The news that leading Unite Against Fascism (UAF) activist Weyman Bennett, along with dozens of other anti-fascists, was arrested at the weekend protesting against the far-right English Defence League (EDL) raises even more sharply what the left's response to this rising threat should be. For the first time since the 1970s, the far-right has a visible street presence in the form of the EDL. This means the tasks of yesterday are still the same today - ensuring that wherever the far-right goes to create divisions within our communities the left is there to show that its brand of hatred is not welcome. Once again this means that the police, who seem to find playing a neutral role in these affairs difficult, are all too often a problem in tackling far-right violence rather than part of the solution. However, while the EDL proves there are enough football hooligans and racist goons to form a travelling army of idiocy around the country, the way we deal with it has to be quite different from the more pressing threat of the fascist electoral wing, the BNP. While the EDL thrives on confrontation, the BNP rarely gives the left the opportunity for set-piece battles.
It did not win dozens of councillors and two MEPs through marches and big public meetings that we could picket. It actively avoided them. The fact is that the BNP cannot be beaten at the ballot box through street mobilisations. With the election just weeks away, it's worth looking at how the left should tackle the BNP.
It seems an obvious point, but our first and foremost task has to be to stop the party getting anyone elected. This means our tactics should not be about making ourselves feel that we're "doing something." We need to ensure that it gets fewer votes than other parties, but this strategy has to be targeted to be effective. Just as the BNP is targeting key seats, we should ensure we are focusing on those areas where it poses a real threat. The tactic of mobilising the anti-fascist vote has always been a very specific one. The BNP had its first councillor elected in 1993 in the Isle of Dogs. When the party lost that first seat at the following election it was not because fewer people had voted BNP - in fact more did - rather it was because those who hated the BNP came out in force to make sure it lost. When anti-fascists leaflet and become a visible presence in an area it often serves to boost both sets of votes, which means it's only an appropriate response in those areas where the BNP looks to do well in the first place. If we think about this in purely electoral terms for a moment, under first past the post the ability to win matters.
Many people will not consider their vote well spent if they cast it for someone who turns out to be insignificant. Therefore, in all those areas where the BNP actually is insignificant - which is the majority of the country, remember - it's worth considering our tactics. It makes no sense to advertise the party's existence in areas where we want to keep the BNP vote down. It may be unpleasant to hear that the BNP will be standing candidates in your area, but hold your horses before going round telling as many people as possible that this is the case and that the BNP is really scary. Your casual racist who doesn't mind the idea of annoying respectable society will be very interested to hear that there is actually a point in voting BNP. If we make people feel that a vote for the BNP will count, then we will be helping the far-right even as we feel virtuous that we're opposing it. Let's think about every Liberal Democrat leaflet in the country at the moment. No matter what the Lib Dems' chances are in an area they will be telling voters that only they can win in the local area. What they would not give for someone independent to go round shouting: "No-one must vote Lib Dem because they might get in, and then everything would change!"
So why should we do this for the BNP? The irony is that if we go out in force in places like Lewisham telling people the BNP is standing, we'll be doing more work in the area than it will. The fact is that in most places where the BNP is standing, the election is not about the party. We'll only be playing into its hands if we imply that it is. This argument certainly does not apply in those areas where the BNP has a strong presence and is likely to poll well. In these areas, it is vital that anti-fascists mobilise greater numbers of voters than the BNP can. Barking is a case in point, where it's crucial that we ensure there is the largest anti-BNP vote possible. We need to use electoral strategy, not posturing to "prove that we're the most active anti-fascists." Sometimes the best anti-fascist is talking about the BNP less, not more. Where the far-right has yet to gain a foothold we should refuse to talk up its chances. I thoroughly recommend people who live in areas where the BNP will be making no significant impact at the election to go to those hotspots of BNP support, like Barking, and help the local anti-fascists, because where the BNP is an irrelevance we do not want to make it appear that it has a presence.
The left has long-term tasks to tackle the racism and discontent that the far-right feeds off, but that is not something you can wheel out in the last seven weeks of an election campaign; building stronger communities is a key anti-fascist task, as well as being something worth doing in itself. But in these next few weeks we have to focus on the task in hand. We need to reflect the targeted strategy of the far-right and take the racists on where they hope to make gains. That means having the discipline to understand that shouting "fire" where there are no fires is a mistake. This is not complacency but about ensuring that the BNP does not end May 6 with more elected representatives than it started with. We can't treat the BNP as if it is an omnipresent force of maniacs which defines the election - it isn't and it doesn't. Considering that the press will give every local fascist a platform just for standing it's important that we don't feed into that by making the BNP an interesting story in those areas where we're literally talking about one sad social inadequate who represents nothing but his own moral decay.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.