I must say the contribution of Mark Fisher, Labour MP for Stoke Central, was surprisingly good. He got straight to the heart of the matter – it is not enough we have a broad united coalition campaigning against the fascists, we have to win the support base of the BNP away from their politics. Just fixing the Nazi pin on the fascist donkey is not up to the task. The likes of Elly Walker, a BNP councillor for Abbey Green, might go on television and own up to being a ‘racialist’, and Steve Batkin can openly question the Holocaust in the local paper, but the majority of their support already know this. It doesn't mean thousands of BNP voters have become out and out fascists, instead their profile has beeen built on a combination of appearing to stand up for white working class people and pursuing pavement politics on the ground. Challenging them requires calm and patient explanation (had Fisher been reading an old Militant training manual?) Also, we should not be shy of pointing out the damaging effects of BNP support. There are signs newly trained teachers and local government workers are starting to give Stoke a wide berth, including some in the council who are already moving on. That’s not counting the business case against the BNP – more councillors and/or a BNP mayor will not do investment in the Potteries any good.
Jason Hill, NorSCARF president, said we shouldn’t be under any illusions about the character of the local BNP’s leadership. When the party was run by the absurd figure of John Tyndall, it traded as an openly racist and fascist outfit. The core cadre, people like Batkin and Michael Coleman were recruited under this regime, so there is still some utility in using the fascist and Nazi labels. Jason then moved on to the question of the mayoral referendum and election. At present a directly elected mayor and an unelected council manager run Stoke city council. The government has demanded this system changes, so on October 22nd the question of local governance will be put to referendum. The options are the retention of the mayoral system with a cabinet made up of councillors, or a council leader (elected from the chamber) and cabinet. The BNP have opportunistically supported the former option, because they know they can better concentrate their resources during a mayoral campaign than fighting many separate contests in the council elections. Though NorSCARF cannot have any position on the referendum, this is worth keeping in mind.
We then heard from a collection of trade union speakers. Ann Jarvis from the Midlands NASUWT said a silent majority in Stoke were opposed to the BNP’s bigotry. Confronting them means challenging racism, not letting Islamophobic stories in the press pass without comment and getting trade unions back into community organising. Fi Woods of Staffs Uni Students’ Union said she was working toward making students aware of the responsibilities as citizens and using their votes to keep racism out. Andrew Lloyd of the PCS said unions have to face up to the reality that trade union members are voting for the BNP too. To this end the PCS is putting on courses to educate work place reps about racism and the far right so they are better equipped to take on the arguments in the workplaces, doorsteps and pubs.
Atica Rahman, a local youth worker argued that the best way of challenging the BNP is by taking on racism, as this can indirectly eat into their support. But to do this we must understand what the BNP are saying, how they put their arguments across and what we can do to counter it. He also singled out The Sentinel for the favourable coverage the BNP receives – for example despite the BNP’s “protest” a couple of weeks ago being dwarfed many times over by the anti-fascist counter mobilisation and carnival, guess who got the headlines?
The final platform speaker of the day was Weyman Bennet, once again wearing his UAF hat. He began by noting there were many more on our side then theirs. And when you look at what's on their side, it isn't pretty, supporters like Robert Cottage (who stood as a BNP candidate three times) convicted for possessing a large haul of explosives. But we also must be clear the BNP see Stoke as their launching pad. If they win the mayoralty it will give them a national platform far above anything they've so far achieved. Those are the stakes. Our job is to make NorSCARF the focus of the resistance to the BNP, and called for a conference to plan the necessary work.
Contributions from the floor were a mixed, but nevertheless interesting, bag. Some argued that we have to spell out why the BNP are bad news, but at the same time we have to avoid putting out a relentlessly negative message. Another activist who works with Stoke Forum of the Faiths complained the aggressive language of "fighting" and "smashing" the BNP was putting off more involvement from faith groups. If one wasn't feeling charitable, you could suggest this is an *excuse* not to do more. After all, what's stopping the forum from putting out their own anti-fascist literature? I was more inclined to agree with a SWP comrade who observed we can't "tickle the BNP into submission".
Other contributors complained about the disgraceful behaviour of the council bureaucracy toward anti-fascist activity. One teacher told the meeting that an email was sent from Child Services to the city's head teachers directing their staff not to attend the 20th September anti-fascist rally and carnival. A similar message was sent out to youth workers too. One activist reported how a council boss prevented her from leaving anti-racist and anti-fascist literature at a local youth club supposedly because it was "political". It seems as the BNP's councillor tally grows so do the predilections of the petty-minded bureaucrat.
We also heard from local LibDem and Labour councillors. A couple of LibDems complained about declining rates of voluntary community participation, which has given the BNP something to exploit, while a Labour member launched into a defence of their record in office. But this was nothing compared to the storm called down upon the head of A from Stoke Socialist Party. He made the innocuous and undeniable observation that BNP support can in part be traced to pro-cuts, pro-privatisation policies of the three mainstream parties. Power doesn't like truth spoken to it and he was forced to curtail his contribution under shouts from Labour hecklers, none of whom are noted for their regular attendance at NorSCARF meetings.
The meeting broke up resolved to organise a coordinating conference and continue campaigning in the mean time.
It seems to me NorSCARF is caught between two anti-fascist strategies. The first favoured by Labour, most trade unions and the UAF/LMHR/SWP is about mobilising non-BNP voters in an attempt to swamp the latter's support. Hence the liberal anti-Nazi pleas and lowest common denominator politics. The evidence is very patchy whether it succeeds in doing this, though it is worthwhile noting the BNP wins councillors on the basis of low turn outs. There's no reason why this electoral-based strategy shouldn't work, especially if sharper material is used. But we need to be honest about its limitations. It is a stop gap, a sticking plaster and will not "smash" the BNP.
The second strategy, articulated here by Mark Fisher, long backed by the Socialist Party and pioneered in the Labour party by Jon Cruddas is about winning support away from the BNP, addressing the concerns of the people who back them and articulating positive, progressive policies. This is an explicitly political strategy and one which cannot be assimilated by a cross-party grouping like NorSCARF.
They can compliment one another to a degree, but one is about checking the BNP and the other aims at decisively defeating them. At some point down the line every anti-fascist has to ask themselves which it is to be?