves at the fringes of political life. They have been forced to deny their political heritage and rebrand their political ideas. Today the BNP spends a great deal of time and energy denying that it is a fascist party. I hope in the coming sections of this article to demonstrate that the BNP remains committed in deed and thought to the goals of fascism.
The resistible rise of the BNP
In electoral terms the BNP has been by far the most successful fascist organisation in Britain but its rise has not been inexorable and over the past 28 years its support has ebbed and flowed. The party was founded in 1982 after a split from the National Front (NF), then the biggest fascist organisation in Britain. During most of the 1980s the BNP, led by John Tyndall who ran the party as his own personal fiefdom, stood in the shadow of the NF. But its fortunes began to improve from the late 1980s. A key factor was the first electoral breakthrough in Tower Hamlets, east London, in 1993.
East London has been a traditional stomping ground for right wing and fascist parties. The British Brothers’ League had led a vicious campaign against Jewish migrants at the beginning of the 20th century; east London was a stronghold for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, which polled 23 percent of the vote in North Bethnal Green in 1937 and continued to organise there even after the Second World War; the area was fertile ground for the NF in the 1970s. Yet it would be wrong to characterise east London as a racist enclave. It has a rich tradition of fighting racism and fascism stretching back to the socialists who campaigned against the British Brothers’ League, through the actions of the Communists, Independent Labour Party members, and Jewish and Irish workers who stopped Mosley at the battle of Cable Street in 1936, to the Anti Nazi League campaign against the National Front in the 1970s.
In 1990 the BNP gained votes of 9.71, 8.4 and 12.1 percent respectively in council elections in the Globe Town, Park and St Peters wards of Tower Hamlets. These results were the highest votes gained by any fascist party for a dozen years. Two years later it focused its general election efforts in east London, with John Tyndall getting 3 percent of the vote in Bethnal Green & Stepney and his right hand man Richard Edmonds getting 3.6 percent in neighbouring Bow & Poplar. Polling data suggested it got a number of votes from the Isle of Dogs area despite a lack of campaigning,5 and this was where the BNP won 20 percent of the vote (657 votes) in a council by-election in October 1992. The BNP flooded the area and began systematically working on the estates. Then, in a council by-election in the same ward on 23 September 1993, its candidate Derek Beackon gained 34 percent of the vote (1,480 votes) and it won its first ever election.
How did the BNP make this electoral breakthrough? First and foremost the Liberal Democrats, who controlled the council at the time, made the BNP’s racism respectable. Housing was and still remains a key issue for working class people and a source of racial tension. The Liberal Democrats introduced a “sons and daughters” housing scheme that prioritised housing through a points scheme based on the length of residency of people’s parents. This scheme favoured white residents and pushed migrant workers further down the housing priority list. The Liberal Democrats were also more than happy to play the race card. One local paper reported that a Liberal Democrat councillor was travelling to Bangladesh to argue that Tower Hamlets had “no room for immigrants”.6 In the run-up to the 23 September 1993 council elections they produced leaflets suggesting that they favoured white residents.
Instead of taking a firm stand against all this the local Labour Party caved in and implied that they supported the “sons and daughters” policy. Worse, in order to weaken the Liberal Democrat challenge Labour published false canvassing returns suggesting that the BNP could win. The idea behind this crazy plan was to win back Labour voters, but all it did was legitimise the BNP.
The local BNP branch also found new ways to tap into the frustration and discontent in the borough. It organised a “Rights for Whites” campaign and demonstration in 1990 after a local white boy was injured in a fight with a gang of Asian youths. I was there that day on a counter_BNP picket. Theirs was not your usual Nazi protest. The Nazi regalia and flags were absent and the skinheads were told to stay away. This was a demonstration coordinated by Nazis in their Sunday best joined by 300 to 400 local people waving St George’s flags and singing “chirpy” cockney songs.
The BNP boasted that it was able to speak to “literally thousands of local people, selling them papers and creating the image they wanted to create of the BNP, as opposed to the negative media stereotype”.7 The BNP tried to project its members as local activists and pillars of the community but the brutal reality was never far from the surface. In 1992 BNP thugs organised several attacks on Anti Nazi League (ANL) stalls in Tower Hamlets and just a week before the election a gang of 30 to 40 BNP members went on the rampage on Brick Lane attacking shops and breaking windows.
The reaction by the left to the BNP victory was instant. A Socialist Workers Party member and Unison union steward led a section of Tower Hamlets council workers out on strike. The ANL organised a picket of the BNP newspaper sale at the top of Brick Lane. The BNP, and before it the NF, had sold there for years. It was a provocation to the local Bengali community. The picket drove the BNP sellers away and they have never returned. Across the country the ANL organised a mass campaign involving leafleting of estates and workplaces to get the anti-Nazi message across. Finally the TUC organised a 40,000-strong demonstration against the BNP through Tower Hamlets.
The BNP predicted that Beackon would hold on to his seat in May 1994 council elections. It was wrong. He lost the seat to the Labour Party although he still came second with 2,041 votes (28 percent). The BNP stood 29 candidates across the country getting an average of 13.7 percent.8 Many party activists were demoralised by the result and for the rest of the decade the BNP remained at the margins of British political life with only 0.1 percent of the vote in the 1997 general election and 0.19 percent in 2001.
In September 1999 Nick Griffin won the party’s first ever leadership election, taking 1,082 votes to incumbent John Tyndall’s 411. This signalled a change in direction for the BNP. Griffin was no stranger to fascism. He went to his first meeting of the NF aged 15. As a student at Cambridge University he established the “Young National Front Students” society. He also took up boxing after he was driven off the streets by anti-fascists in Lewisham, south London, in 1977.9 In 1980 he became a member of the NF governing body, the National Directorate, set up the NF Student Organisation and launched the magazine Nationalism Today.
He left the NF in 1989 and with Derek Holland formed the International Third Position (ITP). The organisation was named after an old fascist slogan—Nazism was the “third way” between “Jewish” capitalism and “Jewish” Bolshevism. The ITP was a secretive organisation. Included in its ranks was the Italian fascist Roberto Fiore, wanted at the time by the Italian state in connection with the bombing of Bologna which left 85 dead and 200 injured.10 Tyndall asked Griffin to join the BNP in 1995. He immediately began to edit the BNP publication Spearhead. He was also the editor of The Rune, an anti-Semitic newspaper. In issue 12 Griffin called the Holocaust “the Holohoax” and criticised Holocaust denier David Irving for admitting in an interview that up to four million Jews might have died. Griffin wrote, “True revisionists will not be fooled by this new twist to the sorry tale of the hoax of the 20th century”.11
During his 1998 prosecution for incitement to racial hatred Griffin said, “I am well aware that the orthodox opinion is that six million Jews were gassed and cremated and turned into lampshades. Orthodox opinion also once held that the world is flat… I have reached the conclusion that the ‘extermination’ tale is a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and witch-hysteria”.12
The BNP was divided into two camps when Griffin took over the leadership in 1999. Those around Tyndall and John Edmonds wanted to continue with an out and out fascist party modelled on the NF and Hitler’s Nazi Party; others such as Tony Lecomber, Michael Newland, Steve Edwards and Sharon Edwards wanted to see a new repackaged BNP that presented itself as more voter-friendly. Griffin united with the second group. He outlined the direction he wanted to take the BNP in the magazine Patriot, run by Nazi thug and convicted bomber Tony Lecomber:
Politics is always the art of the possible, so we must judge every policy by one simple criterion: is it realistically possible that a decisive proportion of the British people will support it? If not, then to scale down our short-term ambitions to a point at which the answer becomes “yes” is not a sell out, but the only possible step closer to our eventual goal.13
Griffin’s objectives were clear. The party would have to water down its policies in order to win an electoral base. He decreed that the BNP had to do away with the “three Hs—’hard talk’, ‘hobbyism’ and ‘Hitler’”.14 He was urging his members to stay away from violence, football hooliganism, skinhead culture and Hitler worship. But the party’s ultimate “goal” remained a fascist state. He spelt this out absolutely clearly in the same issue of Patriot:
Instead of presenting the party as a revolutionary alternative to the system, we must present them [the electorate] with an image of moderate reasonableness… Of course we must teach the truth to the hardcore. But when it comes to influencing the public, forget about racial differences, genetics, Zionism, historical revisionism and so on.
