In 1992 I campaigned for the first time against the British National party in Bristol, protesting against its vile neo-fascist politics of hate and division. As a 12-year-old I had no idea that I was going to end up working for the pre-eminent anti-BNP campaign, HOPE not hate, which would eventually be able to claim the ultimate scalp – the political demise of the BNP. In 1992 we also had no idea of quite how successful the BNP was to become in the intervening period and the threat it would pose both in terms of political discourse and electorally.
But we have beaten it and we should be celebrating the end of this incarnation of the far-right. It has been a hard-fought victory. A national campaign which showed the labour movement at its very best, as it led the campaign, a campaign which attracted thousands of people who had never engaged politically before, united to defend and celebrate the diverse and multicultural country that we live in. It took decades, thousands of activists, national media support in the guise of the Daily Mirror and literally millions of leaflets to expose its hypocrisy, its crass views and its hate. But, most importantly, it took the Labour party to take the threat seriously and re-engage in communities across the country from Burnley to Barking.
Last week’s removal of the BNP from the register of political parties represents the final humiliation of a party that has been in terminal decline since 2010. But it is worth reflecting on the journey we have been on, together, to get to this point. In 1999 Nick Griffin began a process to build the BNP as a political force, and his success was frightening. By 2009 the BNP had a London assembly member, councillors up and down the country and two members of the European parliament. In fact it secured nearly one million votes in the 2009 European elections.
In Stoke-on-Trent, the wonderful, multicultural city I proudly represent, the party at one point held nine seats on the city council. Griffin disgracefully described my city as ‘the jewel in the crown’ for the BNP.
In 2010 the BNP was on a high and focused its efforts in attempting to beat Margaret Hodge and Jon Cruddas in Barking and Dagenham. But it underestimated us, and thousands of people went door to door to challenge the BNP’s politics of hate. And we did not just win, we destroyed it, winning every council seat and safely returning Margaret and Jon to parliament. By 2014 the party was over for Griffin and his cronies. In June Griffin was booted out of the European parliament by the electorate and then out of his own party by his inner circle. Forced out as chair and expelled from the organisation that he had built into a credible political threat.
So, while we toast the final nail in the coffin of the BNP, I feel I should ask the most difficult of questions. Did we beat their politics or did we simply (but vitally) destroy a structure, a political vehicle, while the hate, fear and division continue?
I am clear: I think that the war is not over and we need to be ready for the next battle. The fears that the BNP sought to exploit continue to exist across the United Kingdom and indeed right across Europe. Groups such as Britain First and Pegida have returned to the street wars that defined the fascist movements of the 1970s and 1980s. The continuing support for United Kingdom Independence party shows that fear and intolerance remain powerful galvanising forces in our country, especially when clothed in a more ‘respectable’ demeanour that the far-right was incapable of generating. Most worryingly the advance of Ukip also mainstreams the politics of fear and division and poses a serious electoral threat in our Labour heartlands. This may well be the BNP’s lasting legacy.
Meanwhile, on mainland Europe support for rightwing and populist parties continues to grow. In France the surge of the Front National was only halted by the decision of the Socialist party to drop out in the run-off and support the Republican candidates.
The growing popularity of Marine Le Pen’s party is not an exception in Europe. Last year, the rightwing Swiss People’s party secured 29.4 per cent of the vote, it’s largest proportion ever, while in Austria the Freedom party secured second place in Upper Vienna. One of their slogans in 2010 was, ‘mehr mut für unser Wiener blut,’ or ‘more courage for our Viennese blood.’
Right across the continent social and economic instability is fuelling a resurgence of populist and rightwing ideology.
So, although we can all take heart from the BNP’s demise, the fight does not end here. It is incumbent on all of us to remain vigilant and to continue to make the arguments for tolerance, hope and equality which are the cornerstone of progressive politics, especially given the imminent European Union referendum campaign, which could provide an empowering platform to Ukip and its politics of fear.
So while the war continues, we owe a debt of gratitude to Nick Lowles and the HOPE not hate team for their daily commitment to exposing and defeating the politics of hate, wherever it is and whoever the advocate is. We have killed the BNP, but the politics of fear and division are still there, so the fight continues. If you would like to get involved in Labour Friends of HOPE not hate email email@example.com.
Ruth Smeeth is member of parliament for Stoke-on-Trent North and former deputy director of HOPE not hate. She tweets @RuthSmeeth
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