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A different approach to the BNP?


4:10 pm - May 13th 2009

by Rowenna Davis    


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This week the anti-BNP coalition Hope Not Hate released a video depicting Nick Griffin as Hitler leading the next Reich. A viral tool to help prevent the BNP obtaining a seat in the fast approaching European elections, the video made my mates laugh – but it made me feel uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of Hope not Hate. In fact, I’m currently sitting in front of several large boxes of their leaflets to deliver around Tower Hamlets and Islington. But I’m worried about the one-sided, overly negative approach we’re taking.

Fellow Hope not Hate campaigners continue to shout accusations of racism outside gatherings of BNP members, and the leaflets I’m set to deliver brand the BNP a “Nazi party”. I might agree with this, but what about our target audience? I’m concerned they’ll just get BNP sympathisers and supporters’ backs up, and push them further from the mainstream.

I understand why the policy of stigmatisation is useful. I understand that if you brand the party as unacceptable, then it’s harder for the BNP to campaign, to build their membership base or to get platforms for the hate they’re spreading. But negative campaigning on its own is not enough, and in some cases it can be counterproductive.

A recent BBC documentary exposed the stereotypical BNP supporter – the disillusioned racist intent on causing trouble – as a myth. Although the party leaders might be out and out racists, we have to be careful that we don’t isolate grassroots BNP members by tarring them with the same brush. Many BNP supporters are active community figures who simply want to make their neighbourhoods cleaner, safer and more cohesive. These are leftist goals, and we should capitalise on that. Rather than stigmatise BNP supporters, we should try to harness their energy and put it to better use.

History informs this debate. In my local campaign area in the East End, a Jewish anti-fascist campaigner in the 1930s – Phil Piratin – argued that engaging with fascists was a better way to combat racism than the left’s traditional policy of zero tolerance. He persuaded local anti-racist campaigners to join the boxing clubs where the fascists played, encouraging them to make friends and challenge their opinions.

It worked, as did his other strategies. When two families who belonged to the British Union of Fascists faced eviction, Piratin convinced his fellow campaigners to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. The families were saved from eviction, and they tore up their fascist membership cards. Perhaps if we engaged with BNP supporters in this way, they’d do the same.

In some areas, this positive engagement is already going on. In Barking and Dagenham for example, members of Hope not Hate are working with young people on the estates where the BNP is active. By providing them with training and activities, they are stopping the spread of boredom and unemployment that the BNP feeds on. We need more of this.

As a committed member of the movement who wants to see it succeed, I think we’re getting the balance between positive and negative campaigning wrong. I’ll still hand out the stigmatizing leaflets, but I want the chance to hand out some more positive alternatives too.

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About the author
This is a guest article. Rowenna Davis is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to the Guardian.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Race relations ,Realpolitik

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Reader comments


Excellent post.

Rowenna is right, in my opinion.

The BNP are consciously trying to brand themselves as non-Nazi. If they do a good job of this, anti-BNP people shouting “NAZIS!” will come across as hysterical and inaccurate (even if in truth accurate). The BNP will cast themselves as sober, decrying their opponents as over the top looney-lefties. And that will make them look good. Which surely we don’t want.

Many BNP supporters are active community figures who simply want to make their neighbourhoods cleaner, safer and more cohesive. These are leftist goals, and we should capitalise on that.

Sorry, but have you been on the receiving end of the BNP’s grassroots supporters?

They don’t want to improve their communities – that’s just rubbish. That’s just the propaganda to make it about blaming stuff on non-whites. Do you know the record of local BNP councillors in “improving their communities?” At best, it’s a misguided protest against the main parties. Mostly though, it’s racism. Leftist goals? Methinks you’ve been reading too much Norman “that socialist party the BNP” Tebbit.

There are plenty of ways to improve your community. Joining that lot ain’t one of them.

By all means, what we SHOULD be doing is addressing the problems faced by working class people in deprived areas of ALL colours and saying to people in the most convincing way possible that no, immigrants aren’t to blame and here’s why.

I think this article doesn’t distinguish clearly enough between BNP supporters/sympathisers/voters and activists/officers/candidates. The former group we can engage with, the latter group are hardcore fascists and any engagement with them serves no purpose but to make them seem like a real political party.

It’s not just the leaders of the organisation that are out-and-out racists, it’s the entire organisation. Let’s not lend them credibility by writing stuff like this, please.

What’s more, “stigmatisation” isn’t just a tactic. It’s the only rational response to a “party” which isn’t like any other party. It isn’t merely strategy, it’s the truth.

Hmmm, I thought the video was a little misjudged to be honest. I agree with Rayyan’s comments on the whole but as an effective campaigning tool I don’t think screaming abuse gets you very far. The video looks and feels very much like it comes from quite a dogmatic place and so I’m not sure how effective it can be with voters.