Griffin has used a great deal of political capital fighting those in his party who are frustrated by electoral politics and want to go back to “street fighting”, fascist style rallies and parades—the “traditionalists”. He expelled John Tyndall and John Edmonds for being disruptive in 2002. Griffin’s drive to ditch the BNP’s fascist image and repackage its ideology to make it more politically acceptable to a section of the electorate is not new. Historically fascist organisations have always been divided between an electoral wing and those who want to see a movement based on the streets.
Griffin is copying the strategy put forward by French National Front (FN) leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen argued that in order to build up the FN’s strength its members could no longer openly proclaim their dedication to Hitler and genocidal racism. Instead they would present themselves as nationalists who were concerned about immigration and multiculturalism. Le Pen famously described his politics as “neither left nor right, but French”. Just as with Griffin this did not mean dropping fascism but hiding it. Le Pen continues to leave open the possibility of a more revolutionary strategy should the circumstances prove favourable. Just how far Griffin has gone in imitating his French allies could be seen when Griffin launched a bi_monthly magazine called Identity. Le Pen’s bi-monthly magazine was also called Identité. The name, an editorial said, was chosen to reflect the “new modernist nationalism to which the British National Party is now firmly committed” aimed at “the preservation of the identity of the traditional inhabitants and cultures of Britain”. The more contentious term “race” would disappear.15
The electoral rise of the BNP
In the 1999 European elections the BNP only gained 1 percent of the national vote. But from the polling returns it was able to glean the areas it had polled well in. Two towns stood out—Oldham and Burnley. In both it gained over 10 percent of the vote and these became key target areas. The BNP reaped the harvest in the 2002 council elections, taking an average of 27 percent of the vote across the five wards it contested in Oldham. In Burnley it did even better, winning three council seats. It was the electoral breakthrough Griffin was looking for.
The BNP did not even have an active branch in Oldham in 1997. But again it was the establishment that helped it on its way. In January 2001 the head of Oldham police division, chief superintendent Eric Hewitt, voiced concerns about a rising number of attacks by Asian youth on white men in the town. Hewitt was just pandering to racists since ethnic minorities were six and a half times more likely to be victims of racist attacks than their white counterparts. The local press ran a series of scare stories that had the effect of whipping up racist tensions in the area. The BNP seized the political opportunity, campaigning against plans to build a mosque and organising an “Equal Rights for Oldham Whites” protest outside the police station. It was Tower Hamlets all over again. Tensions were further stoked up when the NF proposed a march through the city. According to one former member the BNP was deliberately issuing fake NF press releases in an attempt to raise the political temperature.16
Tensions grew in April 2001 as more than 450 Stoke City football hooligans ran amok in a predominantly Asian area of the town, and in the following weeks various fascist groups and gangs of white youth roamed around the town intimidating Asian people. The town exploded on the night of 26 May 2001 into a full-scale riot between the police and Asian youth that continued for three nights.
Obviously fascist groups were able to stir up the situation but the independent Ritchie Report stated that the riot revealed wider problems: “Poverty and social exclusion aggravated by a lack of government funding had caused the three nights of violence” and it suggested that the council was doing little to challenge the racial segregation in housing and education that had gone on in the town for 30 years. It also noted that only 2.6 percent of the council’s staff came from ethnic minorities, “a form of institutional racism” and evidence of an “unwillingness” of the council to face realities.17
After the riots the BNP was able to distance itself from the NF with the help of the local paper which allowed Griffin to claim, “We’re not here to put others down or cause trouble; all we want is a fair deal for our own people: equal rights for whites!”18
There is a common liberal argument that if you do not give fascist parties publicity by attacking them, no one would notice their existence and vote for them. But as figures 1 and 2, and table 2, show, the BNP has been able to build on its council election victories since its initial breakthrough in 2002. There are now 20 constituencies across the country where it polls above 7 percent. BNP council seats are not only found “in a few troubled towns and cities in the north west”.19 It currently has 55 councillors in places such as Stoke, London, Yorkshire, the Midlands and Sevenoaks, and a member on the London Assembly (these figures do not include the 2009 June elections).20 As table 2 and figure 2 show, there is an ever growing list of wards at risk to the BNP as all the mainstream parties find it more and more difficult to turn out their vote.
Electorally the BNP is Britain’s most successful fascist party. Mosley’s British Union of Fascists won only two council seats in the 1930s, while the NF, Britain’s largest fascist group, failed to win any seats in the 1970s.
Table 2: The BNPs results in the 2005 general election
|Number of seats where BNP got more than 5 percent||33|
|Number of seats where BNP got more than 6 percent||21|
|Number of seats where BNP got more than 7 percent||10|
|Number of seats where BNP got more than 9 percent||7|
|Number of seats where BNP got more than 10 percent||3|
Figure 1: Number of BNP councillors
Figure 2: General election votes for BNP
There was also a rise in the BNP’s votes in the London Assembly elections from 2000 to 2004. In 2008 another rise, this time of just 0.6 percent of the poll, allowed the BNP to cross the 5 percent threshold needed to win a seat. The BNP vote in the mayoral election was 69,710, just over half the vote that they got in the London Assembly elections. This indicates that half of the people who voted BNP tactically voted for the Tory Boris Johnson as their first preference—the BNP had called for a second preference vote for him.21
Of course, local variations have enabled the BNP to win particular seats. In all of these areas the BNP were aided by three interrelated factors: the collapse of local mainstream parties, the politicisation of race by the three major parties and anti asylum seeker hysteria.
Racism and the growth of the BNP
We have seen a growth of fascist parties across Europe over the past 30 years. In the 2004 European elections, while the BNP gained 4.9 percent of the vote, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang polled 23.2 percent, Italy’s Alleanza Nazionale 11.5 percent and Le Pen’s Front National 9.81 percent. At a local council level the gap is even wider. The Front National had close to 2,000 councillors by the end of the 1990s and Vlaams Belang had 809 municipal and 88 provincial councillors elected in 2006 compared to the BNP’s 55. The so-called “new fascist” parties have all seen their fortunes grow when the mainstream political parties of the centre have collapsed or have been politically damaged by scandal or political crisis. They have also grown while the mainstream parties legitimise racism or attack ethnic minority communities.
Is Britain becoming a more racist society? There is not a yes or no answer; the issue is more complex than that. The proportion of people surveyed who said they were either very or a little prejudiced dropped between 1983 and 2001 from 35 percent to 25 percent, and 25 percent remained the figure in a poll in August 2005 (a month after the London bombings of 7 July 2005).22 But although the general levels of racism have fallen over the past 30 years the levels of racism have increased in three areas—over the question of asylum seekers, Islamophobia and migration. The political class and the media have driven these forward as perceived problems playing into the hands of the BNP.23 Wherever the BNP has gained ground it has been on the basis of a rise in racism and concessions made to the racist agenda.
The wave of racism against asylum seekers
There was a racist onslaught on asylum seekers by both the media and many mainstream politicians at the fag end of John Major’s Tory government and in the first years under Tony Blair. National newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express ran stories on a daily basis scapegoating asylum seekers and accusing them of being “bogus”, “scroungers” and “rapists”. Some local newspapers went further, with an editorial in the Dover Express describing asylum seekers as “human sewage”.24 The Tories introduced the inhumane anti-asylum laws, which gave the authorities the right to lock asylum seekers up in prisons and camps. Labour promised to repeal the Tory laws. However, in office it not only kept them but also introduced dehumanising vouchers and dispersal schemes.
