Anti-fascism without fascists: how should the left organise against UKIP?

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In spring this year, some different fragments of the British left, with former comrades of mine to the fore, launched “Stand up to UKIP” (SUTU) promising to turn against UKIP the strategies which were said to have been decisive to the recent defeat of British fascism. SUTU is a strange campaign: formed to challenge a solely electoral party, its website says very little about the coming by-election in Clacton, which has generated more publicity for UKIP than anything for months, but focuses instead on the coming UKIP conference, outside which SUTU promises to hold a protest. 

With the electoral defeat of the British National Party in 2010, there is no longer any far-right group in Britain capable of operating meaningfully in both elections and on the streets.

The demise of the BNP gives every impression of being fatal. The number of its elected councillors has dropped from 58 in 2009 to just 2 today (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/05/why-has-bnp-collapsed). Its declared membership has fallen from around 12,600 in 2009 to just 4,097 by 2012 (https://pefonline.electoralcommission.org.uk/Search/SearchIntro.aspx). In UKIP it faces an electoral rival which is well-financed, has support from important sections of the mainstream press, and shows every signs of being sufficiently durable so that the BNP should expect to be shut out for a generation. In the future, when individuals from fascist backgrounds win elections, they will almost certainly not be members of the British National Party.

Moreover, the British National Party has not been supplanted by an organisation with any discernible roots in fascism. The present conjuncture would be different if the English Defence League was not also in a seemingly irreversible decline. The EDL had among its membership a number of individuals who had come from the BNP, most notably its leader Tommy Robinson. In its few attempts to formulate an independent statement of its aims, the EDL attempted a fusion of militant English nationalism based on a nostalgic invocation of the separate interests of the white working class with surprising details from the history of the left (a clue is the author’s name in ‘Billy Blake’, Coming Down the Road (London: VHC Publishing, 2011). This combination was at least arguably comparable to similar attempts by different interwar groups.

The EDL too has lost all energy: it has no membership figures, it does not stand in elections, and even the “demo calendar” it used to publish on its website is no more. Wikipedia gives the following estimate of EDL assemblies: 9 in 2009, 18 in 2010, 24 in 2011, 12 in 2012, 5 in 2013, and exactly none in 2014 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_Defence_League_demonstrations). Yes, the Wikipedia page is an arbitrary source, and a number of early EDL marches are missing from the list, but the largest EDL assembly was three years ago at Luton (3000 people); the last time that the EDL turned out more than one tenth of its peak numbers (i.e. more than 300 people) was over a year ago, on 8 September 2013 at Tower Hamlets.

So should anti-fascists transfer their energy – and tactics – to UKIP? Should we see combating UKIP as one of our principal strategic priorities, something to which we devote people and resources, to the exclusion of (for example) campaigning against the Coalition government? Should we say – as we would of the BNP – that every UKIP candidate who is allowed an unchallenged platform, represents a temporary defeat for our movement? Should we offer UKIP, as we would the BNP, physical resistance?

The normal way in which an “anti-fascist” approach to UKIP is defended is by the argument that UKIP is pulling politics to the right.

I don’t think this is enough. In the actual context of a universal revulsion with the Thatcher-Major governments of the 1980s and 1990s, when the mainstream if politics was moving rapidly to the left (as shown for example, by the enormous 25-point poll lead Labour had stormed into within months of the 1992 election) it is arguable that Tony Blair’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 1994 pulled politics to the right. He used his enormous authority as Prime Minister in waiting, to argue against traditional social democratic policies of redistribution, nationalisation, etc, beginning with his immediate attack on Clause IV. Yet Blair was not targeted as a “fascist” or proxy fascist, and rightly not.

Moreover, UKIP is pulling politics to the right from a position as an outsider party. Part of the way in which people experience contemporary politics is as an unreal show, in which the same faces, supposedly representing different viewpoints but in fact disagreeing about nothing of significance, recur again and again. By the mere election of new people, UKIP promises to shake the snow globe of the existing order; opposition to UKIP, no matter how well handled gives the impression of trying to protect the old.

Now UKIP’s external status is of course contradictory. From the point of view of its policies, the class background of its leading figures its access to funds and even to press support, it is of course no outsider at all.

When anti-fascists fought the National Front or the BNP, there was the same risk of being perceived as the establishment’s shield, but the danger was significantly mitigated by what you might call the fractal nature of fascism. The BNP might bring new people into politics but behind them there were usually familiar figures from the long history of British fascism, people with criminal records for attacks on their opponents, the skinheads protecting the suits. Opposition to these local bullies, as to Tyndall or Griffin nationally, could connect with a local audience. UKIP, being a different sort of party, its national leaders are themselves an eclectic mix; and locally, its supporters often do not replicate UKIP as a whole.

(In fact, taking this point further, anti-fascist electoralism has worked best too when we could apply something like the same logic in reverse: when the people canvassing were involved in local unions or tenant campaigns or struggles to defend particular services, and were already locally known, so that they were bringing the credibility they had established in class campaigns into electoral politics, rather than being perceived as yet another set of outsiders).

While it was certainly arguable that the fascism of the 1970s was “spearheading” the country’s move to authoritarianism (i.e. the NF’s electoral defeat at the hands of Thatcher came at the cost of the partial absorption of NF ideas into state policy on immigration, the family, etc), there is no meaningful sense in which UKIP is any more at the forefront of a national lurch toward sexism, racism, militarism or towards any meaningful attack on the political left.

