Be afraid of the BNP

The Observer/April 21, 2002
By Nick Cohen

They're neo-Nazis with a reputation for violence, which is why New Labour takes them so seriously

Like all neo-Nazi parties, the British National Party is a criminal conspiracy, and not only because it dreams of the great crime of ethnically cleansing Britain when its glorious leader takes power. BNP organisers and candidates are often criminals themselves: rapists, bombers, drug dealers, bone-breakers and head-bangers. Fortunately, there aren't too many of them. The space editors give to media-literate fascists in collars and ties disguises the British National Party's failure to be a national party in Britain. There are 5,878 seats up for grabs in the May local elections. The BNP has candidates in 68 of them.

A foul sect of Hitler worshippers and thugs should be easy enough to defeat, if, that is, it is worth wasting time on them. Cynical politicians wouldn't bother. Who cares if a couple of seats on Burnley Council fall? Who cares about Burnley Council or, come to that, about Burnley?

It's to New Labour's credit that the party hasn't glanced at the profit-and-loss account and shrugged its shoulders. To stop the BNP, Millbank has diverted scarce resources from an election in which it is on the defensive across the country, and belied the control-freak image by allying with anyone prepared to work with it.

The struggle against modern fascism has to be a New Labour task because, when all the canvassing has been done and the last Anti-Nazi League speaker has concluded her peroration, the choice in most polling booths will be a straight one between New Labour and the BNP.

The shrivelled Tories haven't the support in the inner-cities to field candidates in every ward. Even when they can find old loyalists willing to stand, they are too isolated from urban Britain to persuade the white poor to try working-class Conservatism. The Socialist Alliance, the home of many anti-fascists, is saving deposits as a matter of course, and I'm sure Liberal Democrats and independents will attract protest votes that might otherwise go to the BNP. But the fact remains that New Labour has to persuade traditional supporters that the BNP is a giant lie.

The struggle to do so has taken Blairites to politics at its most basic and serious. An ally of Stephen Byers put it thus: 'We're talking about people who should be Labour. If we can't show them the dangers of Nazism, what's the point of us?'

The BNP no longer likes to be called a neo-Nazi party and works hard to prevent its opponents pinning it down. It has rebranded and relaunched itself and persuaded the fluff-headed berks on the Today programme to treat its leader, Nick Griffin, with greater consideration and delicacy than democratic politicians. (The editor of Today told me a few months ago he had banned his presenters from calling neo-Nazis 'neo-Nazis', Griffin's holocaust denial and conviction for inciting racial hatred notwithstanding.)

It's not a Herculean task to get to the truth. Last year Panorama played a tape of Griffin addressing a Ku Klux Klan rally in Texas. 'There's a difference between selling out your ideas and selling your ideas,' he said. 'The British National Party isn't about selling out its ideas, which are your ideas too, but we are determined now to sell them, and that means basically to use the saleable words, as I say, freedom, security, identity, democracy. Nobody can criticise them.'

On 22 February, Griffin was back in the States for a conference in Washington organised by American Renaissance, an umbrella organisation for white supremacists and fascists. A besotted fan reported that he 'was a superb magnetic speaker'. By dropping the swastika, the BNP, she concluded, had shown it had 'all the positive characteristics of Hitler's NSDAP' ['National Socialist German Workers' Party' in the English translation only hardcore Nazis use]. Like Hitler, Griffin was 'a ruthless pragmatist who recognised the necessity of accommodating political movements to their particular times and places.'

Observer readers won't have to hear any more. But Charles Clarke, the Labour chairman, and Frank Dobson, who is organising the campaign against the BNP, said it wasn't good enough to call the BNP racists if the reply on working-class doorsteps was 'well I'm a racist too'. The BNP, said Dobson, has imitated the pavement politics of the Liberal Democrats. It campaigns on local issues and makes gains only where there is a genuine local grievance the democratic parties have allowed to fester. Opposing them is 'no easy task'. Labour has to get canvassers on the street who can justify the Government or council and argue convincingly in a world which is about as far away from metropolitan concerns as you can get.

The tens of thousands of anti-BNP leaflets going out this weekend are therefore packed with the most local of issues. In Oldham, for example, voters are told that the claim that the council is subsidising mosques is a lie, 'the mosque in Coppice was funded by local Muslim people'. In Burnley, the baiting of asylum-seekers by the press and politicians, which has done so much to legitimise the Far Right, has to be tackled - 'there are only a few dozen here out of a population of 91,000. That's hardly swamping now is it?'

If the propaganda is a touch parochial for your taste, I should add that the campaign is being run with tabloid verve. The BNP's attempt at bourgeois respectability has been used in the North-West to portray its leaders as cynical southerners who 'sit in London in their fancy suits'. The BNP's criminality, meanwhile, is hammered home to counter the party's line that it is tough on crime.

Last week the Sunday Mirror revealed that Robert Bennett, who is in charge of distributing BNP leaflets in the town, served five years for his part in the gang rape of two 17-year-olds. Fliers in Oldham are now throwing neo-Nazi language back at the BNP. Bennett was a 'sick' and 'evil' rapist of 'two young white women', one reads. 'The next time the BNP come knocking at your door just remember you might be staring into the eyes of brutal rapist Robert Bennett.'

The local election campaign may be dull in much of the country, and I'm sure apathy will be the real winner, but in East Lancs it's better than the telly.

Whether anti-fascist efforts will prevent the BNP taking a seat is hard to judge. In Burnley, the entire council is up for election and each voter will have three votes. It's possible the BNP will sneak in in some wards. Clarke, Dobson and anti-Nazi campaigners think they argued hard and well and hope there won't be one neo-Nazi councillor on 3 May.

New Labour is fighting the election with an uncharacteristic generosity of spirit which is as cheering as its self-confidence. Phil Woolas, an Oldham Labour MP, has asked his constituents to vote Tory or Lib Dem if they didn't like the Government. Every politician I spoke to said they were after the BNP not because it was a national threat to Labour, but because whenever the BNP did well riots and murders followed.

To be honest, most found my questioning about their motives odd. They were concentrating their fire on the BNP because opposing fascism was a good reason for being in politics. In a week which has seen the first Labour budget in a generation, their resolve could make even my cynical heart beat a little faster.

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