The election of two fascist BNP MEPs has led to predictably craven reactions from some quarters.
Andy Burnham, New Labour’s health secretary, responded to the fascist gains by saying, “Clearly there are concerns about immigration. The government has got to respond to those concerns...
“We’ve got to understand and connect with people as to why they voted BNP and never just dismiss why they’ve done that.”
Burnham represents a strand of New Labour thinking that seeks to undercut the BNP by stealing its clothes. The idea is to appeal to widespread anti-immigration sentiment and thereby draw BNP voters into the Labour camp.
This course of action is not just ethically repulsive – it is also a recipe for political disaster.
You cannot satisfy racists by feeding them a few scraps. They will always come back demanding more. Echoing the right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric panders to racism and ultimately fuels the BNP’s growth.
Most people on the left understand the dangers of conceding to racism and reject the noxious strategy that Burnham is calling for.
But there is another danger that stems from downplaying or even denying the racist nature of the BNP vote. The argument goes something like this:
“BNP voters aren’t really racist. They are just poor misguided souls who are angry about economic issues such as unemployment and the lack of affordable housing.
“So anti-fascists should stop talking about racism, and concentrate purely on providing solutions to those economic issues.”
This line of argument fails to grasp the crucial role that racism plays in building and cementing fascist organisations.
The BNP feeds off a much wider climate of racism that been steadily built up over the recent years, with migrant workers, Muslims and asylum seekers as its primary targets.
And the BNP’s rise cannot be effectively tackled unless we acknowledge that racism and argue forcibly against it.
The polling firm YouGov recently published a huge survey of over 32,000 people in Britain that paints a detailed picture of the attitudes of BNP voters.
It kills off the notion that there’s nothing racist about the BNP vote.
Some 77 percent of BNP voters think that white people suffer from unfair discrimination in Britain.
Some 94 percent think all further immigration into Britain should be halted, while 87 percent think local councils “normally” allow immigrants to jump the housing queue.
Some 72 percent want the government to encourage immigrant families to leave Britain, including family members who were born here, while 58 percent think immigrants commit the majority of crime in Britain.
Islamophobia is also rampant among BNP voters – 70 percent say that Muslims benefit from unfair privileges and 79 percent say Islam is a serious danger to Western civilisation even in its milder forms.
Even when it comes to explicitly racist and Nazi positions, BNP voters hold to them more strongly than anyone else.
Some 31 percent agree wholly or partially with the notion that there is an international conspiracy of Jews and Communists to undermine Christian values in the West.
Some 20 percent of them think Hitler’s Holocaust was either exaggerated or didn’t happen at all.
These statistics are shocking. But what is perhaps more worrying is the extent and penetration of racist ideas within society at large.
Immigration and asylum ranks second in the list when people are asked to name the most important issues “facing the country today” (though it drops to eighth place when people are asked about important issues “facing you and your family”).
Only 19 percent of people think non-whites suffer from unfair discrimination, as opposed to 40 percent who say whites suffer.
Some 37 percent of the general population agrees strongly that all immigration should be halted, with a further 24 percent saying they tend to agree with that position.
Only 23 percent disagrees somewhat or heavily with an outright immigration ban.
These results should ring alarm bells across the entire left. And they should also be a cause for shame among the political and media establishment.
As Arun Kundnani of the Institute of Race Relations recently noted, the rise in racist sentiment that feeds the BNP has been licensed by government policies that attack asylum seekers, Muslims and migrant workers.
The anti-racist sentiment that once held sway over liberal opinion has collapsed. That is an indictment of political leadership in this country and New Labour’s record.
The lessons for the left should be clear. We urgently need to go on the offensive against racism and claw back the ground that has been lost.
We cannot duck or fudge hard arguments within the general population and the working class.
Approaches to tackling the fascist BNP that ignore racism are bound to fail, with catastrophic results.
But we also know that anti-racists can win if they are confident in their arguments, aware of reality and hold to their principles. Let’s do just that.