Anti-fascism places an exclusion zone around fascist politics, by arguing that they are unique and distinctive and particularly bad. It says, to a greater or lesser extent: we are all good people, save for those few who are not. In the coming Clacton bye-election, those canvassing against UKIP will be pressured by the logic of their situation to call for a Conservative vote as the only party who could keep them out. And yet, nowhere on the present British left can you find anyone with the confidence to argue this openly and support canvassing for the Tories as the last defence against the threat of Douglas Carswell (who was, after all, a Conservative until recently). Even my former comrades while promising to call for votes against Carswell (“Stand Up to UKIP will be campaigning locally against Carswell”; http://standuptoukip.org/clacton-dont-be-used-by-ukip/), will not say directly for who they will be urging people to vote: an uninspiring Labour candidate, an eco (rather than a social) Green…

50,000 people were deported from Britain in 2013 (http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/deportations-removals-and-voluntary-departures-uk), this figure is twice as many as in 2004, you cannot blame Carswell for any of these broken families. The mass impoverisation of welfare recipients through the bedroom tax, welfare caps, and attacks on the disabled, was pioneered by Cameron and Clegg as a conscious attempt to shift the blame for the 2008 bankers crisis – other than in the limited sense that he too is a banker, Farage was marginal to that process. UKIP cannot be blamed for Coalition policies to set up lecturers, doctors and (from next year) landlords as immigration police: these policies come from the Coalition, and predate UKIP’s recent rise.

For about 35 years, the dominant approach within important parts of the socialist left towards fascism has been what is known as No Platform. Loosely translated, it goes something like as follows.

Fascism is a unique political doctrine in that on the two occasions when recognisable fascist parties have held power they have actively rejected the parts of modernity which all other political traditions have respected. IE They have suppressed political democracy even in countries where there was a long history of democracy. And they have waged both war and genocide even in the heartlands of capitalism. Any recognisably fascist political party, granted sufficient power, carries the risk that it would do the same. That is what exactly fascism is for. Therefore while, for example, free speech is a cardinal principle of ordinary democratic behaviour, it must bend to the overriding need to defeat fascism, since free speech for fascists carries the seed of the risk of their victory.

Here is Lindsey German, a veteran of the Anti-Nazi League, justifying No Platform in the 1980s: “The experience of fascism in Germany and other countries before the war demonstrated that fascists could not be treated as simply another political party. They would use democratic channels to build their support, and then suppress all forms of political opposition – not simply left wing organisations, but trade unions, campaigning groups and so on.” (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/german/1986/04/noplatform.html)

This idea is also expressed, by a previous generation, in the historian Edward Thompson’s memoir for his brother Frank, a British army officer who served alongside Bulgarian partisans, was captured by pro-fascists, and executed in 1944. EP Thompson publishes a letter Frank sent home to his family, in which the young soldier recalled the anti-fascists who had died in 1936 in Spain. He said that the conflict between England and Hitler was essentially the same struggle. In his words, “Those of us who came after” (i.e. the generation who died in 1939-45) “were merely adopting an idea, that they proved, that freedom and fascism can’t live in the same world, and that the free man, one he realises this, will always win” (http://www.dkrenton.co.uk/antifascism.html).

What happens though when the far-right party is not fascist, contains no recognisable fascists in its leadership, and carries no threat to the right of minorities to organise?

Anti-fascism is an imperative of left-wing politics: a call that caused the volunteers in Spain to give up jobs, homes and ultimately their lives. Opposition to UKIP may be defensible, useful and positive if done effectively, but it is not an urgent cause of the same moral stature.

Imagine Frank Thompson, ten years older, and having morphed seamlessly into the perhaps surprising role of career British officer, had been sent by the British government to fight Colonel Nasser “the new Hitler on the Nile”. I don’t doubt that he would have revolted against Eden’s logic and insisted that Nasser was no Nazi.

The Lindsey German piece I have quoted continues, “racists and sexists should not go unchallenged … But the way we challenge again has to be sensitive and not just a blanket ban.”

I am not suggesting that campaigning against UKIP is by definition wrong – I can imagine areas where it should be a local priority, indeed in some places the local priority. A genuine campaign against Farage, where he is standing Kent, makes a lot of sense to me, not least because such is his media profile that he will dominate the local contest – in a way that UKIP is unlikely to in the majority of its target seats. I would campaign against UKIP locally, temporarily and tactically – whereas I would campaign against the BNP, nationally, consistently and strategically.

And where people campaign against UKIP, I would hope that their tactics can have the effect not of cordoning off UKIP as an unhealthy aberration within the benign ecology which is British parliamentary politics; but of linking up activists’ dislike of them to their allies and to all Tories beyond. I would make the Rees-Moggs of the world (UKIP’s allies) as much of a target as the Carswells.

If no platform is an exceptional measure justifiable only because of the extreme risk fascism poses, then logically similar tactics – eg trying to prevent a UKIP speaker from addressing an audience at all lose their legitimacy when they are stretched beyond their original target. Applying no platform to non-fascists is like turning on a fire sprinkler in a lecture hall where there is no fire: strange, ineffective, and incomprehensible to your audience.

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3 responses »

  1. “I would make the Rees-Moggs of the world (UKIP’s allies) as much of a target as the Carswells.” Go on, then! Go on, then! Do it.

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