A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Give no inch to racist lies

Unite leader Tony Woodley gets straight to the point when he argues that the rise of the BNP is "a direct consequence of Labour's failure to represent the interests of our core voters." We are reaching the bottom of the pit dug by the new Labour practitioners of the dark art of triangulation: the attempt to be more "pro-business" than the Tories and "tougher" on immigration than the Daily Mail. The results have been disastrous. In a race to the right, entire communities have been abandoned as the mainstream parties narrow their contest to a handful of marginal seats. If you are unfortunate enough to live in a "safe" seat, your vote is taken for granted. There is little incentive for policy makers to focus on delivering affordable homes or secure jobs, when what counts is polling data from swing voters. A deep and damaging recession has strained political loyalties to a breaking point. White, working-class communities - solid Labour voters for decades - are angry. They have a right to be. Birmingham provides a glimpse of how far Labour has moved from its roots. Since the Labour government was elected in 1997, no council homes have been built in the city.Before Labour lost control of the council in 2004, council housing was in systematic decline. The council seemed to treat it as an embarrassment that it wanted rid of. It ran out of ideas when its plans to dispose of council housing were scuppered by a decisive vote by tenants against a transfer.

It is indicative of Labour's crisis that even Birmingham's Conservative-led council has been more swift in turning its back on failed market approaches. It is now committed to a council house-building programme, taking the ground that should have been Labour's forte. As local councillors, we now deal with the social fallout from a waiting list that runs to 35,000 people. Neither housing associations nor the private market have been able to do more than scratch the surface of this problem. And the collapse in the housing market has brought us to a virtual standstill. It is no surprise that such a severe shortage of one of the essentials of life gnaws away at community cohesion. Frustration runs high as families languish in overcrowded conditions for years while they anxiously watch for any sign of progress up the housing waiting lists. Myths and outright lies circulate and gain credence. Even in my own county it is not uncommon to hear people from Pakistani families echo the myths that recently arrived Somalis are "taking all the homes." Throughout the country, the housing crisis is acute. Labour MP Glenda Jackson is right to call for a "social housing revolution" and right to argue that undermining inequality - whether social, political or racial - cuts to the heart of the BNP extremist appeal. But an emphasis on social inequality in itself is not enough to undercut the appeal of the BNP. Anger at economic injustice is one thing. Directing that anger at scapegoated ethnic minorities is another thing entirely. There is nothing legitimate about that.

The appeal of the BNP cannot be reduced to protest vote alone. Its appeal is based on racism and everyone knows it. As one pithy letter writer to the Guardian put it: "There are a lot of racists around." A significant factor in this growing acceptability of racism is the ideological assault that has accompanied the "war on terror." It is not accidental that the BNP has focused its attacks on the Muslim community. This is fertile ground for the fascists and much of the spadework has already been done on their behalf. Attacks on the Muslim community from mainstream politicians and newspapers have left a bitter taste. Anything and everything Islamic is viewed with increasing suspicion as a potential threat to national cohesion and identity. Polite commentators wring their hands about a lack of "integration." The less polite BNP put it in terms calculated to stir up hatred and resentment. Labour's mantra on the need to make others more "British," rather than making ourselves less racist, has helped undermine concepts of national identity that celebrate pluralism and diversity. Yes, the appeal of the BNP must be undermined by giving back some hope to communities who are threatened by the dark clouds of recession, and years of deepening inequality. But, without an assault on the myths and lies of the racists, this will not be enough. The housing crisis is not caused by asylum-seekers. Unemployment is not rising because a Polish worker gets a job in Britain. If we give an inch to these lies, they will take a mile.

No comments: