There is a danger that both civil society and mainstream political parties are growing complacent in their approach to the far right. The recent travails of the BNP make it all too easy to ignore the threat that extremist political thought still poses. So how should we respond?
That the far right has gained traction over the past decade must be an indictment of Labour’s ‘community cohesion’ agenda. Developed after the riots in northern towns in the summer of 2001, this agenda focussed upon interaction between separate ethnic or religious communities. Too much of this agenda focussed upon ‘snapshot’ interventions – shared activities were about a festival here or a street party there rather than uniting people in their need for good quality housing, more jobs or better public services.
The main weaknesses of cohesion were that it ignored inequalities within communities, refused to engage with structural segregation, did not address prejudice and also forgot the white population in many areas. Cohesion did not link up with either economic policy or public service reform. It also changed focus according to the latest perceived crisis, be it urban unrest, rising immigration or even countering international terrorism. As a result, it was left at the margins of policy and did not really make much of an impact upon community relations. It did even less in the face of a rising far right threat.
And yet a revitalised approach does offer some answers. If we are serious about bringing people together and ensuring that our schools and housing are inclusive and truly mixed then this offers the prospect of communities that will be more resilient to extremism. If people know one another and feel they have a shared stake in each other’s lives then doctrines that rely upon division and competition will be less likely to flourish.
The key is not to get on the moral high ground. For too long, many found the arguments and campaigns of the extremist right too distasteful to engage with. When they did, the focus was primarily an anti-racist message. Understandable as this was, we know that much of the primary support for the far right is not initially motivated by racist sympathies. By engaging these supporters through the prism of race we are failing to engage with the issues that concern them – housing, the lack of decent jobs, anti-social behaviour or the street scene. Furthermore, if we are too quick to label far right supporters as being racist then we downgrade the importance of that label and almost give them permission to wear it.
We also drift far too easily into myth-busting territory. We see the ludicrous claims of the BNP or the EDL and assume that the answer is just to tell people the truth. But this misses two key points. First, that these stories often have some basis in fact. The far right will take the lack of jobs or the shortage of housing which are both very real in some communities and run on those. They then are able to blame these on the ‘other’, be that immigrants, Muslims or just ethnic minorities as a whole. The real problem is the jobs and housing yet we concentrate on countering the explanation, risking a further disconnect with these people. Second, the speed and traction of any myth depends upon how ready people are to believe them. Members of social groups who occupy a particularly precarious position in society and are feeling insecure are especially susceptible to rumours, particularly if they provide a concrete explanation for their insecurity and fears.
Our responsibility must be to address the underlying causes. The joint impact of the recession and spending cuts is also likely to exacerbate the situation. The longer mainstream politics does not address the real economic and social conditions of many communities, the easier it will be for popular extremists to make capital out of it.
Another response must be political. Part of the success of the work in Barking during the 2010 election was that the threat of the BNP galvanised the local Labour party and its MP to work the area like it had not done for many years. Margaret Hodge and her supporters were out on the street night after night knocking on doors, listening to residents and trying to address their concerns.
There was nothing particularly new about this – it was good old-fashioned political campaigning. However it was of a type that has grown unfashionable in this age of canvassing scripts, target voters and media campaigns. The key is that it worked – and not just in defeating the BNP. Margaret Hodge will be a far better MP for having engaged with her constituents and she speaks with far more force in the Commons for being able to articulate what she heard on the doorstep. But it’s not just MPs who need to learn – its councillors and local activists. Getting out on the doorstep, making eye contact and engaging in conversations with voters are common instructions to the average BNP activist and they need to be once again to our other political parties.
Right-wing extremism continues to be strong in the UK and that strength comes in part from the way in which we have chosen to respond to it. We need to change that and accept that until we tackle the underlying causes of alienation and disengagement, then we are spitting into the wind. Moral superiority is no substitute for proper political engagement, building truly cohesive communities and ensuring people have better and more equal life chances.