The far left, far right and working class votes

4:17 pm - April 11th 2008

by Dave Osler    

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So much for that old labour movement slogan about unity being strength; Marxists of one description or another are contesting seats in the London elections on no fewer than five separate tickets.

The divisions underline a generalised lack of political seriousness, perhaps driven by some sense that the stakes are low. After all, the pumped up borough council that is the Greater Rubberstamp Assembly hardly represents Britain’s most puissant political body, is it? What does it matter that not a single socialist candidate has even a remote chance of success?

Well, it does matter, and this is why. The British National Party is looking good to secure at least one and possibly even two seats. That will confer on it greater legitimacy and a better platform than it has ever previously enjoyed.

The truth is that the BNP has built itself – in the outer eastern suburbs of London, anyway – primarily by articulating real working class grievances. Socialists that still espouse class politics need to ask themselves why the far right is succeeding where the far left has so completely failed.

If you want a warning about where all this might be heading, look at continental Europe. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, parties of the populist right have in country after country both made real inroads into the voter base once enjoyed by social democracy and even the communist parties, and then gone on to consolidate them.

The earlier wave of British fascism peaked too early. The National Front enjoyed some degree of success – short of a real political breakthrough, thankfully – in the 1970s, but then lost ground after Thatcher’s Tories made a play for the anti-immigration vote. Cameron’s Conservatives are not going to do that a second time round.

What is more, today’s social conditions are far more propitious for the far right than the fag end years of the post-war consensus. The diminution of the welfare state, to the greater glory of neoliberalism, has created a terrifying mood of thorough-going despair not always fully visible from a north London winebar.

It would also be wrong for the left to duck the fact that immigration has created tensions within the working class, in a way that Marx and Engels would recognise from their analysis of the impact of the influx Irish labourers in the 1840s. Britain is not the great big happy multicultural family most of us would like it to be.

These are some of the reasons why the BNP vote has increased from 35,832 in the 1997 general election to 192,746 last time round, and from 102,000 in the 1999 Euro-election to 808,200 in the 2004. Labour has lost 4m votes over this period.

There are many reasons why this has happened. By far the largest proportion of the blame accrues to a Thatcherised Labour Party, which long ago abandoned the people it once purported to represent.

But that doesn’t let the existing leadership of the left entirely off the hook; their decades-long failure to cohere a political organisation with any implantation in the social class it purports to represent has essentially given the BNP a free run.

Does it really take the election of two fascists to the Greater London Assembly to shock the Marxist left out of such damnable sectarian complacency? There really should be easier ways to learn this lesson, comrades.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Debates ,Mayor election ,Race relations ,Realpolitik ,Westminster

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Reader comments

The BNP, for all its rhetoric, is really just another faction of the far left:

The solution to getting rid of the BNP is to educate people of the value of the rule of and equality before the law and private property rights.

The problem is that so long as liberal society is presented as an oppressive struggle, the truly disadvantaged will tend to be more convinced that it is a race struggle rather than what other far left parties propose, a class struggle.

The BNP, for all its rhetoric, is really just another faction of the far left:

Oh c’mon please, spare us that rubbish of trying to argue the BNP is a leftist party. I know you guys want to disassociate the party of any mention of the word ‘right’ but this argument is getting rather boring.

The BNP is right-wing not left-wing because its principle policies are social values, not economic values. Its pernicious because of its ultra-conservative and racist social attitudes. Frankly its economic policies, socialist in nature they may be, are irrelevant. We don’t make a big deal about the BNP for that reason. Otherwise you might as well argue that anarchists and many environmentalists are right-wing because they want to cut down state intereference as much as possible.

Just because the Samizdata lot have said it doesn’t make this piece of silly thinking any more right. And that article specifically about the Green Party has so many holes its not even worth engaging with.

3. Innocent Abroad

Well, we have known since the collapse of the Second International in 1914 that tribal identification (whether relating to nationality or ethnicity) is stronger than class solidarity.

The left has only a narrative of struggle, not one of rule – there are no yardsticks to say whether social justice has gone forwards or backwards since 1997, or rather, there are a plethora of yardsticks all of which measure a small part of the picture. More particularly, the left never has had any idea of whether any given “left” government has done the best it could in the circumstances it faced, or has “sold out”.

We are all, at heart, oppositionists. We are happier denouncing injustice, or corruption, than we are administering a system. We legitimise demands through the numbers game, except when we don’t – paying reparations for slavery to the Afro-Caribbean community is apparently a dotty idea whether 0.99% or 99% of Afro-Caribbeans support it.

And above all we suppose that people actually want social justice and greater equality. There’s no evidence that these “moral goods” have ever stirred anyone other than a few intellectuals. For most of the left, since before Marx’s day – for the masses, that is – these have just been flags of convenience for the more basic, more real human demand for power and privilege.

And so we have nothing to say to, for example, a Muslim who says she opposes terrorism because it’s unnecessary – the demographics will deliver Sharia (or some cutesy Westernised version thereof) in two or three generations anyway.

And we no longer know what to think about the State. Even if we could persuade people to want the “moral goods” we know they ought to want, we are utterly clueless as to whether national government can deliver them. We have no theory whatever to deal with the tensions between popular mandates and international institutions – how can Europe-wide elections be meaningful when there are no Europe-wide media, for example?