Police figures in April 2000 showed that the number of racist incidents had doubled in the previous 12 months. There were 1,500 racist incidents in the first three months of 2000, compared with 1,000 for the whole of the previous year.25 Bill Morris, Britain’s first ever black trade union leader, delivered a powerful warning to Britain’s politicians:
The United Nations has charged the Tories with whipping up racial intolerance. But the [Labour] home secretary and the Home Office must accept responsibility for creating the environment where it is acceptable. The mood music is playing a hostile tune for black Britons. By heralding measure after measure to stop people entering Britain, the Home Office has given life to racists.26
The constant attacks on asylum seekers helped the BNP gain support and legitimacy. Griffin told a Guardian reporter, “The asylum seeker issue has been great for us… It’s been quite fun to watch government ministers and the Tories play the race card in far cruder terms than we would ever use. The issue legitimises us”.27
Figure 3 shows that the majority of people do not have fixed racist positions on the question of immigration and asylum. People’s fears and concerns rise and fall depending on a number of factors, of which the most important are the role of the media and the condition of the economy. There is no evidence to show that the BNP prospers in areas where there are large numbers of asylum seekers. The Democratic Audit (a think tank based at Essex University) found that the higher the numbers of asylum seekers allocated to a locality the lower the level of BNP support. But its explanation, that the government avoids sending asylum seekers to areas with high or potentially high levels of such support, is wrong. The real explanation is that racist attitudes arise from perceived ideas, not reality. So the BNP performs better electorally in so-called “whiter” areas on the periphery of higher “ethnic minority/asylum seeker” populations. This corresponds to a pattern of voting detected in France, referred to by the Front National as a “halo effect”. It is the fear of immigrants rather than the direct contact with migrant communities that favours the fascists.28 Integration of asylum seekers into an area actually undermines the BNP and its racist ideas.
Figure 3: Percent ranking “race relations, immigrants or immigration” as the most important issue
The next wave of racism came in the wake of 9/11 in 2001, the
US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the London bombings of July 2005. Each event brought with it an increase in anti-Muslim violence, verbal abuse and attacks on property. As far as the British political, media and literary establishment were concerned the normal rules of engagement were suspended. Peter Oborne and James Jones have highlighted a number of high profile media stories depicting Muslims in a racist manner. They also show that many of these stories were either entirely made up or distorted.29 This was not just true of the right wing gutter press. Take journalist Polly Toynbee, normally regarded as a model liberal and champion of the oppressed. As long ago as 1997 she wrote in the Independent, “I am an Islamophobe, and proud of it”.30 Can you imagine her declaring, “I am an anti-Semite and proud of it”? A Conservative columnist wrote in the Independent, “There are widespread fears that Muslim immigrants…will succeed where Islamic armies failed and change irrevocably the character of European civilisation”.31
Such disgraceful assaults on Muslims allow Griffin to push the argument even further. He told one journalist for the Financial Times, just days before the Euro elections, that he had “nothing against Sikhs and Hindus”—even though they cannot join the party and he will offer large sums to encourage them to voluntarily repatriate—but he is avowedly “anti-Islam”.32 The BNP has tapped into the hysteria against Muslims through what some critics call the “new racism” or “neo-racism”—a type of racism that denies it is racist and stresses cultural differences.
In Stoke on Trent the BNP has nine councillors. Its leaflets contrast pictures of the local area 70 years ago with silhouettes of mosques and of three women wearing niqabs. The headline asks “Is this what you want for your city centre?” It has campaigned against the building of a mosque and has distributed leaflets claiming Muslims were getting priority for council housing.33 In Dudley its leaflets claimed that the council gave funds to build mosques when in fact Muslims raised the money themselves. In Bradford leaflets claimed that Asian men were grooming under-age white teenagers for sex. The campaign was made easier for the BNP when the local Labour MP Anne Cryer told journalists, “I think there is a problem with the view Asian men generally have about white women. Their view about white women is generally fairly low”.34
The fascists have always tried to gain support by campaigning against migration into Britain and they have always been boosted by government action to limit it. This is what happened in 1968. Racist Tory MPs such as Enoch Powell and Duncan Sandys claimed, wrongly as it turned out, that 20,000 Asians holding UK passports in Kenya would “pour” into Britain. The Labour government panicked and passed the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, which removed the right to entry and settlement in Britain from UK passport holders lacking a “close connection” through birth in the country or a British parent or grandparent. According to the Runnymeade Trust, “The close connection device was designed to ensure that white settlers in East Africa retained the right of entry while black settlers, despite holding the same passport, did not”.35
Far from weakening the racists the passing of the act gave Powell the confidence to raise the stakes and make his notorious “rivers of blood” speech on 20 April 1968. He was sacked from the Tory shadow cabinet, but racism was made to look respectable and 1,500 dockers struck in support of Powell and marched to parliament. Tyndall has said that the hysteria and Powell’s speech helped unite the recently formed NF and gave it a taste for propaganda work. The NF’s membership doubled—according to some historians to 17,500. A second wave of hysteria in the media about Asian immigration, this time from Uganda, in 1972-4 saw Tyndall’s right hand man Martin Webster poll over 16 percent in West Bromwich. There was a third wave of media hysteria in 1976, when just 130 Malawian Asians were allowed into Britain. Once again the NF’s fortunes were boosted. It believed its time was coming when it polled 120,000 votes in the Greater London Council elections. Once again the Labour government rolled over in the face of this racist backlash. Home secretary Merlyn Rees was asked by a TV reporter, “What you really mean is that immigration control is a device to keep out coloured people?” He replied, “That is what it is”.36
A massive campaign organised by the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism put a stop to the NF’s rise. But the lessons of the late 1960s and 1970s were that concessions to the racists did not hold them back. As Paul Foot wrote, “One of the most constant rules in the history of immigration controls is that those demanding controls are encouraged, and not silenced, by concessions. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968, far from stemming the tide, encouraged it still further”.37
We have seen this again over the past dozen years. So long as the economy remained relatively healthy, the Blair and Brown governments encouraged migrant workers from Eastern Europe to come and work in Britain. Government figures for 2004/2005 record that 264,000 came from Poland, 50,535 from Lithuania and 44,300 from Slovakia. We have an accurate breakdown of their occupations—the biggest groups were warehouse workers, care assistants, shop workers and caterers.38 Far from being a drain on society they contributed massively to the wealth of this country. But as soon as the economy went into a tailspin, Brown and his ministers made a U-turn. The saviours of the British economy suddenly become the problem. Immigration minister Phil Woolas summed up how low Labour would stoop in an interview with the Times:
It was, he says, fighting racism that got him into politics… Mr Woolas describes dealing with immigration as “my lifelong purpose” but he is not going to be pandering to what he calls Hampstead liberals… The government must, he insists, face up to the voters’ concerns about the level of immigration—particularly as recession looms. The economic downturn changes everything, he says. “Clearly if people are being made unemployed, then the question of immigration becomes extremely thorny.” Employers should, he believes, put British people first, or they risk fuelling racism. “In times of economic difficulties, racial stereotyping becomes stronger but also if you’ve got skills shortages you should as a government attempt to fill those skill shortages with your indigenous population… I’m going to help the British back to work”.39
Just as in the past, Labour’s shift to accommodate the racists’ arguments did not protect them at the ballot box. It only strengthened the likes of UKIP and the BNP.
The BNP and the economic crisis
Within weeks of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Nick Griffin was outlining his party’s views on the economic crisis and the possibilities it opens up for them:
The “credit crunch” and the resultant banking collapse have utterly discredited the twin doctrines of globalisation and unrestrained international capitalism. There is now likely to be a period of fierce competition between different ideas about what should take their place. Indeed, there is even a risk that we may now witness a resurgence of sterile Marxist-Leninist economics, as old-fashioned state socialists try to portray their bankrupt theories as the only possible alternative to “red in tooth and claw” capitalism. There is a coherent and intellectually rigorous alternative to the false dichotomy between Marx and capital in the form of Economic Nationalism, the economic system favoured by the British National Party.40
This is fascist “third way” economics in its purest form. Just like Hitler in the 1930s, Griffin is addressing the concerns of the “little man”—the small business man, the self-employed van driver or the former soldier who has fallen on hard times. Griffin has a long-term strategy for the BNP to take power. He believes—hopes—that the entire economic system will experience systemic collapse. He predicts that this will lead to Third World instability, Islamic radicalisation and mass migration that will swamp the West.41 The BNP, by establishing a permanent foothold in British political life, will then become a beacon for the “indigenous”, “white” Britons. He even told a Radio 4 reporter in 2007 that he believed the BNP would be in power by 2040!42 By January 2009 Griffin was becoming even more confident, telling supporters at a by-election meeting in Haywards Heath, “Our time is coming.”
