Notes on the far-right in Britain post-election
In London during the early hours of the 19th of June 2017, a large white van mounted the pavement outside Finsbury Park mosque and drove into a large group of people leaving morning prayers, killing one and injuring many more.*
It is far too early to comment in detail about the specifics of what happened in Finsbury Park, but at the time of writing the working hypothesis is that it was a far-right terrorist attack carried out by a single individual. Video footage has emerged of a man being held down by passers by whilst the police were on the way, and numerous witness reports have claimed he was shouting anti-muslim slurs during the attack.
This is not an isolated event. There have been two other cruel and deadly terrorist attacks in London over the past few months carried out by ISIS affiliated groups using similar methods. Amidst the background of a shock general election result leaving the government in limbo, the imminent Brexit negotiations due to take place and the horrendous criminal tragedy at Grenfell Towers, anger is rising in Britain. As the sun continues to beat down on the country, the feeling that this anger is on the verge of exploding is palpable. There is a danger that the abysmal logic of recrimination and revenge will fester in such a fraught and tense nation, and what used to be called in Northern Ireland during the Troubles “the politics of the last atrocity” - a process already well underway in France and other European states — will start to assert itself here too.
With all this in mind, I feel it’s worth taking a detailed look at the far-right, and consider how they intend to try and exploit this febrile atompshere to re-group and re-build their shattered movement. Much has been said about the shock result of the election and how it will impact on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour project, or Theresa May’s chances of remaining PM and Conservative leader, but one of the most startling results of the election, the total implosion of UKIP, has been somewhat overlooked.** Under the leadership of Nigel Farage UKIP reliably polled in the mid-teens, and at the 2015 general election secured 3,881,099 votes with a vote share of 12.6%. They were, along with their allies on the right-wing of the Tory party, the driving force behind Brexit and a serious force in British political life. In 2017 under the leadership of hapless Vietnam veteran and Olympic gold-medallist Paul Nuttall this has shrunk to 594,068 votes with a 1.8% vote share. Although the Tory party were able to absorb a large chunk of these UKIP votes, it was not enough to increase their majority and as a result the Tory government clings to office via a vague non-deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, lurching from one crisis to the next, getting weaker and more chaotic by the day. This has thrown the British right into a state of existential turmoil.
Thankfully we already have a precident we can turn to for what happens when a far-right electoral project collapses — the British National Party. Now at this point I must insist on a word of caution; precident is a guide, not a guarantee, and there are many differences between UKIP and the BNP as well a vastly different political context between now and the BNP’s pre-2010 heyday, but lessons can be learned for how the far-right are likely to respond to these events by looking at our recent past.
First, a history lesson: The BNP began in 1982 as a split from the National Front, a party which under the leadership of John Tyndall adopted an orthodox and virulent strain of National Socialism in the tradition of Colin Jordan as it’s core ideology. Tyndall remained a leading figure in the BNP until his death in 2005, but was replaced by Nick Griffin as the party’s leader in 1999 as part of it’s modernisation project. Whilst the BNP’s brand of ethno-nationalism was rooted in Nazism (it’s membership criteria accepted only people from the Anglo-Celtic “folk community” - taking it’s wording directly from the constitution of the NSDAP) prior to becoming party leader Nick Griffin was influenced by the “Political Soldier” strategy associated with Italian neo-fascist Roberto Fiore and the International Third Position. They adopted an aggressive “march and grow” strategy of violent street confrontation against the left, which the BNP under both Tyndall and Griffin engaged in throughout the 80’s and 90’s. When Derek Beackon became their first local councillor in Millwall in 1993 Nick Griffin wrote in response that:
The electors of Millwall did not back a post modernist rightist party, but what they perceived to be a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan “Defend Rights for Whites” with well-directed boots and fists.