Not that I disagree witht he sentiment mind.

I think at this stage a far more positive approach is required, even when slagging off the BNP, so that we don’t simply hold the BNP up as a bugbear but advocate positive action at the same time. So for instance the Stop Nick Griffin site seems to pitch things in a more positive way, and my gut tells me this is a better way to go than whipping up fear.

@Rayyan @tim f:

No-one denies that all the members are, as you put it, “out and out racists”… but this statement needs to be the start of the conversation, not the final world. As I said in my first effort for LC, treating any group of people as a homogenous mass, unable to change, is not going to get anyone anywhere.

“Once a racist, always a racist” is unhelpful and wrong. Rowenna’s post counters this.

6. john zims

Any news yet on whether Lord Rennard is going to repay the £ 41,678 of taxpayers money that he claimed for his so called second home?

I didn’t advocate screaming abuse – I said what we should be doing is telling them that the BNP don’t actually care about solving their problems and that their record as public servants is awful – that blaming immigrants might sound like an easy way out but the problems they face are to do with bad policies that affect immigrants too. Of course the rub comes when you have to tell them to vote for anyone else – if they interpret that as “vote for one of the parties responsible for these policies” then it’s not going to work. It’s easier to do in the North West because there is a positive alternative in Peter Cranie’s Green candidacy. Not saying Hope Not Hate should endorse Green candidates nationally – but it would be easier to present people with a positive alternative rather than vote for anyone else apart from the only people who you feel agree with you, however wrong that is.

We shouldn’t shy away from telling people in plain language that the BNP is racist, but to be honest it’s not like these people don’t know: they either share those views or they’re desperate enough to think there’s no other way of sticking two fingers up at the parties responsible for ignoring them (who also shit upon immigrants too). You’re not telling these people anything new by telling them the BNP are racist but you can’t just omit to mention it, and pretend people will be inspired by your anyone-but-them message which in East London people will assume means voting Labour again.

@Robert, I agree, which is why we shouldn’t not bring it up and talk about how this talk of race and immigration is smokescreen for the actual cause of their problems – plus, this stuff about it being impossible for Asians and Blacks to be British, there will be a lot of people in East London who when that is raised will themselves admit it’s racist rubbish – and that the BNP are just using such talk to pursue their agenda, and they don’t offer a solution to their problems. Of course, like I’ve just said, if you say anyone else they’ll interpret that as a vote for Labour – which is the problem with HNH. Why would they want to vote for Labour, the Tories, or the Lib Dems, especially after the expenses scandal?

There should have been an actual unity candidate in “danger” regions and HNH should’ve backed that candidate as a positive alternative, like in NW – wishful thinking I guess and far too late at this stage, I know.

Just in case this all doesn’t work – we will know what to do next time.

If we acknowledged that many working class people feel divorced from the left wing middle class labour party and those similar types who run much of local government then perhaps people would start listening to those who criticise the BNP. If people want well paid and secure jobs then the BNP will not encourage those companies to set up in run down areas. The Lets inability to realise that technology would remove the need for much un- skilled and semi skilled labour and to train people for high value manufacturing is part of the problem. The BNP will certainly not prepare people to enter the field of high value manufacturing . One accusation which will stick is to state that the BNP is completely incapable of training British people to compete in the field of high value manufacturing in the most competitive globalised markets the World has ever seen. Would you feel safe flying in a plane made by the average BNP activist?

10. just visiting

spot on Rowenna.

Rayyan “We shouldn’t shy away from telling people in plain language that the BNP is racist, ”

That’s not going to build bridges though is it.

if (some) people feel that the BNP are the ‘only party talking about lack of jobs / problem of immigration’ – then better to enter that debate and present a positive angle – otherwise you’re leaving the centre stage to the BNP.

I do feel that on this forum there has been a ‘rosie-eyed’ view – advocating unfettered immigration.

Surely this view would go down like a lead balloon in working class areas with unemployment.

It doesn’t take rocket science to realise that either: every single immigrant somehow finds a ‘new job that would not have been there if they hadn’t arrived;… unlikely.

So on the ground, what actually happens must be:
* immigrants do take some jobs from locals
and/or
* some immigrants are on state benefits… paid for by the ‘working non-immigrants’.

Does any one have statistics on either of those cases I wonder?
Need some facts, to pitch as a non-BNP scenario.

