Jeremy Seabrook: You don't have to agree with the British National party to see the legitimacy of its claim to represent those written off by Labour
Saturday, 09 May 2009
Melodramatic warnings by "senior" Labour party figures that any desertion of Labour will offer free passage to the BNP in the European and local elections does not simply reflect a despairing anticipation of a Labour wipeout; it also betrays an old arrogance, a belief that only "the left" (even the etiolated version of it represented by New Labour) stands heroically in the way of the triumphal advance of the far right. Yet New Labour could not wait to repudiate everything the Labour party had ever stood for; and this left its former heartland a political desert, ripe for colonisation by the BNP.
The white working class was seen as an insignificant remnant of the population, since a majority of the British people appeared to have been levitated into a middle class that Labour courted with such assiduity in the 1990s. The rest could be left to their fate in forlorn estates of liquor shops covered with chicken wire, leaky drainpipes, semi-wild dogs and tattered flags of St George – everything that symbolised the last gasp of a disappearing working class.
That a gloomily introspective Labour party should now present itself as the only bulwark against racist parties is a vain effort to retrieve the disregarded and neglected, those sacrificed to its own will to survive.
It is significant that the term "working class" was expunged from the political vocabulary after Margaret Thatcher had demonstrated the transforming power of globalism. She understood that the best way to be rid of troublesome organised labour was to destroy the economic base on which it depended; and she was an early proponent of outsourcing manufactured goods. She set about the demolition of industry with gusto, and with it, the unmaking of the working class, her allies the invisible army of apparently invincible global economic forces.
A Labour party that saw its original constituency erased from the political map readily abandoned the victims of these processes, those it had always taken for granted. "Our own people", they possessively called them, adding that, no matter what Labour did, "they had nowhere else to go". This fateful miscalculation is at the root of the current discomfiture of New Labour. People always have somewhere else to go; and where many of them have gone – or are going – was regarded at first by the Labour party as a symptom of perplexity or apathy. Only later did Labour fully appreciate the depth of disaffection of its wayward children, and the disorientation they expressed when they spoke of living in a country they no longer recognised as their own. This has led Labour into a competitive auction with the BNP; especially through the efforts of its immigration minister, who seems to believe that an expression of distaste for foreigners – including the unfortunate Gurkhas, whose unique position he saw as setting "a precedent for future decisions on other immigration categories" – is the surest way back into the hearts of the party's estranged voters.
There is a deep irony in this. For many supporters of and sympathisers with the BNP make the point that they are "the new Labour party". By this, they mean not "New Labour" as defined by Tony Blair in his repositioning of what (and who) Labour stood for, but rather, the contemporary equivalent of old Labour, when it first burst on to the political scene in the early part of the 20th century.
There are some compelling parallels. A hundred years ago, a Labour party, more radical than the Liberals, to which respectable "working men" had looked for protection, was busy outflanking it on the left. Members of the Labour party and trade unions were often dismissed from their workplace as industrial troublemakers. "You'll never work in this town again" was the taunt hurled at those who made a principled stand against efforts to suppress the working-class movement. In the process, martyrs were made, and the cause of organised labour strengthened. The party was regarded by respectable society as dangerous and deluded, a threat to order, against nature and a violation of all they held dear; an unhappy precursor of today's BNP, which offers a caricature of its Labour predecessors.
The echoes of this are unmistakeable in the current attempt to outlaw the BNP. Its members sometimes make explicit the similarities they perceive between a Labour party knocking at the door of the political establishment in the early 1900s and the efforts by the BNP today to gain acceptance – evidenced in an attempt to distance itself from its racist origins, to reassure the country that what it most wants is only justice and recognition for those it represents; "inclusion", in the contemporary jargon.
The similarities should not be exaggerated. The Labour party bore the hopes of millions of people whose economic and social function in the industrial process could not be denied. The BNP depends for much of its support upon a smaller base, particularly those left high and dry by the collapse of the industrial base. It is significant that the "white working class" was recently rediscovered, not only in Nuneaton, Barking and Burnley, as a result of "perverse" voting patterns, but also across vast areas of the US in in last year's presidential campaign. In both countries, the term "working class" had for a long time been excluded, outcast, like the phenomenon it designated. Only when the working class made its own voice heard, refusing to accept its status as "underclass" or "white trash", was a social group rediscovered, which, under the powerful blanket of silence thrown over it by the media, might as well until then not have existed.
You don't have to agree with what the British National party stands for to recognise the legitimacy of its concern for "these people", those written off by a party which, assuming seigneurial rights over their vote, had exiled them to the periphery not only of its own consciousness, but also of the declining industrial towns and cities they inhabited.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2009