The BNP’s street campaign, which culminated in the terrorist attacks on the Admiral Duncan pub by David Copeland (rumoured to be an informal former bodyguard of then BNP leader John Tyndall) in 1999 was met with determined resistance from the working-class left. Many organisations, inculding Anti-Fascist Action, Red Action, the Anti-Nazi League and more, were involved in the campaign to defeat the BNP and it’s precursor the National Front. The story of how these battles were won is too lengthy to delve into for our purposes, and would no doubt end up degenerating into pub braggadocio, so to avoid that I will simply recommend Sean Birchall’s Beating the Fascists as the definitive history of the AFA and the campaign against the BNP on the streets of Britain and leave it there. On a personal level I cut my teeth campaigning against the BNP in the North of England, both on the streets and at the ballot box, and although I was young I got to see their rise and fall up close, so hopefully my experiences will be a useful guide for anticipating where the far-right will go from here.
By the time Nick Griffin took over the party in the late 1990’s it was clear that the “march and grow” strategy of Colin Jordan and Roberto Fiore was no longer working. By the mid 90’s the BNP were losing control of the streets to the AFA and were beginning to shift their attentions towards non-violent electoralism, with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success with the Front National in France acting as a guide, something AFA recognised and belatedly tried to adapt to. AFA and Red Action made an attempt to follow the BNP into local politics and formed the Independent Working Class Association for these purposes, who published an influential and prescient essay entitled Filling the Vacuum which pointed out:
“The working class is increasingly alienated from Labour, the BNP’s strategy is entirely reliant upon this alienation: ‘they really hate Labour’ etc. The total ineptitude and the tangible contempt that exists in some areas between Labour and its former constituency has locally and nationally begat the BNP… In straightforward language, it is the politics of the Labour Party that has created the BNP
New Labour throughout this period had systematically taken much of it’s working class core support for granted as it drifted further to the liberal centre. Famously, when confronted by Peter Hain about the potential loss of working class voters to the far-right in South Wales, one of the key architects of New Labour Peter Mandelson dismissively replied “they have nowhere else to go”. Yet even before he said this the BNP had been steadily picking up council seats throughout Labour areas. It was in response to this dereliction of duty that the IWCA was set up, knowing that if New Labour had abandoned the class the left had to step in or else the BNP would. Despite some promising early signs in Oxford, the IWCA were unable to dislodge Labour in local government and take their fight against fascism inside the council chambers of Britain, but it was one of the first political groups to clearly identify the growth of fascism in Britain as a consequence of the rightward drift of the Labour party, and advocate a left-wing electoral challenge to it.
This hypothesis was sustained not just by the IWCA but within academia too. It was in this context that Rob Ford and the now infamous book-muncher Matthew Goodwin first made a name for themselves as experts on the far-right, publishing Something Rotten in the Heartlands in 2009 via Manchester Universtity Press. Although it’s never fair to sum up someone’s academic work in a single sentence, Goodwin and Ford’s study essentially contained a detailed and rigorous empirical analysis of the BNP voter distribution, vindicating the IWCA’s analysis on the BNP’s source of support, and drew the conclusion that Labour needed to pay specific heed to the anti-immigrant views of the white working-class to counter the BNP. In a way it was a typical Blairite attempt to triangulate fascism by offering soft fascism as an alternative, and as those of us who lived through it can attest, it did little to stem the rising fascist tide. This became an issue which would go on to become something close to a fetish for a certain type of liberal commentator, not to mention some on the Old Right of the Labour party such as Jon Cruddas or Maurice Glasman, for most of the next decade. Although the experiences of the IWCA had pre-empted the Ford and Goodwin study by a number of years, it is here that that the notion of the left listening to the infamous “legitimate conerns” of the white working-class really began to take hold. For all it’s intellectual trappings, what we actually saw during this period was a dismal resurgence of Progressive Patriotism, led by Billy Bragg of all people, a new-found love of Orwell’s reactionary period, Gordon Brown being publicly crucified for being exasperated by Gillian Duffy’s incredibly legimate concerns before it finally reached it’s zenith with Ed Miliband carving “controls on immigration” into a stone obelisk at the crescendo of the 2015 general election campaign, a stunt so asinine it prompted one Labour advisor to run out of the room screaming after seeing it on TV.
