Maurice Cousins is Editor of the Nothingbritish.com blog. He has
worked as a Research Assistant at Conservative Friends of Israel and previously worked for Douglas Carswell MP and the Centre for Social
Cohesion. He is interested in Islamic and far-Right extremism, US-UK
special relationship and the Middle East.
There’s a moment in some taxi journeys when the driver starts banging on about “them immigrants” when you decide whether you’re going to wade in or zone out. When it comes to the BNP and the General Election, many politicians have decided to sit back in their seat and hide behind their newspapers.
It is the same message I get from many (though not all) Westminster politicians, including some top Tories. That is, we should not tackle the BNP because no one in the country is under any doubt about which party would be tough on immigration and a row just gives the BNP the oxygen of publicity.
One example (of many I could relate) was David Cameron's comments earlier this week to London’s Metro newspaper: that it is counter-productive to confront the BNP and their issues directly:
“The one thing you must not do with the BNP is run towards them. Don’t play their game. You’ve got to show people that you care and listen – don’t change your policies and react to the BNP.”
Which is a shame because Conservative politicians are missing a political opportunity that I would have thought they would instinctively understand.
Let’s first quickly update ourselves. Tackling the BNP is no longer about a crass policy bidding war and the distasteful "dog-whistle" politics that set a nasty tone in the 2005 election. No reasonable campaigner is suggesting that.
Tackling the BNP is about recognising that there are hundreds of thousands of hard-working families in northern mill-towns, the once-smokey bits of the Midlands, blue collar estates in the Thames estuary and pockets of post-industrial Britain around the country who feel let down by the Establishment and are turning to the only party that talks about their concerns (Incidentally, they aren’t necessarily core Labour voters, they are mostly long-standing, fed-up non-voters).
Typically these families have lost their traditional livelihood and the quality of their living environment to economic and cultural globalisation, so they want straight answers to their bona fide grievances (not just some "caring and listening"): Where will I get a job? Why do I feel uncomfortable in my neighbourhood? Why have local public services suddenly broken down? Why are my values condemned? Why are the institutions I respect decaying and/or mocked? What hope is there for my children? The issues these people face are real and politicians are storing up problems for the future if they try to hide from their moral obligation to help out some of the least fortunate in society.
The Conservatives do have some answers, good answers. They promise more social justice by strengthening the family, freeing up the schools system and helping people from welfare to work. To make Britain more socially cohesive the Conservative leader has said he wants annual net inflows of people limited to tens of thousands (not hundreds of thousands), an immigration policy supported by stronger border control, to encourage a common identity by ending the sort of multicultural policies that promote segregation and to teach more British history in schools. And to help get people back in jobs Conservatives want to free up the labour markets and invest in help for our blue collar workers with the wrong sort of skills for the modern world: technical colleges, apprenticeships and more money for skills training.
But many Tories seem to think it is a mistake to talk up these policies in the way potential BNP supporters might understand ("to run towards them").
This is a cop out.
It is based on the mistaken belief that the BNP somehow "own" subjects like the impact of immigration and the definition of British identity so mainstream politicians play into their hands by straying onto "their" territory. It is after all the business of politics to confront your opponent and take the ground from them.
After the BNP’s shocking break-through at the European elections and subsequent access to finance and media, it is essential that mainstream politicians tackle Griffin’s party as they would any other conventional political opponent (the days of “no platform” and “no oxygen” are over). Cameron fought the notion that Labour "owned" the NHS, and is winning against the odds. He has taken massive political risks to "own" the green agenda. It is time reasonable people took back "ownership" of seemingly toxic subjects like defending capitalism, explaining a reasonable approach to immigration and defining British identity.
And there are rewards for courage. Many voters who have prospered in the last ten years and live in those cushy, targeted swing seats of Middle England would admire a politician who took risks to tackle racism and extremism. You don’t have to be a sandal-wearing vegetarian to be appalled by Britain’s fascists. Anyone who has spoken to young people or friends with fuzzy liberal values knows that the BNP engenders disgust amongst reasonable people and many voters worry that Westminster politicians are not doing enough. Hats off (and quite a few votes) to the politician who gives it a go.
The Tory Party could remember Margaret Thatcher who in January 1978 said that New Commonwealth immigration was ''swamping" Britain. This speech on its own didn’t make a difference (the National Front got 191,719 votes in 1979, its highest ever, and only fell back to 14,621 in 1983). Nor did Mrs Thatcher raise the drawbridge to immigration – actually, she signed up to European Treaties that paved the way for massive intra-European migration. Mrs Thatcher was effective because she had the courage and imagination to reach out to people neglected by the political establishment with clear evidence that she understood their worries and gave them hope that she would look out for them.
That is the political challenge facing the Conservatives. Will they focus only on Britain’s swing voters, leaving the angry part of British society with nowhere else to turn. Or can they find a way of reaching out to other parts of society without denting their valuable electoral margin?
This year we face a BNP threat which is much more potent than the puny National Front of the 1970s . It has modernised its operations, embraced the organisational power of the internet, moderated its rhetoric (though the racism still bubbles away behind closed doors), secured new finances – particularly from the European Parliament – and developed helpful links with a Europe-wide network of popular nationalists. We all hope that the 1million vote shocker in 2009 was a blip, but evidence across Europe suggests that the anger and frustration of our dispossessed white working-classes, the losers in the globalisation competition, is rising to a boil.
Conservatives have already done much to fight the BNP. Under Eric Pickles there is a commitment to contend seats (whatever the electoral logic). The push up north led by William Hague means more resources in target seats. Candidates like Simon Marcus (Barking), Norsheen Bhati (Stoke Central), and Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) are doing a great job (and I am sure there are others).
But I wonder if there’s more Conservatives could do. A senior Opposition spokesman could go to a battleground seat like Stoke Central or Barking and deliver a speech which puts on the record the moral objections to the BNP’s message of racism and extremism. He or she could articulate a vision of hope to people driven to despair and explain in terms they’d understand why a vote for the BNP – segregation, socialism and confrontation – does so much damage to society and their own interests.
Westminster and local candidates in relevant seats could be armed with better tools to tackle their BNP opponents (something they’re forced by circumstance to do anyway). And CCHQ could conduct the sort of policy rebuttal they would regularly conduct against other minor parties like the UKIP, the Greens and the SNP. It’s nothing that would divert Conservatives from their central narrative. Nothing that flatters the BNP. Mainly local initiatives. But something to show there’s enough capacity in the Conservative quest for office for time spent fighting the bad guys.
There are good electoral reasons why the Conservatives might challenge the BNP more vigorously. But even if there weren’t, they know they will be judged as much on how they win as by how much. The Conservatives should use this election to offer a vision of hope to the pessimistic, address the concerns of Britain's angry brigade and do their bit to wipe the BNP off the electoral map.