“British jobs for British workers”
In February 2009 workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery walked out on strike. They were joined by up to 10,000 refinery, power and construction workers from across Britain. These wildcat strikes were a reaction to growing unemployment in the industry and the fear that foreign workers were undermining pay and conditions. The slogan adopted by many of the workers was “British jobs for British workers”. Sadly, many union leaders were also happy to use the slogan. Yet it leads workers up a blind alley. It pits worker against worker instead of worker against boss
The slogan originated in a speech by Gordon Brown to delegates at the Labour Party conference 2007. Why did Brown use such an inflammatory statement? After all it was used by Mosley’s fascists in the 1930s and the NF in the 1970s. Some inside Labour claim that Brown’s aim was to undermine the BNP. But far from weakening them, it has, in the words of Griffin, “made our message more respectable”. The slogan was perfect for the BNP. It had political legitimacy; it was used by Brown and sections of the trade union leadership. But most of all it promoted the idea of British identity and values—the terrain the new fascists want to fight on.
It gave fascists a route in to organise around a strike, something we have not seen in Britain for over 30 years. Tony Woodley, the joint secretary of the Unite union, told reporters, “The British National Party are seriously and sizably involved, infiltrating meetings and posing as organisers”.43 A BNP ad van toured some picket lines and youth BNP members gave out leaflets on many picket lines. The “Wildcat” website referred to by many strikers was run by BNP members. The BNP did not lead the dispute, they just worked around the edges of it, and union stewards to their credit chased the BNP off the Lindsey picket lines after four days. The real prize for the BNP was that it was able to popularise the slogan on the streets. It immediately put out a leaflet supporting the strikes with the headline “British Jobs for British Workers”, and on ballot papers for the Euro elections it described itself as “British National Party—Protecting British Jobs”.
The crisis of Labour
The BNP’s initial Isle of Dogs breakthrough in the early 1990s was against a backdrop of the prolonged demise of the Tories under John Major. The BNP was unable to build on its election victory for two reasons. First, the Anti Nazi League organised a hard-hitting national campaign to confront the BNP and label it as a Nazi Party. This made it hard for the BNP to pose as “respectable” and cut it off politically from much of its electoral base. Second, Labour was in opposition in the early 1990s and could position itself as an alternative to the Tories.
Today the BNP is growing under a Labour government, a government that has left many of its supporters angry and demoralised. Backing for Labour among its traditional working class base is shrinking. The war on Iraq, the economic crisis and the MPs’ expenses scandal have weakened the party and reduced the legitimacy of parliament. Patrick Seyd, a politics professor at Sheffield University who has written extensively on Labour, noticed that members were leaving the organisation and refusing to vote for it within 18 months of Blair’s election. He put this down to the government’s attacks on the poor and single mothers.44
How far Labour has its lost support among working class people is demonstrated by Alexander Lee and Timothy Stanley. In 1997 50 percent of C2 voters (a sociological category for skilled manual workers) and 59 percent of DE voters (semi-skilled and unskilled workers) supported Labour. By 2005 this had dropped to 40 percent and 48 percent respectively. In areas like Burnley, Yorkshire & Humberside, Barking and the north west Labour’s share of the vote had seriously diminished.45 These are areas where the BNP has made electoral breakthroughs.
It is not just Labour’s voting base that is haemorrhaging. Party membership is also falling. At the end of 2007 it was 176,891. That was scarcely 40 percent of the 405,000 peak reached in 1997 and is thought to be the lowest total since individual membership of the party began. But it is also widely believed that Labour’s real membership now stands at 120,000. From its membership subscription income one can infer that there are just 100,000 standard rate-paying members.46
Labour’s “triangulation” strategy47 involved shifting party policy to the centre ground in order to increase electability and outmanoeuvre the opposition. It assumes that neglecting the party’s traditional base does not matter since it has had nowhere else to go. It has left activists demoralised and an electorate who rightly believe Labour no longer cares about them. Labour’s vote in the Euro election shows how far the decline has gone.
The collapse of Labour has left a political space that Griffin and the BNP have been quick to exploit. Soon after winning the BNP’s leadership contest Griffin proclaimed that the party would become “the focus of the neglected and oppressed white working class”.48 Again Richard Barnbrook, then the BNP’s candidate in Barking & Dagenham and its London organiser, told the authors of one report that the BNP was “more Labour than Labour”.49
Who votes BNP?
The media regularly claims that the BNP gets most support from dissatisfied sections of the white working class and that the average BNP member comes from this social background. Many on the left accept this view. The reality is more complicated. Historically, as we have seen, fascism has been a primarily middle class movement. There is evidence that this is just as true of present day fascist organisations. The Nazi thugs who went on the rampage in Luton in May 2009 or the fascist gangs that attacked students at Rome University in 2008 may have been working class males. Nevertheless, the popular appeal of the so-called new Nazis is still largely located among the middle class. An article published by the French newspaper Le Monde in April 1998 studied the voting base of the Front National. It found 31 percent of Le Pen’s supporters to be small business owners, 21 percent professional people (doctors, lawyers and so on), 21 percent shop workers, 19 percent unemployed, 8 percent farmers and 16 percent factory workers. Its electoral support came mainly from the classic right and middle class but there was a minority of voters who came from the left.50 Just as with Hitler’s party, the bigger the Nazi vote the greater penetration it has inside the working class.
Is the BNP different? The Democratic Audit report points out that while the BNP has done well in places where Labour had once been strong this does not mean that former Labour voters are simply switching over to the BNP. “The BNP gains its electoral support from all three of the largest parties; and in fact it gains the most from the Conservatives and the least from Labour”.51 Almost a third of the council seats the BNP has won are in previously Tory or independent wards.
We now have a much more accurate picture of the kind of people who join the BNP thanks to a disgruntled member leaking the party’s membership list last year. Table 3 shows the breakdown of occupations of the 584 members who provided this information. Even the most conservative reading of the statistics suggests that at least two thirds of those BNP members who recorded their occupation work in “traditional” middle class professions or are petty bourgeois. It is worth pointing out that only 584 out of 12,000 people on the list stated their occupation. But it gives at least a partial snapshot of the BNP.
A more detailed look at the list reveals that there are over 110 “-ex_servicemen” and 16 serving soldiers. Over 20 are described as former members of the police and Territorial Army. There are another 25 working in “security”, from doormen to personal protection. The list includes five current civil servants, 15 teachers, several ministers of religion (not counting the two witches) and a columnist with the Tory-supporing Spectator magazine. There are four former Labour councillors, 11 former Tory councillors and two former Green candidates. The BNP’s influence inside the union movement is thankfully pitiful. There are four shop stewards and four “former shop stewards”.
The BNP still attracts more than its fair share of Colonel Blimp types. Descriptions written next to some of the members give a glimpse of the kind of people who back the party. In Surrey, for instance, someone is described as a “retired accountant. Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants/Management Accountants. MA (Oxon). Hobbies: military history, ethnology/anthropology, carpentry/cabinet-making. Ex_serviceman & TA Captain.” He claims he is a former district councillor and letter writer. In Gloucestershire there is a business owner (antiquities), who has two suits of 14th- and 15th-century armour and can joust for rallies.
