Issue 176 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Labour's success and the defeat of the BNP in last month's local elections gave socialists a real cause for celebration. Chris Bambery looks at the results and beyond to the possibility of future struggles
|Girobank: struggles bubble up but don't quite come to the boil|
There was one man unhappier than John Major on the night of May's local elections--Derek Beackon, the defeated British National Party candidate on east London's Isle of Dogs.
Britain's Nazis cut a sorry figure amongst their European blood brothers. Today, 50 years after Auschwitz, the MSI--heirs of the fascist Mussolini--are in government in Italy. In France the Nazi National Front has over 1,000 local representatives to the BNP's none.
The Independent was quick to claim the BNP's defeat in the Isle of Dogs was a tribute to the resilience of Britain's democratic tradition. In reality it was a tribute to months of hard campaigning by the Anti Nazi League in Millwall. While many of the left was prepared to accept the notion that the Isle of Dogs was a no go area for anti-racists, the ANL went out week after week on the Island's estates and to its workplaces.
While Beackon claimed that he got the white working class vote, the truth is that Labour would have won even if not a single black voter on the Island had voted. On election day the Island had something of a carnival atmosphere as white and black voters showed their contempt for the BNP.
The inability of Britain's Nazis to copy the success of their European counterparts is not just a result of the ANL's success this time round, but the legacy of its success in the late 1970s. Then the National Front could contest every seat in the 1977 Greater London Council elections while it could poll 44 percent in a council by-election in Deptford in 1976. This year the fascists scraped a miserable 3 percent in the same area.
Ray Hill, who was a mole within Britain's Nazis for the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, has recorded:
'After its first flush of success, the NF was knocked back by the hugely successful campaigns of the Anti Nazi League which organised rallies of tens of thousands against the NF, and produced millions of highly effective leaflets which circulated in factories, offices and housing estates.'
The effect of that can be seen in parts of London which the Nazis regarded as 'theirs' in the late 1970s: areas like Hoxton in south Hackney where the BNP does not openly appear. It can be seen in other ways. The argument about denying the Nazis a platform was bitterly attacked by Labour leaders like Michael Foot in the 1970s. Today this position has been more widely accepted, with Media Workers Against the Nazis drawing large scale support.
In the 1970s the Anti Nazi League operated against the background of a Labour government which achieved things like a real reduction in wages and health expenditure that neither Margaret Thatcher or John Major has emulated. Whilst the League involved individual Labour MPs and party supporters it was clearly independent of Labour and critical of the right wing Callaghan government.
This contrasts with the record of an organisation like SOS Racisme in France during the 1980s. On the surface its concerts and festivals echoed the ANL Carnivals of the late 1970s. However, not only did it shy clear of directly confronting Le Pen but it was closely linked to the increasingly right wing Socialist government.
Yet it would be too easy to see Beackon's defeat as the end of the matter. The election results give no such room for complacency. In south Newham the BNP could poll 32.9 and 24.1 percent of the vote in Beckton and Custom House and Beackon's own vote increased from the by-election. The BNP's vote in Millwall stood at 28 percent while in nearby Globetown it polled 22.8 percent. Outside east London the BNP could poll nothing of this size. But the rise of the European Nazis still gives confidence to British fascists even if their electoral showing is pathetic in most places.
Here it is important that we draw the lessons of Millwall. Over the months local socialists built up support so that local firefighters, civil servants and health workers leafleted against the Nazis. The BNP tried to claim we were outsiders--though Beackon himself does not live on the Island. The involvement of local workers went a long way to undercutting this idea.
|The champagne flowed outside Tower Hamlets town hall when Beackon lost his seat|
Success also meant going beyond simply exposing the BNP as Nazis to addressing issues such as housing, the closure of a local community centre, VAT on fuel and local health cuts. The Nazis had nothing to offer over anything that smelt of a fightback against the system. When the BNP leafleted houses with the 'Island Nationalist', the local SWP branch hit back with 'Island Socialist'. Where the BNP had built up networks of local supporters we toured door to door building up a network of Socialist Worker readers.