Whatever the merits of their conclusions, both the IWCA along with Ford and Goodwin acknowledged what Mandelson couldn’t - that the BNP were capable of establishing deep roots in many working class, Labour voting communities. Under Nick Griffin’s leadership the BNP hit a high point of 58 elected councillors as well as a strong showing at the 2009 European election, where Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons were returned as MEP’s for the North-West region (Lancashire) and Yorkshire respectively, winning over a million votes in the process. This set the BNP up for a proper run at the 2010 general elections, where Griffin had hoped to dislodge Margaret Hodge, a right-wing Labour MP in the tradtionally safe Labour seat of Barking, East London. In the event Griffin lost by a big margin, chronicled in a Channel 4 documentary named The Battle for Barking broadcast shortly after the election, and the BNP suffered huge losses throughout the country (despite still managing to pick up an uncomfortably large 564,331 votes nationwide.) The party limped on after 2010, weaker and riven with infighting, and is now led by Adam Walker, a military fantasist whose most notable accomplishment outside of politics was threatening a group of schoolchidren with a knife and being banned from teaching for life as a result.
The initial reaction to the results of the 2010 election was one of despair from the British far-right. Many organisers and activists had dedicated the best part of a decade to the “suits, not boots” strategy Griffin had tried to push following the humiliating retreat from the Political Soldier years. With their electoral strategy in tatters, many former BNP activists and fellow travellers made a swift return to the streets, in this case via the English Defence League.
The EDL was set up in Luton by two former BNP members with links to organised football hooliganism and petty crime named Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (better known by his pseudonym Tommy Robinson) and Kevin Carroll. Using money from an Islamophobic millionaire donor Alan Ayling, the EDL organised a series of increasingly large and aggressive demonstrations in major UK cities, catching the left (who had been pre-occupied with challenging the BNP electorally) off-guard and ill-prepared to respond. Throughout 2008–2013 the EDL held over 50 rallies, many with an attendance of thousands, and kept far-right politics on the agenda in the aftermath of the BNP’s collapse. Half football firm, half loyalist militia, the EDL was an attractive proposition for those on the far-right yearning for the “march and grow” era of confrontation on the streets instead of local council by-elections. Although anti-fascist responses improved, the EDL as an organisation was ultimately brought down from within due to the usual fights over merchandising money and accusations of snitching, so the left can claim no great victory in kicking them off the streets and into local politics the way that AFA had been able to with the BNP. Yaxley-Lennon and Carroll did make a brief and amusing foray into electoral politics themselves after bailing out on the EDL, founding the British Freedom party in 2010, however this venture proved to be a badly judged failure that never got off the ground. With serial political opportunist and huckster Paul Weston as leader British Freedom imploded without winning a single election it contested within 18 months amidst bitter recriminations and amusement. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon made a brief and unconvincing attempt at cosying up to the British state and going straight by joining the “anti-extremist” think tank the Quilliam Foundation in 2013, which predictably didn’t work out either. So now he is back on the street, hanging around the latest terrorist atrocity like a hyena eyeing up a rotting corpse, and although he is a diminished figure to what he once was, the fact he has crawled out from under his rock tells us that he views this moment as one of opportunity, to perhaps try and capitalise on the despondancy with electoral politics on the far-right and relive the EDL’s glory days?
As the BNP imploded and the EDL finally ran out of steam, UKIP was skilfully able to make political capital out of “legitimate concerns” these groups had put on the agenda. The decision was taken to move the party toward the far-right, hoovering up the constituency that the BNP had painstakingly taken from Labour over many years. UKIP was formed by academic Alan Sked as a single-issue anti-EU party in 1993. It was a fringe group at first (beaten in 163 out of 165 seats where it stood against the rival anti-EU formation, James Goldsmiths Referendum Party, in the 1997 election) whose main breakthrough came when it selected daytime TV chatshow host and former Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk as an MEP, before promptly falling out with him and chucking him out the party. By 2010 they were polling close to a million votes and beginning to worry the new Tory Prime Minister David Cameron enough that he felt compelled to offer a referendum on membership of the EU to shore up support on his parties right flank (the rest is history.)