Table 3: Occupations of BNP members52
|Company and shop owners||13%|
|HGV and taxi drivers or driving instructors||7%|
|Police and prison workers||4%|
|Health workers (not doctors)||2%|
Looking at where the people on the list live and the kinds of jobs they do tells us a lot about the nature of its support. In some areas where the BNP has done well electorally there are relatively high numbers of supporters. So Lancashire has 861 names on the list. West Yorkshire has 858. Yorkshire as a whole has more than 1,600 BNP supporters, including 164 in Kirklees, 190 in Bradford and more than 100 each in Barnsley, Sheffield and Wakefield. Essex is up there too with just over 670 members, including 73 in Barking & Dagenham. However, despite the fact that 22 percent of those on the list live in areas with above average deprivation some 16 percent live in well off areas. So there are more supporters on the list who live in the Tory heartland of Surrey than in Britain’s second biggest city, Birmingham—192 compared to 187. The BNP list contradicts the idea that supporters live in areas with high levels of immigration. Only 5 percent live in areas classified as having higher than average Asian populations and just 2 percent in areas with higher than average African Caribbean populations.
Further evidence of the class composition of the BNP was supplied by an ex-member of the Tower Hamlets branch of the BNP. He approached me and another member of Unite Against Fascism and went through the active branch membership list. Again it makes interesting reading.
Table 4: Occupations of members of Tower Hamlets BNP
|Work in the City||4|
|Painters and decorators||1|
Two things are worth noting. Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in London and therefore one would expect it to be more working class in composition than, say, a BNP branch in Surrey or North Wales. But even in the Tower Hamlets branch the vast majority of its members are petty bourgeois and none of them work in the council or NHS, the borough’s two biggest employers. In addition, the Tower Hamlets branch is known to have been the home of some of the BNP’s streetfighters. In fact Combat 18
was able to take over the branch after Beackon lost his council seat in 1994.53 Far from being working class hooligans the six notorious streetfighters in the branch worked in the City or sold newspapers outside tube stations. The ex-member described the streetfighters as “rich kids getting their rocks off on their weekend dose of ultra-violence”.
When Griffin rejects both organised labour and capital he is appealing to the middle class. He blames big foreign multinational corporations for economic problems—making a big play of blaming Jewish owned businesses for the crisis—and blacks, Asians and Jews for social problems. The BNP does draw support from some angry and frustrated working class people. But the vast majority of these people are not fascists and at times of high levels of class struggle many can be mobilised to fight the bosses and break with the BNP. The BNP was nowhere during the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984-5 and was completely marginal during the public sector disputes in France in 1995 and earlier this year.
The strengths and weaknesses of the BNP
In order to achieve a relatively low level of political legitimacy Griffin and the BNP have had to disguise their core fascist beliefs. There are real strengths to this strategy. It has gained the BNP a level of electoral success and political legitimacy unmatched by its predecessors. By hiding its real agenda it has also made it harder for the anti-fascist movement to expose it. In fact, some sections of the left have taken what the BNP says at face value and argued that we should no longer call it a fascist organisation. However, the BNP’s strategy has also opened up real weaknesses. Griffin and his hardcore supporters are well aware of them and they are working hard to resolve them.
When the NF marched in the 1970s it could claim 17,000 members and could mobilise a few thousand to its marches. Despite the BNP’s success at the polls it still only has 3,000 members (the leaked BNP membership list of 12,000 went back several years and contained a large number of people who had left the organisation or people who regarded themselves only as sympathisers). For a fascist party to be successful it has to demonstrate to the ruling class that it can control the streets and can break the back of working class resistance. At the moment the BNP has not been able to put large numbers onto the streets. A few years ago it called a protest in one of its “strongholds”—Dagenham in East London. Despite making it a national mobilisation fewer than 100 BNP supporters turned up. And the BNP is fearful of calling a national demonstration for the fear of being driven off the streets as the NF was at Lewisham in 1977, or humiliated as Mosley was at Cable Street in 1936.
Many of the new members who have joined the BNP have not been won to its full fascist programme. Colin Auty is one such example. In 2006 he became the BNP councillor for Dewsbury in West Yorkshire. In May 2008 he announced that he was going to stand against Nick Griffin for the leadership of the BNP. On his blog Auty blames Griffin for the BNP’s poor public image. He even complained about Griffin’s racism and anti_Semitism. He said persuading people to vote BNP is like “trying to sell a new car with a scratched bonnet”. He also launched a vehement attack on the BNP’s constitution, describing it as “a dictator’s dream”.54 Shed no tears for Auty but his comments are revealing.
There was also the case of Burnley BNP councillor Maureen Stowe, who resigned from the organisation when she discovered it was a racist party. She told Socialist Worker, “The BNP really hid the racism, certainly in my presence. There was a lot of talk about money going into the Asian area of Daneshouse and Stoneyholme. I admit it seemed that way to me. But I’ve seen the figures and it’s just not true.” Maureen was never invited to the “inner core” meetings of the BNP. “I wasn’t formally a member of the BNP”.55 Of course, the majority of people who join the BNP know what they are joining but these two examples show that while the BNP is able to recruit people on the basis of its “softer” policies it still has a problem when it tries to turn them into fascist cadre.
The so called “liquidation” of the BNP creates other problems for the leadership. The BNP contains in its ranks both a section of streetfighters and those who want to use electoral methods to take power. This makes the BNP prone to splits and faction fights. Griffin is happy to use the electoral strategy so long as it helps build the party. For him it is only a tactic that will enable the BNP to carry out its real aims.
Italy shows how these new fascist parties are happy to move from electoral work to a movement on the streets at a blink of an eye. Last year the National Alliance stood Gianni Alemanno as Mayor of Rome. Despite his connections with a number of small neo-fascist groups in Rome he presented himself as a pillar of the community and a friend of working people. He said he would stop financing cultural events such as film festivals that just benefited the middle class and instead spend the money on the poor. But he said he would deal with the issues of public “security” in a way that focused on immigrants living in the city. Alemanno won. This was a green light for the fascist organisations in Rome to take to the streets. New Force, a small fascist organisation, attacked left wing students at Sapienza University in Rome and there were also fascist attacks on the shops of immigrants. The media and the right wing parties defended the attacks, claiming that the immigrants in these shops were dealing drugs.
So far Griffin has been able to hold back the street fighters mainly because of the party’s electoral successes. However, if the BNP was to do badly in an election, there is a real possibility that it could descend into another period of internal strife. Likewise, electoral gains can increase tensions inside the party, giving confidence to those who want to march and control the streets while drawing into the party large numbers who do not fully share its Nazi ideas.
Griffin, while still out to make the party “respectable”, is trying to protect the core values—fascism—from being watered down. In 2007 he proposed a new membership structure designed to safeguard the party and ensure that it remains in the control of a minority of politically educated and ideological activists. There is a two-tier membership. “Standard members” can vote in leadership elections and stand as candidates. But only “voting members” can bring forward policy motions and vote at the BNP’s annual conference. The criteria to be a voting member are two years unbroken membership, undertaking one three-hour session of party work a week, a financial commitment of £10 a month and attendance at education and training schools.56
Griffin is expending a lot of effort attempting to radicalise his party. He set up the Red, White and Blue Festival—once again an idea stolen from Le Pen who organises an annual Bleu, Blanc, Rouge fete.57 Griffin’s event tries to both create a family friendly image of the party and provide a platform for British and European fascists and an outlet for Nazi propaganda.
How do we stop the BNP?
The growth of the BNP has posed a big question for the left and the anti_fascist movement. Nick Lowles, editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, wrote an article last year discussing the way forward for the movement. Much of what he argues I would agree with but he does draw a number of conclusions that would weaken the struggle against the BNP. First, Lowles rejects the slogan “Don’t vote Nazi”. He writes:
A simple “Don’t vote Nazi” is an irrelevant slogan that needs to be discarded immediately. That is not to say that we should not highlight the real politics of the BNP and its leadership but we must address people where they currently are. And in terms of that, very few people see the BNP as a Nazi party.58
But if we are not to call them Nazis what political tag does he suggest we use—far right, neo-fascist or post-fascist? These are all terms Searchlight has used to describe the BNP. Are they terms your average 16 year old would understand? And what does “far right” mean? It could be used to describe Margaret Thatcher or Nicolas Sarkozy. It is meaningless as a political term. It does not explain the strategy and tactics the BNP deploy. Of course, there are many young people who do not know about Hitler and his Nazi regime. But surely part of the anti-fascist movement’s task is to educate young people about the dangers of fascism. Millions of people in Britain do understand who the Nazis were and do make a connection to the BNP today. That is why a recent poll found that 76 percent of those asked said they could never vote for the BNP.59
There is another reason why it is vital that we continue to call the BNP Nazi or fascist: that is exactly what it is. The point of Le Pen’s modernisation strategy is to build the FN as a fascist party by distancing it from its Nazi and collaborationist past. The BNP leadership are also anxious to cover up their fascist politics and their history.
