This is a complete departure from normal programming on this blog, for which I apologise unreservedly, but it seems coherent with recent posts (which are on topic) and, as an Australian of British descent living in the heart of “multicultural” london, I feel I actually do have something to say on the topic of why, exactly, the British Labour Party is in meltdown and the far right (as represented by UKIP and their odious little brother the BNP) are doing so well.

And the BNP is doing well:

  • In percentage and absolute terms, the BNP share of the vote has increased, from 800000 votes in 2004 to 1 million in 2009
  • Their vote increased despite lower turnout, which requires some real mental gymnastics to justify away
  • The right in England now controls 45% of the popular vote, with half of that being the loony racist right
  • This has occurred at the expense of labour, not the Tories[1]

This means that now the BNP has European Parliament representation, European parliament money, airtime on the BBC, and a public face for their leader, who is clearly a bastard but is not an idiot.  The theory that once elected they will shoot themselves in the foot and convince voters they can’t be trusted no longer holds – they have over 50 council seats and their vote held up in areas where they had previously won these seats. It also means that Nick Griffin’s policy of keeping the fascist sentiments very quiet is justified, which means that the old street-fighting-skinhead faction will be less likely to betray the party, something I think too many in mainstream politics were assuming would happen.

So the period of post-war British history when one could laugh at the far right and gather round to cheerfully watch their self-immolation is past. Sniffing huffily at these “ruddy ignoramuses” is no longer an option. The mainstream parties have to confront the BNP properly, and they need to do it successfully before the general election. This is particularly the responsibility of the British Labour Party, because the BNP vote has increased in Labour heartland areas, which are suffering from industrial decline and recession at a time when labour has been in power and immigration has been increasing. Labour needs to confront the consequences of this head-on, but instead they have been dog-whistling past their own graveyard.

In short, Britain needs to come to a racial settlement, much as Australia did in the 70s  when it  introduced the government policy of multiculturalism. The Labour party needs to enter into a direct conversation with the electorate about immigration and race, which means that:

  • The British left needs to admit that Britain is racist: There is a lot of racism in Britain, much more than in Australia or Japan[2]. This racism is more prevalent in the working class, and it needs to be understood and confronted. Pretending that it’s not there, or that Britain’s famous “tolerance”[3] is the same as non-racism is just ignorant and naive. The BNP and UKIP understand this sentiment, and they are exploiting it very nicely
  • The left needs to get real about immigration: I see the leaders of all 3 parties claiming that the people who voted BNP aren’t racist, but I don’t see them talking clearly about immigration. If the British people aren’t racist, then it should be easy to explain clearly and directly why immigration is good; if they are racist, then either immigration policy needs to change to match the desires of the British public, or the explanation of its benefits needs to be made even more urgently. And the left needs to recognise that immigration is generally at least perceived to be a problem in this country, and that it is at the centre of peoples’ fears in a recession.
  • The Labour party needs to confront anti-immigration sentiment: and either agree to the bulk of UKIP’s demands, or debate them clearly and show why the current policies  are better. They also need to show leadership[4], and take a clear stand against racism and anti-immigration sentiment.
  • The war on terror has to end: Nick Griffin can only talk about “terror in Salford” and terrorist immigrants because of the war. War is not the best bedfellow of tolerance, particularly when half the population thinks that the other half wants to blow them up. The war on terror is singularly unpopular in the UK, and after 8 years it hasn’t achieved anything. Ending this war and bringing the troops home will take the wind out of a lot of right-wing sails
  • The Labour party needs to get real about education: British education is crap[5]. British people don’t understand their own language very well and they don’t speak other languages well. They have to compete with Europeans for jobs in Britain but they don’t have the language skills to compete for jobs in Europe, which pretty much knocks for six any claim that Europe is good for British workers, except that very small group of Oxbridge graduates who can go anywhere. In my experience, British job applicants aren’t very well qualified in post-graduate, numerate degrees either. If the labour party is serious about Europe they need to find a way to have an education policy for Europe, not for a parochial light-manufacturing England of the 70s.
  • The British need to have a serious conversation about class: which is at the heart of all their problems, and is killing the country[6]. With limited social mobility and a managerial class who don’t care about the working class, the “opportunities” and economic growth that Europe and immigration offer the lowest classes can’t be grasped. So, knowing they can’t fix the class system (and seeing now that Labour won’t try), is it any surprise that instead they kick out against their foreign competitors?

Labour also, obviously, needs to start looking at the infrastructure and social cohesion of its heartland. Instead they’re paralysed, like a rabbit in the headlights of the oncoming general election juggernaut. It’s guaranteed that the Tories are going to win that election; Labour need to struggle now to ensure that the far right don’t become a permanent fixture of British domestic politics – and the way to do that is not to steal their politics, but to smash it. If UKIP become a serious fixture in parliament, and the Tories have the BNP snapping at their heels and no serious competition from the left, the national culture will take a significant, permanent step to the right, and at the very least the European project will be dead.

fn1: It’s true that the Tory vote didn’t increase, but it didn’t decrease. The labour vote collapsed.

fn2: It’s true that in Japan you can still advertise flats and jobs explicitly for the Japanese, but overall I’ve seen much less racism there than here. There are laws to prevent that sort of thing in the UK, and if they weren’t in place you can bet that British landlords and employers would be using the same methods vigorously

fn3: I don’t think the British are tolerant anyway; they’re just reserved. This is why people tolerate things (like brawling in public, really nasty behaviour by other peoples’ children, and really nasty language by adults) that are really quite intolerable. I think being reserved is nice; but confusing it with Tolerance doesn’t help.

fn4: We elect our leaders to show leadership. When this issue was live in Australia, the political parties of both stripes confronted it and had a strong debate about it. The result was the policy of multiculturalism, which has been supported by leaders of both mainstream parties ever since. As Paul Keating said, when you change the government you change the country, and if Labour and the Tories don’t change to a more open opposition of anti-European and racist sentiment, the country will change.

fn5: Disagree? Then why is the Sun the top-selling British newspaper?

fn6: Literally. Class determines life expectancy in the UK; the difference in life expectancy between social class 5 and social class 1 males is 70% of the difference between white and Aboriginal Australians – this is our national shame, but a similar difference affecting a great many more people is barely remarked upon in Britain.