Roweena – I see what you are saying but with the BNP the best way forward is to lead with negative campaigns. I have had BNP members and an activist on this site tell me that the BNP had changed and that now it was about being British and if you were born here, integrated, then that was fine. They all said they were not racist, all saw me as British (I’m from Jamaican+English descent), and they all meant it. That got me worried as I thought the BNP had changed tack to get more members by burying the racist aspect.
But recently Griffin has actually spelt out the fact that non white Brits born here are not welcome in the party. Obviously he now feels he will get more support due to there being no creditable alternative for the working classes. As such there is even more of a need to let the public know that they are indeed a racist party. Those members like the ones I know have to understand that if they support the BNP they are going to be classed as racists. That the BNP is indeed a Nazi party just as it was when it was the old National Front.
Negative campaigning remindss everyone of the plain facts – vote for the BNP and you are voting racist.
But those campaigns shoud also be run alongside ones that show how completey useless their councillors have been. People need to understand that in reality, even if you get past the racism, in office they will not solve peoples problems.
I saw all this in the late 70s and 80s but obviously back then there was the real Labour Party for people who considered themselves woking class. Now that Nu Labour have fucked it the only way forward is negative campaigns. People, particularly young people need to know the BNP come from a rich Nazi background.

Much respect for the leafleting and don’t feel bad about the negative campaigning as the BNP don’t feel bad about the racism.

The opinion on immigration, justvisiting, has not always been as black and white as for – unfettered, against – close doors to ’em, as I’m sure you’re aware. The position taken by NO2EU for example, the left-wing eurosceptic party, is that the EU promotes social dumping. That, in real terms, is a process in which immigrants are used as cheaper labour.

So when engaged in a difficult argument with a xenophobe who tells you all migrants arrive in Britain to take away the jobs for brits, some non-unfettered arguments would be to promote responsible immigration, not social dumping; union representation to avoid employers cutting money; opposing elements of the Lisbon Treaty that do nothing to curb less-off nations losing workforces to richer nations that cut costs by employing them for under EU minimum wage. If they say something like my friend was a plumber, now he can’t find work because poles charge less, tell him/her that this is the logic of the current economy, and should really be an issue for the progressive, but since it involves critiquing immigration, some won’t touch it with a bargepole. Tell him border closure is dangerous, paranoid, and unnecessary with border controls (which we have, even if he tells you otherwise).

If your xenophobe says things like ‘you couldn’t go over there and do this and that’, say ‘true, awful isn’t it. Lucky we live here then, where we don’t let people die on the streets for not paying health insurance or be hung for being gay’.

This is really giving your xenophobe a lot of credit, most will back down or backtrack when you disagree with them, since mostly in polite society people tend to agree and avoid (I do it all the time, people say oh I hate that Gordon Brown, and I nod and attempt escape).

Just visiting – Chris Dillow’s got some decent figures on it: http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2009/05/immigration-gdp.html

What I would like to see the Left do is long term work, not just around election time, about improving the lot of all hard-off people, not just the white working class: and in East London, some of the worst social problems are experienced by Bangladeshi people. Let’s not forget that these people are in general also Labour voters: whilst there’s no chance of them voting BNP, if they don’t turn out to vote at all then it makes it easier for the BNP to get elected. I personally believe we need to work with people in deprived areas and make it clear that immigration is NOT the cause of social housing shortages, for example.

You can groan all you want about putting the white working class front and centre, with articles like “what do the white working class want” etc: but how about something addressing the problems of non-white inner city communities, or better yet, promote work around showing how poor people regardless of colour have a better chance of addressing their issues when organised to work together. That takes time, which is why trying to do it just before an election is not great: people think you’re just trying to get out the Labour vote again.

And people.. let’s not forget that this is a party whose own leadership thinks its grassroots membership is composed of conspiracy nuts, loons, and Walter Mitty types. We do them too much credit by saying such grassroots members have “leftist” goals (an assertion that is not only crassly mistaken but is actually quite offensive). Their goals are to blame the problems of white working class people on immigrants: ’nuff said. Of course, we have to find a way of addressing the real concerns of white working class people, but why can’t that be part of addressing the real concerns of Bangladeshi working class people, in East London, to name but one example of people Labour have really let down?

I’m in two minds about this whole debate. When looking at the real Fascsts and Nazis, in Italy and Germany respectively, what came first was the taking of power and dramatic re-organisation of the State in a totally new manner (at the time) with unheard of welfare schemes, investment in infrastructure and public works, corporatist union organisation, great cultural changes in arts and media, etc…All totally believable and seductive at the time for the mass majority of people. This was indeed soon followed by organised racism but it is significant that both parties first took control of the State and re-organised it seemingly “for the public good” before concentrating on racism and not the other way round. The weakness of the BNP and their NF predecessors lay in their total obsession with racism. Their attempt to redress this balance is therefore dangerous but I wonder just how prepared they are to wear these new clothes – not very in my opinion. The real danger from the BNP in their present form is not that they might take power but that with modest electoral success (which is their only realistic hope) a new populist organisation might emerge out of the stink created by the expenses scandal which would then ally itself to BNP, UKIP et al and bring them within reach of power either in local or even national government. Rowenna is right to express her doubts as to whether anti-racists might possibly be barking up the wrong tree with an ad which might possibly alienate rather than engage.
The BNP’s attempts to change their “wolf’s clothing” is also fraught with difficulties – the MSI in Italy formerly had a significant following but after their rebranding as Alleanza Nazionale and their subsequent merger with Berlusconi’s party, the far right’s remaining fringe parties find it extremely difficult to gain any seats. It’s true that immigrants in Italy have a harder time than immigrants here but that is mostly due to the fact that “racism awareness” throughout the political spectrum in Italy has been and remains abysmal and that sadly includes the whole of the left.