As well as rejecting the slogan “Don’t vote Nazi” Searchlight has argued in many campaigns for the slogan “Vote Labour to keep out the BNP”. This slogan actually weakens our movement. Many people from many different political traditions want to stop the BNP—revolutionary socialists, greens, anarchists and activists who do not support any political organisation. If you force the anti-fascist movement to call for a vote for Labour you end up excluding these forces from the campaign to beat back the BNP. The slogan “Don’t vote Nazi” unites everyone. The slogan does have its problems. During the Anti Nazi League campaigns of the early 1990s when you went around the estates handing out leaflets saying “Don’t vote Nazi” the question, “Well, who do you vote for?” was rarely if ever asked on the doorsteps. Labour in the 1990s was in opposition and, if nothing else, at least offered the illusion that it was going to be better than the Tories. Today Labour is in office and support for it is at an all time low. The question, “Who do I vote for?” is therefore a common response.
In part the BNP has been able to grow because of the failure of Labour to address working people’s problems. This is another reason why the slogan “Vote Labour to keep out the BNP” does not work. For many people the reason they are going to vote BNP is precisely as a protest against the mainstream parties. Sadly there is no short cut for the left; the only answer to that question is the creation of a genuine party to the left of Labour.
Lowes puts forward an additional, particularly dangerous, argument: that we need to ally with all the mainstream parties against the Nazis. He writes, “There will be some who argue for a solely class based approach to anti-fascism but a refusal to work with the mainstream parties will only hand dozens of seats to the BNP and quicken its electoral advance”.60 In relation to Barking & Dagenham Lowles goes even further: “There is also a job for the other main parties [besides Labour]. Even though they are hardly represented on the council (there are no Liberal Democrats and only one Conservative) both parties need to be encouraged to rebuild their local organisations”.61
The musician Billy Bragg has an equally misguided argument which he calls “progressive patriotism”. Put simply, he believes the left have allowed the fascists to capture the flag of St George and so claim to be the inheritors of English nationalism. The way to fight them, he argues, is to reclaim the flag and use English nationalism to create a positive agenda. He uses an anecdote in his book The Progressive Patriot about being on an anti-BNP demo in Shaftesbury in the south west of England. A lone Nazi waved his England flag at the protest. On his way home Billy stopped at a petrol station and saw a tub full of plastic St George’s flags.
A thought crossed my mind: what if I’d brought these flags, all of them, and distributed them to my fellow marchers? What would the lonely counter_demonstrator have done if he had seen 200 people coming towards him, half of them holding anti-BNP placards, the other half carrying their English flags? Would he still have been able to express his opposition by waving his own English flag or would we have forced him to find some other method to display his racist beliefs? A Nazi salute perhaps?62
Unfortunately we know exactly how the BNP would react if the left was to attempt to reclaim the St George’s flag. Over the past few years Sandwell council in the Midlands has adopted Bragg’s idea and held a St George’s Day parade. Each year growing numbers of BNP members have joined the march and last year the BNP held a rally at the end of the parade. The Labour group pulled their support for the parade this year and the organisers banned political parties from the march. What did Griffin do—stand on the sidelines giving a Nazi salute? No, he just marched on his own, telling the press, “I’m here as an Englishman, not to be party political”.63
Reclaiming the flag and trying to put a left wing gloss on English nationalism has not weakened the BNP by pushing it to the margins. It has legitimised it and placed it at the centre of political discourse. Funnily enough the method used by the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism to undercut the NF can also be found in the pages of Bragg’s book:
While the National Front marched beneath their ranks of Union Jacks, we gathered amid our union banners, yellow Anti Nazi League roundels and punk pink RAR stars. We walked the six miles to Victoria Park in high spirits. Ten thousand whistles had been handed out and we all took turns on the megaphone to lead chants of “The National Front is a fascist front! Smash the National Front”.64
Lowles’s and Bragg’s arguments both have parallels in history—in particular in the strategy of the popular front developed by Stalinist parties across Europe in the 1930s.
United front versus popular front
The Communist International first developed the theory of the united front in the years following the Russian Revolution. The “Thesis on Comintern Tactics” of 1922 stated:
The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other political parties and groups, and unaligned workers, in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie. Every action, for even the most trivial everyday demand, can lead to revolutionary awareness and revolutionary education; it is the experience of struggle that will convince workers of the inevitability of revolution and the historic importance of communism.
Leon Trotsky saw this tactic as central to the fight against fascism in the 1930s. To see why, we have to look at what happened in the cases of Germany and France in this period.
Hitler and his Nazi Party polled just 2.6 percent of the vote in 1928. The two main parties of the left were far stronger. The social democratic SPD (the equivalent of the Britain’s Labour Party) had a million members and polled almost seven million votes, and the Communist KPD got three million votes. Two years later the German economy was in ruins as the worldwide slump hit. Industrial production fell by half and the official unemployment figure reached 3,252,000, with some historians estimating the true total closer to six million, 40 percent of the workforce.65
From nowhere Hitler’s Nazis gained 18.3 percent of the vote in 1930 and 37.4 percent in the July 1932 elections.66 This was the highest vote they achieved and by the November 1932 elections it had fallen to 33.1 percent. The Nazis were not primarily an electoral machine. They had over one million members and a private army of 400,000 SA and SS stormtroopers. They also had the support of some major sections of German capitalism.67 The combined vote of the SPD and KPD was greater than that of the Nazis in every free election except July 1932. But, as Trotsky wrote in 1931, you cannot judge the balance of forces by votes alone:
The main strength of the fascists is their strength in numbers. Yes, they have received many votes. But in the social struggle, votes are not decisive. The main army of fascism still consists of the petty bourgeoisie and the new middle classes… On the scale of electoral statistics, 1,000 fascist votes weigh as much as 1,000 Communist votes. But on the scales of revolutionary struggle 1,000 workers in one big car factory represent a force 100 times greater than 1,000 petty officials, clerks, their wives and their mothers in law. The great bulk of fascists consist of human dust.68
The roots of Hitler’s success lay in the failure on the part of the two left parties to unite against the Nazis on the streets and in workplaces. The SPD refused to face up to the Nazis since it was totally committed to working through parliament and the state institutions. When the reactionary Field Marshal Hindenburg was nominated for president the leadership of the SPD backed him on the basis that he was the “lesser of two evils”. At the start of 1933 the SPD leaders even accepted Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on the grounds that it was carried out in a constitutional manner. The problem with the KPD was not its failure to confront the Nazis. Its members regularly fought them. The problem was that it adopted an approach that made it impossible to unite in struggle with the SPD. In line with the “third period” policy imposed on Communists everywhere by Joseph Stalin the KPD branded the SPD and not the Nazis as the main enemy. It even called the SPD “social fascists”. This disastrous policy cut the KPD off from the larger numbers of workers who identified with the SPD.