Unlike the BNP the history of UKIP is not tied down with the baggage of neo-Nazism (notwithstanding Nigel Farage’s schoolboy infatuation with Adolf Hitler) and they were in a perfect position to listen to the “legitimate concerns” of the white working-class. Despite his background as a city spiv, Farage was presented as a common-sense speaking Clarkson-esque everyman by much of the press and especially the BBC, who elected to put Nigel Farage on Question Time 17 times following the 2010 general election. The Tory press liked him because they thought UKIP’s threat to the Tory vote could be used to exert leverage over the Cameron government, and the New Labour supporting papers were eager to present Farage’s high profile as evidence of how important the “legitimate concerns” were for Labour and how it was necessary to be more racist to avoid electoral oblivion. With Nigel Farage as leader, UKIP became the perfect vehicle to articulate the same demands as the BNP whilst being indulged by the media in a way that Nick Griffin’s BNP never was. UKIP’s growth was impressive, and became a focal point the post-BNP right could mobilise around. After their performance in 2015, Cameron had no choice but to hold the EU referendum he had hoped would keep UKIP at bay, and when the British public voted to leave the European Union it was not only the party’s triumph but it’s downfall. It had by now accomplished it’s historic goal, and Nigel Farage resigned the party leadership to move to the US and spend more time with his money. All that remained was for Theresa May to hoover up the remnants of UKIP’s vote, crush the saboteurs, and destroy Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party forever in the process.
This brings us to where we are now. Because once again the British public defied expectations, giving Labour 41% of the GB vote share and taking away the fluke Tory majority of 2015. To be candid, the British ruling class is not coping well with the results. The direction of travel of the last 20 years, from the BNP to UKIP via the EDL, and then from UKIP to the backbenches, and then the front bench, of the Tory government has suddenly come to a halt. Whilst immigration (along with Trident) is one of the issues Jeremy Corbyn has clearly had to compromise on in the Labour party manifesto, Corbyn’s refusal to play a numbers game of ever-declining immigration targets or get into an arms race with the Tory right over who can be the most reactionary and nationalistic, turned out to be an astute political move that delivered dividends at the ballot box. Furthermore, with the British far-right subsumed into a retreating and demoralised Tory party, the left is now in a position to gradually de-toxify the whole public debate on immigration and make it possible for Corbyn to go further and transcend the limitations of the Labour right on free movement without it costing us our support in working-class areas. This is a totally different dynamic to the years of endless retreat the rise of the BNP took place in, and as such the political response put forward by the IWCA along with Ford and Goodwin, which take for granted the fundamental pessimism of New Labour (“you can’t win from the left”) and act accordingly, will have to be re-assessed. I am not going to attempt that here, although I hope this gives people at least a historical primer to help us answer this question in the future.
The realisation that for the first time since the mid 1970’s the British working-class left, led by a socialist Labour party, is in the political ascendency, constitutes the ultimate nightmare of the British political class. Everything they have invested into the post-79 economic consensus could be undone within their lifetimes if things continue like this. For my entire political life I have watched Labour triangulate to the centre, meeting the Tories half way, compromising our crazy ideals to fit in with their conception of what consitutes apolitical common sense, watching resigned as each compromise shifted the Overton window even further to the right, and yet now we are seeing the reverse process take place before us, with Tories willing to abandon austerity and even try for a soft Brexit to save their skins.
The far-right are in disarray. Those who had invested their hope in UKIP as a vehicle to drag British politics to the far-right are watching their life’s work collapse before their eyes. Without wishing to appear condescending, for some of them, Britain is on the verge of a IRA sponsored Marxist coup, with private property being confiscated and gulags just around the corner. There is real panic about what lies ahead for them. Although it is easy to dismiss the dystopian hyperbole of the gutter tabloids in the UK it is fair to assume that at least some people in this country take it seriously. UKIP has gone, the right of the Tory party can no longer act as the standard bearer of right-wing nationalism, the credibility of the media has been deeply wounded and the left is on the march.