@Rayyan 16

What I would like to see the Left do is long term work, not just around election time, about improving the lot of all hard-off people, not just the white working class: and in East London, some of the worst social problems are experienced by Bangladeshi people.

Actually, the local Labour Party in Bethnal Green and Bow are doing precisely that. They been increasing turn-out and share of the Labour vote in the face of trends/polling going the other way nationwide.

18. Mike Killingworth

Yes, I would agree with Nino that the danger is not so much the BNP itself as the prospect of its members and ideology permeating the populist party that is likely to arise in five years’ time or so after Cameron has lost his gloss and Labour is still shipwrecked…

Campaigning should indeed focus on the longer-term since the electoral system for the Euros could have been designed by the BNP itself – it’s impossible to vote against a Party in a closed party list system, because it’s impossible to know in advance who the BNP will be up against for the last seat in each region and so impossible to vote tactically. Sadly, because of the expenses scandal, they may now be a fair bit further up the list than last place is several Euro-constituencies.

I don’t know many actual BNP supporters, but I imagine that the average one is not a die-hard racist or neo-Nazi, instead more likely to be motivated by a sense that mainstream politics is out of touch with the British people and that the BNP will perhaps be a useful corrective to that. If I’m right, then portraying the BNP as Nazis is entirely irrelevant, at least from the perspective of their marginal voter (who might even share your concerns about the more extreme parts of their policy). After all, local councils or seats in the EU parliament are presumably not the most efficient tools of mass genocide. In order to be successful, the argument has to focus on what damage the BNP could do from their plausible best case scenario rather than if they could fulfil all their dreams in one go.

20. Mike Killingworth

[21] I presume by “plausible best case scenario”, Dan, you mean taking control of a local authority. What that would mean would depend on how bright the councillors in question were.

Again, taking you at your word, let’s assume (against all the evidence) that they were bright. Then they might promote a local Parliamentary Bill to allow the Council concerned to derogate from Race Relations (and perhaps other) legislation. AIUI such a Bill would have to be subject to public approval. Suppose they put it to a local referendum, and it carried. Parliament would no doubt refuse it a first reading, but the political capital the BNP could make would be considerable.

How should such a scenario be thwarted? I’ve honestly no idea.

An anecdote from canvassing last night as an antidote to all this “don’t call them Nazis thing”:

I was speaking to a guy who was a nurse, who had previously voted for Labour but who was fed up with the government. He viewed the Lib Dems as as bad as the other two mainstream parties. He said he was considering voting for the BNP. I said he didn’t want to do that, they were racists. He said “I know there’s that racist element, and that’s what makes me think maybe I might not vote for them, but I like the other things they’re saying”. I pointed out that the main point of the organisation was racism, that everything else was tacked on to get people to vote racists into office. I referenced the manual they’ve sent out to BNP members/officers recently & pointed out that if someone was born in Britain they’re British, not a “racial foreigner” as the BNP wants to call them. He said I was right and he wouldn’t vote for them, but that he didn’t know who else to vote for. (I couldn’t convince him to vote Labour for definite, although he said he was more likely to vote Labour than for the Tories!)

The key here is that this was a guy who wasn’t racist, and it was only by being uncompromising about how racist the BNP actually were and that it was root and branch not just a few eggs that I could persuade him not to vote for them. If I had said “many BNP members are active community figures who are not racist”, do you think that would’ve had the same effect?

@ 23 – I’m glad you posted that Tim because that is just the way I see it. I saw it in the late 70s at school when some kids were groomed (?) by a local NF guy and they all fell for it and soon were coming in with the whole skinhead regalia. It was only when a teacher actually spelt out what the NF were really about did the majority drop it. The rest went more under cover until we left school which was a year later – yes I did have to regularly either fight them or run went totally outnumbered!!
The BNP are using similar tactics now and I honestly believe that a lot of sympathisers just don’t realise their core beliefs. You have to open people’s eyes to what they are really about and then at least that person then has to make a decision about whether they wish to be tarred with the same brush. For sure some will not be bothered but others will feel a little uncomfortable about it – remember the BNP party list being published and the worry it induced in some. Its all about reaching out to those that don’t really know.

The Tories have started a campaign against the BNP:

http://www.nothingbritish.com/


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