In a series of articles about the events in Germany, Trotsky argued, “Worker communists, if fascism comes to power it will ride like a terrific tank over your skulls and spines. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. Only a fighting unity with Social Democratic workers can bring victory”.69 Unity, Trotsky urged, should include all those prepared to back a struggle: “The policy of the united front has as its task to separate those who want to fight from those who do not.” That did not mean burying the differences between those who wanted to reform the system and those who wanted to topple it. It meant agreeing to fight around one issue while continuing to argue their positions. Trotsky summed it up: “March separately but strike together! Agree only on how to strike, who to strike and when to strike”.70
Tragically that never happened. A united resistance to Hitler was never achieved and the Nazis were able to march through the middle. The result was, as Trotsky described it, “undoubtedly the greatest defeat of the working class in history”.71
The way to fight the fascists was shown in France a year later. The circumstances were desperate for the French working class in February 1934. The French fascists were exploiting despair caused by economic depression. The largest far right group, the Croix de Feu, claimed 50,000 members. The fascists attempted to smash their way into power by calling an armed demonstration for 6 February and storming parliament. Fifteen people were killed and 1,435 injured as the police beat back the assault. The fascists did not seize power but they did force a change of government to the type of right wing authoritarian regime that paved the way for Hitler in Germany. Panic spread throughout factories and working class areas as news of the fascists’ action circulated. The largest union confederation, the CGT, called a general strike on 12 February. It was an outstanding success. Almost five million workers downed tools. One million took to the streets across France as the leaders of the Socialist and Communist Parties were forced to march together. Here was the unity against the fascists that had not happened in Germany.
But the lessons were not learnt. Fearful of an invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany, Stalin’s regime looked in 1935 to a new form of unity—a pact against Hitler with the right wing governments of France and Britain. There was a complete U-turn. No longer were reformist parties denounced as “social fascists”. Communist Parties now argued that unity had to be achieved with everyone—even politicians representing the middle and ruling classes. This was known as the popular front.
In France the Communist Party spent 18 months organising a pact with a party called the Radicals—they were not radical; they were the equivalent of the modern day “one nation” Tories. In January 1936 the Communists, Socialists and Radicals agreed the Popular Front programme to fight a general election. To keep the Radicals on board the programme was far tamer than even the mealy-mouthed policies of the Socialists. But it was a left wing tide that swept the Popular Front alliance into office in June 1936, with the Socialists and Communists gaining seats while the Radicals suffered losses. The electoral defeat of the main bosses’ parties sparked a new confidence among workers. Strikes erupted and their size and demands went way beyond what the new government and trade union leaders wanted. There were 12,142 strikes and 1.8 million strikers in June 1936 alone. That was higher than the previous annual record for strikes. Over three quarters of the strikes involved factory occupations.
The ruling class thought France was on the brink of revolution. Socialist Leon Blum headed the new government. His first act was to stop the strike wave by organising talks between the bosses and the unions. The near revolutionary strikes compelled the employers to give significant concessions. But the upsurge continued. The Socialist Party and trade union leaders could not halt it. But the Communist Party could. It did not join the government but supported it. To keep its alliance with the Radicals the Communist Party used its influence in the factories to end the strike movement.
Within less than a year the Popular Front government, elected with such left wing hopes, began behaving like the right wing government it had replaced. It attacked workers’ conditions and openly supported French capitalists. The fascists gained a new lease of life as workers’ confidence fell back and disillusionment with the government spread. The Popular Front government finally fell apart in April 1938 and power shifted back to the right. In 1940 the majority of the parliament elected by the Popular Front in 1936 voted to hand power over to Marshal Pétain’s collaborationist regime.
The popular front strategy was also deployed against Franco and his fascist supporters in Spain in 1936. Just as in France, it was a disaster, subordinating working class struggle to efforts to maintain unity with the liberal politicians. Although the situation in Britain today is nowhere near as serious as in France and Spain in the 1930s it is worth looking concretely at what it would mean if the popular front strategy were implemented in Britain. The Tories would certainly veto any hard-hitting anti-racist campaign. Boris Johnson won’t even support London’s anti-racist Rise festival. And can you imagine members of the Tory Party, let alone the leadership, supporting a physical confrontation with the BNP?
Stopping the BNP today
The BNP can be defeated and driven back. A successful campaign against it requires mass mobilisations and detailed local work. There are no quick fixes. Unlike in the 1990s when the BNP only had one councillor, today it has seats in many towns and cities. Griffin’s strategy has so far largely moved away from calling demonstrations and street rallies. So anti_fascists cannot rely on countering the BNP on the streets (although this could change since the BNP did organise a number of “flash” protests and stalls in the run-up to the election).72 We need to develop a strategy to undercut its electoral support.
This requires a shield and a sword.
Our shield has to be the anti-fascist movement. Unite Against Fascism (UAF) is not the classical united front described in Trotsky’s writings on the 1930s. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is not a mass revolutionary party able to call on the Labour Party to work with it on a single issue. But UAF, just like the ANL before it and the Stop the War Coalition today, does deploy the spirit of Trotsky’s united front method. The leadership of UAF contains supporters of the Labour Party, a number of trade union leaders and activists, anti-racist campaigners and the SWP. It attempts to bring together all those threatened by the fascists—trade unionists, Asians, black people, ethnic minorities, LGBT organisations, students, the disabled, anti_racists and the parties of the left.
UAF is also trying to create a broad based organisation that can carry the anti-fascist message to the widest number of people. It does not shy away from calling the BNP Nazi and fascist. Whenever fascists try to encourage attacks on black, Asian or migrant communities, UAF will be there to offer to support resistance. That requires a national organisation. But a grassroots organisation is also needed. For example, when the BNP put out leaflets attacking the building of a mosque in Oldham the local UAF group put out a leaflet exposing the BNP and defending the right of Muslims to build a place of worship. Local knowledge and roots make campaigning stronger.
The leadership of the BNP are fascist to the core. However, many of those who vote BNP are not. Clearly they hold racist ideas but they are not yet won over to fascism. That is why many of the people who vote BNP are ashamed of their actions. Good propaganda campaigns that offer an alternative way of fighting back can pull these people away from the BNP. Part of UAF’s job must be to try to drive a wedge between the fascists in the BNP and the racists who vote for them.
We also need to take the anti-fascist message to the young. In the 1970s members of the SWP along with other anti-fascist activists and musicians set up Rock Against Racism. It organised a number of massive carnivals and hundreds of local concerts against the NF. It played a big role in radicalising young people and pulling young people away from the NF who at the time were trying to build a base among punks, skinheads and mods. Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) is the child of Rock Against Racism. Like its predecessor it uses music to carry an anti-racist and anti_fascist message to young people. It has organised a number of festivals: two in Trafalgar Square in London that pulled crowds of over 40,000 people, a 100,000-strong festival at Victoria Park in east London in the run up to the London elections last year, a 6,000_strong event in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and this May a 24,000_strong festival in Stoke on Trent. It has also organised hundreds of small LHMR concerts and has put on anti_racist events in schools and colleges.
Some people, including Searchlight, challenge the effectiveness of such events.73 Of course, as one of the organisers of LMHR I would dispute this. But on occasions it is best to let others speak up on your organisation’s behalf. Stoke on Trent has nine BNP councillors and that is why LMHR decided to organise a carnival in the city. The local newspaper The Stoke Sentinel, which has a reputation for being “soft” on the BNP, ran the following editorial under the headline “Equality Was The Winner”:
It was billed as an event to celebrate Britain’s multi-cultural society and to unite people through music. For the 20,000 sun-drenched revellers at the Britannia Stadium, it comfortably achieved both. But to the wider community Saturday’s Love Music Hate Racism festival said so much more. In a city where the BNP has established a foothold, there was a resounding show of unity and a determination to oppose racism in all its forms… In the audience, the crowd responded with a defiant message: “This city is moving forwards, not backwards.” Whether it’s election time or not, the area constantly needs to be reminded of its multi-cultural make up and diversity. Love Music Hate Racism was the perfect way to do it… There is no place in our society for the bigotry expounded by racist groups. There is no place on our streets for the hatred they preach. Getting that over to 20,000 people on Saturday was an admirable start. But it mustn’t end there. The onus is on us all to ensure the racists don’t succeed. We need to learn from a young age. Saturday was an opportunity to bring together people from different backgrounds and different walks of life. But, moreover, it was a chance for the city to show a united front against prejudice and extremism. It did just that.74
Much of what LMHR and UAF do is, by its nature, a reaction to the BNP’s activities. But propaganda and campaigning are never enough. The BNP is not a democratic party. Its aim is to create a fascist state which would not only see the destruction of the left and ethnic minorities but also dismantle every vestige of democracy. That means any talk of dealing with it simply through “constitutional means” is a flawed strategy that means fighting them with one hand tied behind your back. Just as our forebears stopped Mosley at Cable Street and dozens of other places in the 1930s, and just as many of us halted the NF’s marches and parades in the 1970s, we also have to be prepared to physically confront the BNP if it attempts to march. This does not mean small squads of streetfighters but thousands and, if possible, tens of thousands of activists.
