When the Red Wall fell

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A review of Mike Makin Waite, On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a Northern English Town

Makin-Waite was a council official in Burnley, when riots were followed by electoral success for the BNP (16% of the vote in Oldham West, 11% in Burnley), creating the conditions for the party’s subsequent breakthrough (3 councillors elected in Burnley in 2002, fifty council seats in Britain by the end of the decade).

A former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and teenage supporter of the Anti-Nazi League, Makin-Waite was at a meeting of council officials in 2002. The town was on the way to becoming a byword for racism, but one after the other the senior officials rose to insist there was no reason to panic, cohesion grants, project work, the situation would soon return to normal. Makin-Waite said that normal wasn’t coming back any time soon, the problems were too deep-rooted for that. The chief executive glowered at him and called him to a meeting. Rather than discipline him as he feared for speaking out of turn, she gave him the job of leading Burnley Council’s response.

This is a detailed and compelling account of how the state dealt with the challenge of political extremism, patiently isolating its key figures over a period of many years. The irony that it took a Communist to rescue the town’s two-party system is not lost on Makin-Waite.

The social crisis in Burnley had been brewing for many years. Its political expression began in the Labour Party under the leadership of Councillor Eddie Fisk, who was by the end of the 1990s one of the town’s longest-serving councillors.

From the mid-1990s onwards, Fisk had sought to shore up his support in “his” ward of Lowerhouse, by involving himself in all administrative decisions. Fisk’s main agenda, Makin-Waite explains, was to prevent “ethnic minorities” from being housed there. When the party finally, reluctantly, decided it had no choice but to investigate him, Fisk was defended by the Conservative, Liberal Democrats, and many in his own party. “Everyone knew” that if Asian people were permitted to live in a predominantly white ward, those white voters would flee, and the area become run down. Surely, by keeping Asians and Muslims out of Lowerhouse, they reasoned, Fisk was doing what any principled councillor would do.

The real cause of poverty, Makin-Waite insists, was job losses not immigration: the town’s manufacturing employment fell by 80 percent between 1950 and 2000. But councillors had no inclination to fight redundancies (Fisk himself was a former prominent “working miner” from 1984-5). It was easier to blame the town’s Asian minority than to fight for jobs.

Fisk was expelled from Labour and ran as an Independent in May 1998. He still had such influence in his ward that his allies were able to secure the nomination of Samuel Holgate to stand against him. The latter secured the nomination, then in the final days refused to campaign, claiming he was too ill to lave his home. On Fisk’s victory, Holgate (now revealed to be Fisk’s nephew) left Labour for Fisk’s Burnley Independents.

Three years before the BNP came in to Burnley, appeals to white identity were already being used to cohere an anti-Labour voting bloc. The Independents did not stand in the 2001 general election, and their audience swung to the BNP. By 2002, the latter had 1000 members in Burnley. Its candidates included a pub landlord, a civil engineer and an assembly-line worker. Its leaflets appealed to “ordinary,” “decent,” “authentic” white citizens.

BNP members tried to engineer right-wing talking-points. They ran local bakers urging their workers to stop up to the Muslim pressure (what pressure, the bakers asked) and keep on baking their “Christian” hot cross buns. The councillors demanded the names and addresses of all asylum seekers living in Burnley – the request was refused. They asked if IT support could be provided by white employees only. They asked to opt out of receiving information being sent to all councillors (if it contained news about Muslims). Their publications complained that Muslims and Asians were getting preferential access to plum council jobs (35 of the council’s 700 employees were Asian). The council sent the party a solicitor’s letters saying the BNP were not entitled to lie. Next thing, a councillor was standing at Makin-Waite’s desk asking him to check the copy of BNP leaflets for accuracy – he declined.

Labour’s default reaction to a new class of politicians relying on myths of preferential treatment for outsiders was to demand more resources from government. Makin-Waite understands and to some extent commends this reaction, while also observing that it was inadequate. It was easier talking about bread and butter than admitting that large numbers of former Labour voters felt the appeal of racism. Councillors and party members were defensive and had no “confidence” in resisting racism.

Shaped by his own previous activism on the far left, Makin-Waite is attentive to the positions taken by radical anti-fascists. He argues however that anti-fascist materials had little purchase in the town – the BNP candidates were local, and well-known, beyind a certain threshhold of success just terming them “Nazis” no longer worked.

“The party had earned the right to be understood in terms of political sociology: it could not longer be defined through assessing its leaders’ hidden motives.” The BNP’s success “expressed a distorted logic of class as race”. The ideology was pernicious and exclusionary, but it succeeded for a time in making BNP voters situation in the town and their own personal circumstances intelligible. Makin-Waite described the local working class as “damaged” and the BNP succeeding because it offered a “wounded pride”.

Slowly, the BNP were driven back – Griffin’s racism and long-term commitment to fascist politics proved, over time, the liability it was always likely to be. But the end of the story is not a happy one. Burnley’s exceptionalism slowly paled. In 2016, the town voted 2/3 for Brexit. In 2017, it was the home to UKIP’s only county councillor. In December 2019, Burnley had a Conservative MP for the first time since 1910-11.

Makin-Waite argues that there is a continuity between the BNP’s electoral breakthrough in 2001-2, and the present talk of the Red Wall. Undoubtedly, there are continuities, although as the content of right-wing populism becomes successively diluted and normalised, so too is it harder to resist. The answer, of course, is a re-energised working class and re-learning of anti-racist first principles. But that, as Makin-Waite concludes, is easier said than done.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here or here. Tickets for the booklaunch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

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