Issue 185 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

Eastenders: have they knocked out the Nazis?

The defeat of the Nazis in a series of elections in East London breaks the myth that this is a 'no go area' for anti-racists or a fascist stronghold. Martin Smith explains why they were beaten but why we cannot yet write them off
Where did the vote go?

This time last year the British National Party was preparing for the forthcoming local government elections in May. The fascists' paper, the British Nationalist, predicted, 'The party... is now poised to take control of up to two local councils in East London. This would give the BNP a taste of real power, with control of multimillion pound housing budgets. More importantly, winning control of a local council would give the BNP electoral credibility... Whatever happens on 5 May, the BNP is set to dominate British politics during the 1990s'.

They had every reason to be confident. In September 1993 Derek Beackon of the BNP was elected councillor in East London's Isle of Dogs. The media coverage often gave the impression that the fascists had a mass base in East London.

One year on, a far different picture has emerged. There are now no Nazi councillors in the country. There have been four council by-elections in the East End of London in the past year. The Nazis have made no major breakthrough and in each one they saw their vote decline.

The Poplar by-election in December 1994 was a major setback for the Nazis. The BNP felt it had a chance of winning (whites make up nearly 90 percent of the ward). The BNP stood Beackon again with the slogan on a leaflet, 'Only fools and horses vote BNP'. The prediction proved correct. The BNP came third with less than 20 percent of the vote. Obviously anywhere else in the country 19 percent would be a good vote for the fascists. But given they got a 44 percent vote two years previously and 28 percent of the vote in the May 1994 elections in the ward next door, it was a serious decline. Reporters claim that BNP supporters in the count were visibly shaken. In subsequent elections the BNP has seen its vote decline even more.

One of the reasons for this fall in the BNP's fortunes is to be found in the recent rise in Labour's support. The bitterness against the Tories has been expressed through the ballot box by voting Labour, which has taken the lion's share of the protest vote. So even in Newham where every member of the council is Labour (the only council in Britain where this is true) and the council has carried out vicious cuts, Labour won the election and the BNP came a poor third.

The Don't Vote Nazi campaign organised by the Anti Nazi League is hurting the BNP. In 1982, in an act of desperation, Martin Webster (leader of the National Front) sued Peter Hain (Labour MP and ANL national secretary) for libel. He admitted 'up until 1977 the NF was unstoppable--then came the ANL.' Significantly, once again the Nazis are trying to sue an ANL member in Newham for calling them Nazis.

They are damaged electorally by being identified with the Nazis, and by being connected with violence. The England-Ireland football match in Dublin in February where the BNP orchestrated a riot lost them support. During the Weavers by-election I personally met people who were going to vote Nazi but decided not to after Dublin. The paramilitary organisation C18--which has strong links with the BNP--has carried out a number of violent attacks on individuals and their homes in places such as Cardiff and Leeds. The ANL has been central to organising a high publicity campaign and demonstrations in these cities and so isolated the fascists. Over 3,000 marched in Leeds and 2,000 in Cardiff.

So the past year has demonstrated that the BNP has not been able to capitalise on Beackon's election success, and its vote is declining. Its members are being pushed back into Tower Hamlets and parts of Newham. All this has had an impact on its membership.

According to Searchlight (the antifascist magazine) over the past year many members of the BNP have stopped paying subs and have dropped out. This has also been confirmed by ANL members in East London who have noticed that over the course of the four by-elections the BNP has had fewer supporters campaigning for it. Some have dropped out of politics while others have turned to more sinister methods.

The turn towards individual attacks and harassment is a sign of the Nazis' frustration with the lack of success of the electoral strategy being argued by the BNP leadership. Violence gives the members of C18 a quick fix, but ultimately it will lead nowhere. It isolates them from the vast majority of people, and on its own will not build a mass Nazi movement.

This does not mean that we can afford to ignore the Nazis or be complacent. In the 1980s when the economic boom burst, Europe witnessed a rebirth of fascist movements. There are now a number of large and influential Nazi parties which pose a serious threat.

Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front (FN) claims to have 100,000 members (however, it is probably more like 50,000) and sells around 200,000 copies of its weekly paper. The FN now has 1,700 municipal councillors and 11 MEPs. Although faced with some setbacks in the last 11 months, European Nazi and extreme right parties received about 20 million votes in the Euro elections last year.

Happy to take on the Nazis

In contrast, the British Nazis are the poor cousins of Europe. The total number of votes cast for Nazi parties in Britain amounted to just over 20,000 in last year's council elections. The vast majority were cast in East London. The membership of all the British Nazi parties put together is probably no more than a few thousand.

The BNP grew out of the ashes of the National Front--the main Nazi party in Britain during the 1970s. In 1977 the NF was able to get 119,000 votes in the GLC elections, pushing the Liberals into fourth place. It has only been over the past two or three years that the BNP has gained any success.

Although that advance has now been reversed, there are reasons for the growth in support for the BNP in recent years. Firstly, it has been encouraged by the growth of its European counterparts. Secondly, East London has such appalling social conditions that it can become a breeding ground for the Nazis. A survey in the London Evening Standard revealed that many working class people 'live in conditions of poverty and distress more associated with the 19th century'. Unemployment remains twice as high as the national average, with health and housing being some of the worst in Britain. The failure of the three main parties to address these issues has further exacerbated the situation and has pushed some people towards drawing racist conclusions.