One weapon we must deploy in our armoury is the tactic of “No Platform for Fascists”. Liberal common sense tells us that democracy is a matter of exchanging views and of critical reasoning. Liberals tend to frame the argument in terms of free speech, saying that however reprehensible the fascists are they should be defeated through debate just like any other political current. Socialists, by contrast, argue that fascism is not a political current like any other and should not be treated as such. The BNP is not like any other political party—when Tories march to defend their “Nimby” way of life they do not create violence or physically attack people. When the BNP comes to town it brings with it fear and murder. Its freedom of speech denies everybody else’s rights and freedoms. For the BNP the ballot box is only a tactic. The rationale of fascism is to become a mass movement on the streets that can smash all democratic institutions.
There is a clear link between BNP activity in an area and a rise in racist violence. When the BNP took its first council seat in Tower Hamlets racist incidents in the borough increased by 300 percent compared to the previous year. Barking & Dagenham Race Equality Council recorded a 30 percent increase in the numbers of racist attacks in the two years after the BNP won its first council seats in that borough, during a period when racist attacks across London as a whole fell.
One cannot rationally “debate” with those who systematically lie about their real aims and views nor can one “debate” with those who use terror tactics and thuggery against ethnic minorities, trade unionists and anyone else who disagrees with them. That means we have to campaign to deprive the BNP of the oxygen of publicity. We have to organise in the union movement, student bodies, our communities and the media to deny it a platform. We say no platform for fascists because of what they are and what they do, not because of their “opinions”, objectionable though these undoubtedly are.
We also need a sword to beat back the BNP.
One of the main reasons the BNP is growing is the despair created by the economic crisis and the hatred directed towards a Labour government that fails to build council housing and lets our public services go to ruin while it finds billions to wage war and bail out the bankers. The BNP feeds off this despair.
That’s why the occupations by workers at Waterford Glass, Visteon and Prisme, and the strikes by the post and tube workers are so important. They point to a different tradition, a different way of fighting, one that does not blame migrant workers, black or Asian people for our problems.
We also have to be honest. The left faces another serious problem in the fight against the BNP. At the moment the BNP is using the ballot box to build a base and is feeding off the despair created by a failed Labour government. As the European elections demonstrated, we cannot point to a left electoral alternative. That does not mean we cannot stop them. After all we beat back the NF in the 1970s and the BNP in the early 1990s and there was no serious left of Labour organisation to vote for then. But in the coming months the left as a whole is going to have to address this problem and try to create a left pole of attraction.
Finally, we need to address a wider problem. My grandfather fought Mosley’s fascists in the 1930s. As a young school student I campaigned against the NF (I still have my “Skateboarders Against the Nazis” badge). I helped coordinate the resistance to Derek Beackon and the BNP in east London in the early 1990s. Today I am the coordinator for LMHR and on the steering committee of UAF.
This time I think we face the most serious threat in my lifetime. I believe we can push the Nazis back again. But I am frustrated with having to counter the fascists every ten years or so when they raise their ugly heads above the parapet. Fascism is not an aberration of capitalism; it is a product of a system, a system that in times of crisis has been prepared to unleash the monster of fascism against working class people. It seems obvious to me that, as well as fighting to drive the fascists out from our communities, we need to fight to create a socialist society.
2: There is a debate among historians about the differences between fascism and Nazism. For the purposes of this article I use both terms interchangeably.
3: Trotsky, 1971, p144.
4: Guerin, 1972, pp33-40, 27-33.
5: Patriot, spring 1997.
6: East London Advertiser, 8 November 1991.
7: Patriot, winter 1997.
8: Copsey, 2004, p66.
9: The Guardian, 19 November 2008.
10: Searchlight, July 1998.
11: BBC, 2001.
12: BBC, 2001.
13: Patriot, spring 1999.
14: Searchlight, August 2002.
15: Identity, January-February 2000.
16: Copsey, 2004, p127.
18: Oldham Chronicle, 29 May 2001.
19: The Independent, 25 May 2009.
21: Unite to Stop the British National Party, Unite Against Fascism pamphlet, pp8-9.
22: BBC “Multicultural Poll”, conducted by Mori.
23: Finney and Simpson, 2009, p52.
24: The Dover Express ran a number of stories during October 1998 attacking Kosovan asylum seekers. The most infamous was published on 1 October 1998.
25: Hassan Mahamdallie, Refugees are not to Blame, Socialist Worker pamphlet, p4.
26: The Independent, 14 April 2000.
27: Guardian magazine, 20 May 2000.
28: Magretts, John, Rowlance and Weir, 2006, pp17,28.
29: Oborne and Jones, 2008.
30: Cited in the Independent, 4 July 2008.
31: Oborne and Jones, 2008.
32: Financial Times, 1 June 2009.
33: G2, the Guardian, 28 May 2008.
34: The Times, 11 August 2007.
35: Quoted in Alexander, 1987, p37.
36: Weekend World, 4 February 1978.
37: Foot, 1969, p111.
38: Smith, 2007, pp63-64.
39: The Times, 18 October 2008.
40: Identity, October 2008.
41: Identity, July 2006.
42: “Turning Right”, BBC Radio 4, broadcast 8 May 2007.
43: Financial Times, 5 February 2009.
44: Interview in Socialist Review, July 1998.
45: Lee and Stanley, 2006, pp4-6.
46: Lee and Stanley, 2006, p38.
47: Copied from Bill Clinton’s strategy in the US in the 1990s.
48: Interview on BBC London South East News.
49: Magretts, John, Rowlance and Weir, 2006, p7.
50: See Bambery, 1993, p61
51: Magretts, John, Rowlance and Weir, 2006, p23.
52: Thanks to Socialist Worker journalist Simon Basketter, who spent hours trawling through the BNP membership list to work out the occupations of many of the members. When the list was first released it was put up on dozens of websites. Sadly under the data protection act, these lists have had to be removed. However, if you have not seen the list, every so often it is posted up.
53: Combat 18 was a group of hardcore Nazis who rejected electoralism in favour of violence, terrorism and intimidation. Its name was a homage to its political guru-the one and eight correspond to the first and eighth letters of the alphabet, “A” and “H”, and stand for Adolf Hitler.
54: Searchlight, June 2008.
55: Socialist Worker, 6 March 2004.
56: Copsey, 2004, pp170-171.
57: If you want to get an idea of how Le Pen runs the Bleu Blanc Rouge festival, there is a fascinating account in Marcus, 1995, pp1-5.
58: Lowles, 2008, p7.
59: Magretts, John, Rowlance and Weir, 2006, p22.
60: Lowles, 2008, p8.
61: Lowles, 2008, p11.
62: Bragg, 2006, pp168-169.
64: Bragg, 2006, p195.
65: James, 1986, pp110-161. Also Roger Eatwell, 2003, makes a compelling case about the real levels of unemployment in Germany in 1930-3.
66: Gluckstein, 1999, p79.
67: Gluckstein, 1999, p68.
68: Trotsky, 1971, pp92-93.
69: Trotsky, 1971, p141.
70: Trotsky, 1971, pp138-139.
71: Trotsky, 1971, p416.
72: “Flash” protests and street stalls are where the BNP turns up in a town centre, leaflets and then clears off. So far, with one or two exceptions, the BNP is not holding regular sales.
73: Lowles, 2008, p8.
74: The Stoke Sentinel, 1 June 2008.
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Bambery, Chris, 1993, “Euro-fascism: The Lessons of the Past and Current Tasks”, International Socialism 60 (autumn 1993).
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Marcus, Jonathan, 1995, The National Front and French Politics (Palgrave Macmillan).
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