The BNP have the wrong answers. Unlike us, they do, however, have answers.

The BNP are illiberal – in which case they have much in common with many committed members of more mainstream political parties.

I think it is important to understand that they don’t care about being called left or right, just so long as they are talked about and made acceptable in the process.

In fact they would be happy to conjoin what more outdated commentators call ‘left’ and ‘right’ on their terms – to their narrow personal benefit, as opposed to the benefit of wider society.

The rise of extremist parties are the precise result of the failure of government and the inability of governmental structure to adequately reflect the real needs and concerns of the wider population – the extremists don’t represent solutions, they represent the frustrations.

From my experience I have to say that the analysis in this article is flawed – reactionary votes require spark-points to flame and fuel their furious discontent, so any political party which chases or cultivates this oppositional form of constituency is guilty of undermining the democratic process.

“Otherwise you might as well argue that anarchists and many environmentalists are right-wing because they want to cut down state intereference as much as possible.”

I do 🙂

In fact, I am often in agreement with left anarchists on the majority of things (particularly on reducing corporate power). And while my own priorities aren’t green (I’m a proud urban dweller), there is nothing inherently illiberal about choosing to establish and protect eco-systems with your own resources. I believe Clint Eastwood is both a Republican and environmental activist.

All this right-wing vs left-wing stuff is such a ridiculous diversion when we’re talking about the likes of the BNP.

Samizdata and other libertarians are up for lumping the BNP in with left, on the grounds that their economic policies are somewhat socialistic and their attitudes are more collectivistic than individualistic. In other words, not without some justification.

Others use conflate being ‘right-wing’ with being racist and having other BNP-type attitudes, rather than believing in maximal individual liberty (or, as Nick puts it, minimising state interference). Some even frame the campaign against the BNP as being a matter of left vs right, rather than freedom-lovers versus fascists.

Lib Dems, Libertarians, Labour centrists and Tories should feel as encouraged to join campaigns against fascism as lefties are, and at the moment I don’t feel as if this is the case. Osler’s post (while far from being the worst example) is part of this problem. Face it, Dave, Marxists are a miniscule minority. Framing it as a battle between the ‘Marxist left’ and the BNP is not constructive.

The reason why most people don’t want to join in campaigns (run mostly by equally illiberal idiots on the left) against “fascism” is that:

(1) they dislike the BNP, but don’t believe them to be “fascist” in any serious sense

(2) the BNP has such little electoral traction (unlike equivalent parties in Europe)

(3) whenever they manage to get someone elected to something they implode thanks to their own idiocy

Question That – I’m not sure about the benefit of joining campaigns against fascism, isn’t this just a great example of a futile and self-defeating exercise?

Campaigning is all well and good, but a good campaign has realistic and identifiable objectives, both practically and politically.

I’d have said to campaign against fascism is to campaign against anti-democrats (which is, by definition, not the same thing as supporting democracy) and only possible by assuming anti-democratic techniques of repression.

Instead, how about supporting continued engagement and participation in the political processes of the day? Does one support building party membership and voting entitlements, or reactive demonstrations of guilt-abdication and emotion?

“The BNP is right-wing not left-wing because its principle policies are social values, not economic values.”

Thatcher’s principle policies where economic values not social values. Was she left wing?

Inability to produce high quality technical education and supporting high quality manufacturing so that we maintained our position as an industrial, technical and scientific power. Employing large number of white collar middle class types in local and national government with index linked pensins, flexi time and 35 days holiday per year does not impress the craftsman who has served Queen and Country. The craftsmen, foreman and former members of the armed services are practically extinct within the Labour PartyWheres the Don Concannon, Clement Atlee,Roy Mason , Dennis Healey, Ernie Bevin or Jim Callghan?. The rent a gob shop steward and sociology lecturer, both with massive chips on their shoulders of the 60s to 80s turned many of the hard working, skilled ,patriotic and traditional minded labour voter into Thatcherite Conservatives. Similar happened in the USA when similar democrats voted for Regan. When undertaking dangerous work, be it in the mines, trawlers , construction site or the armed services all that it matters is that you can look in someones’ eyed and trust them with your life. It does not matter whether you are a child of a duke or born into a pennyless family and brought up in the gutter; whether you are a Muslim, Hindi , Buddist, Jew , Christian or atheist. Too many in the Labour Party lack any experience of life beyond their white collar existance: their mettle has never been tested. When people were happy to fly the Cross of st George or the Union Jack they were called fascists; even though some had fought in WW2. How many traditional labour voters had been ridiculed for being royalists. The absurdity is that Lord Carrington,a peer of the realm, educated at Eton who fought in WW2 in the guards and won the Military Cross probably had had more experience of actually working alongside the working class in difficult if not dangerous conditions than the whole of the present Labour cabinet. Lets be honest ,who would employ anyone in the Labour Party to dig a hole in the ground? I doubt whether they know the difference between a shovel , a spade and micrometer!

Thatcher’s principle policies where economic values not social values. Was she left wing?

I think you misunderstood what I said. We judge the BNP on its social values, not economic values, hence its a right-wing org because its social values are extreme right-wing.

Thatcher was possibly more socially liberal than previous Tory govts, but her main thrust was a right-wing neo-liberal economic policy. That was what defined the Thatcher govt, and of course her right-wing foreign polic hawk stances. Which is why she’s right wing 🙂

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