Reported racist attacks
(figures compiled by Home Office)

 

1989 
1990 
1991 
1992 
1993 
93/941
Provincial
Police Total
2347
3451
4509
4566
5329
5873
Metropolitan
Police total
2697 
2908 
3373 
3227 
3889 
38892
England &
Wales (inc
London)
5044
6359
7882
7793
9218
9762
Scotland
376
636
678
663
726
___3
Total
5420
6995
8560
8456
9944
___3
1Figures for April 1993 to January 1994 2police estimate 3Not available

There has always been a clear link between the numbers of racist attacks and the economic situation. In 1984 there were nearly 6,000 racist attacks in Britain. During the late 1980s boom they fell to just over 4,000. As the economy floundered in the 1990s attacks increased once again. According to figures compiled by the Commission for Racial Equality (from reported racist attacks to the police), racist attacks have doubled since 1989, even then, the CRE believes that only 10 percent of attacks are reported.

Institutional racism remains as high as ever and continues to reinforce racial stereotypes. According to the London Unemployment Unit, unemployment is at 11 percent among whites, 26 percent among blacks and 30 percent among Asians.

The black community fares no better when it comes to justice. Although Africans and Afro-Caribbeans make up 1.6 percent of the population, they comprise 10 percent of Britain's prison population.

However, although the increased level of racism has given the BNP a larger audience, the situation is more complicated. There are also at the same time far greater levels of racial tolerance. Over the past 25 years or more, much greater levels of assimilation have developed between black and white people. Blacks and whites mix together all the time--at work, school or socially. In a recent Observer article 13 year olds questioned on attitudes all put racism first as the most important issue facing them.

Election results, BNP percentage of vote

Although the strike levels in Britain have been low over the past 15 years, workers' action and trade union organisation have played an important role in forging unity amongst black and white workers. During this time there has not been one racist strike, while there has been action against racism and the Nazis. For example, council workers went on strike on the Isle of Dogs when Beackon was elected. Civil servants in both Sheffield and Central London organised successful campaigns to remove known Nazis from their offices.

Finally, the anti-Nazi and anti-racist movement has also played a vital role in weakening racists.

The election of Derek Beackon put the anti-racist movement to the test. Both Anti Fascist Action (AFA) and the Anti Racist Alliance (ARA) drew the same conclusions from the rise of racism. They both believed that the white working class is racist and has no role to play in the struggle against the Nazis.

AFA and a handful of other similar organisations--rather than attempt to build a mass movement to smash the Nazis--have relied on a small group of street fighters to confront the fascists. In the end this always leads to secretive organisation that by definition excludes the vast majority of people. Small groups of people attacking groups of Nazis have never smashed them, as the lessons of the 1930s and 1970s demonstrate. It is only mass action coupled with serious door to door and union campaigning around the issues that breed fascism that has broken Nazi movements.

ARA, although formally the strongest anti-racist organisation--backed by the Labour Party and most national trade unions--has in reality collapsed. Its pessimism about the situation led it to argue for a movement that should be led by black people, instead of both black and white. It also adopted a top down approach to building an anti-racist movement. It effectively ignored the May elections.

The streets belong to us

The ANL, on the other hand, adopted a strategy that involved MPs, trade unions, celebrities and thousands of black and white anti-racists. It organised a broad based campaign that confronted the Nazis wherever they tried to organise but also went door to door arguing with those who were considering voting Nazi.

The BNP was not able to consolidate on Beackon's success. Within three days of his election BNP members were driven off their only regular sale in Brick Lane (a predominately Asian area of Tower Hamlets) by 1,000 ANL members and local people. Instead of celebrating Beackon's victory they were seen on national television running away, and have not dared to sell openly since.

Within a month 60,000 marched against the BNP headquarters in Welling. This march forced the TUC to call its own march against racism some months later through the heart of London's East End, where 50,000 joined the march and the BNP was made to look insignificant.

When the May elections occurred ANL members leafleted every house in the areas the Nazis stood. They ensured both that Beackon was not re-elected and that no other Nazi was elected. The celebration of the BNP's defeat was the ANL carnival in May with 150,000 people.

What of the future? The worrying thing for the anti-Nazi movement is that although the Nazis are down they are by no means out. Even with the mass campaigns against them they are still able to get between 12 and 19 percent of the vote. This is far too high. It means that the Nazis have a bedrock of support that will not easily be reduced. Also this level of support can be used as a springboard to capture a council seat in the future. When the BNP won 20 percent of the vote in the Isle of Dogs in 1992 it gave Beackon a firm base to capture the seat when a councillor resigned a year later.

Britain today is in a very volatile state. If Blair gets elected how long will it take before people become disillusioned? Clearly the BNP is hoping to benefit from disillusionment with Labour. The problem the BNP has is, can it keep its organisation together? Our side must not rest on its laurels. We have to keep up the pressure on the Nazis to stop them regrouping and building a strong organisation. Part of doing this is building a serious socialist alternative to Labour. The important battles are still to come.


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