Labour has promised new houses for thousands of local people. Now that it runs the council the danger is that Labour will repeat its past performances and fail to meet that pledge. Socialists need to channel any resulting anger in the right direction by building a fightback. Otherwise the Nazis can cash in.
The fight against the Nazis is not divorced from the wider fightback against the Tories. The turnout at the ANL Carnival from trade unionists can breed confidence not only to fight racism but to fight on a wider level over jobs and wages. That has been true with workplace anti-Nazi groups, which have registered some of their most impressive support in the post and fire services--groups noted for recent high levels of industrial militancy.
On the doorstep it is often difficult to break down the views of isolated, bitter individuals who can become prey to the fascists. Yet there is not a workplace or union branch in the country where it is impossible to get a hearing for an anti-racist message. Across the country groups of often mainly white trade unionists voted support for the Carnival in the collective solidarity of the workplace.
In the long run whether racism will increase will largely depend on the level of working class struggle in this country. In the Royal Mail the recent spate of disputes has brought black and white together. Here we should always remind ourselves of one simple fact, John Major is a walking corpse. Everything he touches turns to ashes. In the words of his arch critic, Richard Littlejohn of the Sun, he is a 'hopeless, lying, incompetent, hypocrite'. It was almost beyond belief that the anniversary of the D Day invasion could turn into a fiasco for the Tories with even Vera Lynn turning on them. This follows the back to basics fiasco as Tory sex scandals wrecked Major's claims that the Tories were the party defending moral standards.
Past Nazi Votes
The following figures put the Nazi vote into perspective. The Nazis are not able to do what the NF did in 1977 when they contested every London seat in the GLC elections. Neither are they able to achieve what they did in a Deptford by-election in 1976 when they polled 44 percent.
1973 local council elections NF votes
Average NF vote May 1977
Average NF votes across area May 1982
Other significant Nazi votes
Average NF votes local elections 1976-1980
But for the political interlude caused by John Smith's death, it is questionable whether he would once again have been on the ropes following the Tories' disastrous performance in May's local elections. Already an unofficial leadership election was under way with Michael Portillo and Kenneth Clarke as well as Michael Heseltine throwing their hats into the ring. The local elections left Britain's ruling party in third place at town hall level in England and Wales while in Scotland it is reduced to fourth place.
While the media claimed the main victor of the elections was Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats, in reality the Labour Party was the chief prizewinner. Labour matched its success of 1990 at the time of the poll tax when Labour was extremely popular, while inside London it increased its vote, winning Croydon, for the first time in its history, Enfield and Ealing from the Tories and Tower Hamlets from the Liberals. The Tory Party now controls only four out of the 32 London boroughs, while the Liberals lost around 30 seats in London overall, including on the other council it controlled, Richmond.
Labour's success was tempered by losses in Sheffield, Lambeth, Southwark, Islington and Kirklees where there was a reaction to the right wing policies of the Labour councils. In many of these areas Labour also felt the loss of activists removed as a result of the purge of the left. Yet in places such as Hackney, Haringey and Camden Labour gained despite its record in the town hall.
The genuine grief at John Smith's death reflected the widespread hope for a Labour victory. Yet that grief has been tempered by concern about the media packaged campaign to install Tony Blair as the new Labour leader.
Rupert Murdoch's Sun has been in many ways the most biting critic of John Major. The paper's columnist, Richard Littlejohn, says, 'What is wrong with British politics is that there is little to choose between the two main parties.' Littlejohn backs Blair because he wants to see a realignment of British politics, with a pro-European Labour Party and an anti-European Tory Party. His position reflects the confusion and deep divisions on Europe within the Tories' ranks.
But Blair has little to offer those worried about their jobs, their housing or racist attacks. Neither will they have experienced the political truce of the kind observed at Westminster after Smith's death. They are still facing redundancy and increased taxes. The hypocrisy of all this is staggering. The Tories' Euro election guide, written before Smith's death, described his performance as 'ineffectual and visionless' with his 'double standards' making 'Neil Kinnock look like a first class leader'.