I offer three possible scenarios to consider off the back of this.
- There may be an increase of street based far-right “march and grow” politics, similar to what we saw after the BNP imploded in 2010. This will focus specfically on the aftermath of terrorist attacks and be tied into the nascent UK-based alt-right (more on them another time…) There has already been an increase in hate crime in the aftermatch of recent terror attacks, and with ISIS losing ground in Syria and Iraq it is logical to assume they will focus on trying to destablise Europe with more attacks in the future, meaning we can expect the same cycle of violence to continue and for ghouls like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon to continue their grim work. The Labour party under Corbyn is the only political force large and capable enough to hold the fascists in line should they start to take to the streets again, and it is imperative that this important work is done by the Labour movement and not by the Socialist Workers Party or any of their front groups.
- Sections of the traditionally Tory press, unable to rely on the Tory party to defend it’s interests, and wary of losing political influence, start to seriously consider backing some EDL-style mob that pops up in the next few months. A Corbyn government is viewed as an existential threat by the media oligarchs; Rupert Murdoch storming out of the Times election party when the exit poll was read out wasn’t mere petulance, but something even more satisfying to see from our enemies - fear. They have no other choice but to keep up the level of frantic anti-Corbyn hysteria, even though they are aware that it is subject to the laws of diminishing returns and not having the desired effect. They will eventually come up with new lines of attack, with the complicity of liberals as usual, but for now expect new heights of vitriol.
- The British deep state is without doubt very deeply troubled by what is going on, and you can bet they are writing Zinoviev letters and worse as we speak. Labour supporting journalist Paul Mason being interviewed The Nation said “They’re in full panic mode. As a reporter on British politics and economics, I haven’t seen the ruling class of England in a panic like this for a long time.” and I am inclined to believe him. Expect lots of talk about military coups in the pages of the Telegraph, anonymous retired Rear Admirals making vaguely treasonous comments to test the waters, and did someone say Russia… We should emotionally and intellectually prepare ourselves for a vicious, desperate, last-ditch counter-offensive from the ruling class in the upcoming months, preferably by reading Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup and watching this BBC dramatisation of the attempted coup against Harold Wilson. Remember too that at moments like this Britain’s notoriously flexible unwritten consitution and Crown Powers stop being the empty symbolic relics they’re made out to be, and that the government will soon be playing fast and loose with constitutional law to keep itself in office, something which takes on another dimension if you consider points 1 and 2 and the threat posed by an EDL-style street movement emerging backed by sections of the British press, aimed specifically at the Labour party.
Remember that fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital. It is the fusion of state and corporate power, backed up by brute force and draped in the most obnoxious and chauvinistic nationalism possible. Britain is a country where financial capitalist interests are deeply rooted, coupled with a tightly knit ruling class and long imperial legacy. They will not give up their death grip over this country without a bitter struggle. The City loves nothing more than to see gangs of fascists in town, since they know that in a crisis such as the one they face they can potentially be very useful, although the crisis hasn’t reached that stage yet it’s re-assuring for them know they’re about just in case. When the deep state, big business and nationalist street gangs team up in this way you have something that’s very close to fascism. Tied up with voter suppresion and disenfranchisement, it might be the best chance the ruling class in Britain has of clinging on to power. This is not to be alarmist, I don’t expect fascists to come marching down the street at any moment, but we must remain vigilant and prepared for what lies ahead.
*This terrorist attack took place as local Muslims were preparing for the 24th day of Ramadan. Fasting in Britain is especially challenging for many British Muslims, since being this far into the northern hemisphere the sun rises very early and sets very late, meaning that the streets and the community were buzzing with activity even at 1:30am.
**It feels like even 11 days after the exit poll was published the British left is still overwhelmed by the enormity of results and their implications, unaccustomed as we are to actually doing well, let alone the tantalising possibility that we may even be in power before too long…