Saturday, June 13, 2009

The art of the populist

Hartlepool may have elected (and re-elected AGAIN) H'Angus the Monkey, but the people of Doncaster loved their own village idiot so much that they've now elected him as mayor. Peter Davies stood for the English Democrats - a right-wing grouping with a similar flavour to UKIP, but not at the extremes of the BNP and certainly without the electoral success of either. Thing is, he won. The scrutiny then started with an interview on BBC Radio Sheffield which served to reveal that the new mayor has an almost complete lack of knowledge about the legal framework of the job.

Socialist Unity provides a handy (if very slightly flawed) transcript and a link to the interview with Toby Foster for BBC Sheffield, who offers a masterclass in dissecting the populist manifesto and providing just enough rope for Mr Davies to hang himself.

There is a lesson here in taking on the fascists of the BNP. Violence isn't the answer and neither the attack on a BNP member in Leigh, Greater Manchester, nor the egging of Nick Griffin on College Green this week actually advance our cause. Quite the reverse, in fact, as they feed the BNP's self-mythology of victimhood and provide more publicity oxygen to them. Given that they have dozens of council seats and two seats in the European parliament, should we perhaps engage with them more, challenge their policies and genuinely try to explain what they would really mean for people of all races in this country?

We mustn't ignore the fact that - despite their attempts at hiding it - they are constitutionally a party that believes in apartheid and racially-based repatriation as well as being chock-full of Nazi-wannabes and holocaust deniers with a statistically-significant quantity of convicted criminals into the bargain. But, they also suffer from a lack of real policies - apart from those related to race, Islam and homosexuality. Like the English Democrats, once you engage at the political level, they tend to fall apart rapidly and descend into bluster and bad-temper. Essentially, the BNP are single-issue fanatics who can't see beyond a person's skin colour or religion and have no depth to their policies.

Above all, however, we must remember that these results were flukes and we mustn't panic. They achieved office under a peculiar voting system because a group of voters stayed at home. If 5000 more people across the North West had voted Green, then Griffin wouldn't be an MEP. If the Labour vote had come out in Yorkshire, then Brons would still be idly dreaming of a fourth Reich rather than strutting in Brussels. The truth is that British people don't really like the BNP - even in their most successful constituency, Stoke, they only polled 17% of the vote, nowhere near enough to win a seat at Westminster. I do believe that one of the best ways to take on the BNP is to ensure that mainstream parties provide effective opposition to each other, to offer a safety-valve vote for those dissatisfied with the incumbent. If we don't offer an alternative voice, there are others all too prepared to take advantage of dissatisfaction to push their own agenda and lies. All politicians - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat alike, should not surrender the ground of opposition to those interested only in promoting hate.

We also need to listen to those who voted BNP. Not the hardcore fascist sympathisers, but the ordinary voters - many of them lifelong Labour supporters - who feel marginalised by the current system. The BNP are happy to take on their worries and provide an easy target for blame - be it Muslims or immigrants. We need to listen to those worries - about jobs, immigration, housing and crime - and offer real explanations and proper, decent alternatives. These people need to be heard and we should be listening and acting, working to deliver a just and fair society for everyone in Britain.

Let's not talk up the success of the BNP - their vote actually dropped in the North East over 2004 - but let's not allow them to use this as a springboard to other things.

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