Despite all of this the Tories seem set for a further humiliation in the Euro elections which will reopen the gaping wounds in their front ranks. Beyond all this there are signs of wider concerns among Britain's rulers. Prince Charles dropped his liberal facade when he made a speech echoing an earlier statement by Michael Portillo when he claimed:
'We tend to be subjected to the most all-pervading cynicism about almost every aspect of our national life. Nothing ever seems right...
'An insidious impression is thereby created that, for instance, the police are corrupt, British justice is flawed, the BBC is moribund and public servants are time wasters of taxpayers' money'.
This cynicism no doubt got a boost when it was revealed taxpayers were forking out £3,000 a week to cover Princess Diana's bill for clothes, beauty treatment and Chinese foot massage!
Yet there are those on the left who still urge caution. The trade union leaders are falling over themselves to avoid any talk about action and to conform with every tightening of the anti-union laws. Even the left wing New Statesman writes:
'Yet, even now, the signs are that there is nothing about the Conservatives' position that could not be remedied by the smack of firm (and different) leadership in combination with real economic recovery'.
Any visitor to the union conferences this spring would have left with the idea that new realism reigned supreme. In the new, super public sector union, Unison, the conference voted down even balloting for a day's strike over pay, with the union's general secretary Alan Jinkinson, claiming such a ballot 'would give comfort to the most unpopular prime minister this century'. The TUC went so far as suppressing a poll showing majority support for strike action over public sector pay.
The effects of more than a decade dominated by defeat and demoralisation go beyond the top tables of union officials. The legacy has left its scars among the rank and file. Yet there are signs that the Tory travails can only feed what is growing discontent at grass roots level in the working class. In recent months there have been a blaze of walkouts across Royal Mail in response to management's arrogance. This has happened despite the postal union, the UCW's, desperation to dissociate itself from much of this action. In Liverpool an illegal city wide strike spread from the main sorting office after a manager mocked a postal worker's stutter. A mass meeting voted down the union's secretary, Alan Johnson, in favour of continuing the action. Johnson only forced a return to work through a reps' meeting at which he threatened to remove their union credentials.
In the fire service there has been a series of protests and ballots in response to attacks on conditions. In Glasgow a dispute at the Royal Infirmary made headline news north of the border after porters and cleaners voted to strike against privatisation. NHS trust management threatened, in the words of the city's Evening Times headline, to 'bring on the scabs' and was then forced into a humiliating victory. In Bedford engineering workers registered a 'score draw' after a strike while 700 mainly women workers at Elkes Biscuits in Uttoxeter won a pay increase after ten days on strike.
This is occurring even before the effects of Tory tax increases make themselves felt on workers' pay packets. With most workers £5 worse off already and with more to follow, it is difficult to see such a weak and divided government holding the line on pay in the long run.
Neither do we face a confident management as we did in the early 1980s with Michael Edwardes at what is now Rover, and Ian MacGregor at first British Steel and then British Coal. Individuals like John Birt at the BBC, Iain Vallance at BT or the new breed of NHS trust managers are hated figures.
Most people can be forgiven for knowing little of this. It is not reported outside the pages of Socialist Worker. Papers such as the Financial Times, which once seriously monitored industrial relations, now rarely cover industrial disputes. The union leaders do little to publicise resistance.
Socialists cannot affect the level of struggle by an act of will. They can address the doubts which remain in workers' heads while boosting the desire for a fightback. Where there is a socialist presence it can ensure that the trade union officials don't stifle action.
Last year that was true at Timex where there was a group of long term Socialist Worker readers. This year that has been true at Glasgow Royal Infirmary (where a regular sale mushroomed to over 100 in the week of the dispute) and at Liverpool's main sorting office.
One simple task we can all set ourselves is to ensure that such workplace sales happen in every part of the country.
At present the situation is one where industrial disputes bubble up but never quite come to the boil. The legacy of years of defeat means that the anger in people's minds is still mixed with a lack of confidence about how to fight.
But we only have to look across the Channel to France to see how quickly mass strikes and protests can develop. It is only a matter of time before the explosions which are recent features of continental Europe also happen here.