Thursday, 4 September 2008

"Normalising" the BNP

This afternoon I attended a clutch of Keele postgraduate presentations on political theory. I heard papers on the problems of reconciling democracy with political obligation, and the contradictions between democratic organisation, risk, and protection. But the most interesting from my point of view was a presentation delivered by Gavin Bailey. His paper was called 'Keeping the Politics Out: Worldview, Politics and Action in the Neighbourhood Polity'. Or, if you prefer, 'how the BNP act as local politicians'. The setting for his study is an estate in Stoke-on-Trent that has returned BNP councillors.

He started off with an explanation of what he means by the term 'neighbourhood polity'. This political space is heavily localised and has completely different dynamics to 'big' politics. The kinds of people involved in neighbourhood polities are what you might call 'stakeholders' in New Labour speak. These are residents, local councillors, council officers, and representatives from the police, fire service, housing associations, church groups, and other community bodies - sometimes from outside the area. This polity is formally enacted via the range of meetings that take place in Stoke's communities, which Gavin divided into those dealing with regeneration and 'other' meetings dealing with all the other matters that affect the community.

The powers of these bodies are strictly limited to a set of ward-level responsibilities, such as special events, regeneration micro-management, policing, communications with residents and some housing issues. Furthermore each ward is granted £150,000, which is controlled by the councillors.

What is unique about neighbourhood polities is the absence of party politics. Everyone Gavin spoke to in his study emphasised the importance of checking their party hats at the door. The clear inference is these decision making bodies that proceed on the basis of deliberation and consensus building are an inappropriate arena for making political statements.

But what happens when some of the participants are BNP activists, acting in their capacity as councillors? Does it filter out their extremism? Surprisingly, it appears they have also accepted the unwritten rule on party politics. But, as Gavin noted, you can take off your hat but your head remains. Their values and preferences does make itself felt and has affected the kinds of things neighbourhood polities do, but again, not as you might expect. For example, despite the ludicrous claims made by Lee Barnes, the BNP locally and nationally has put great store on a Christian identity. What it translates into in Stoke are innocuous council-sponsored Xmas festivities and Easter egg hunts - not something that's really going to disrupt neighbourhood consensus politics. In this case, local structures have successfully diverted their nationalism down safe channels. And there might be some evidence it is blunting BNP councillors' world views. One councillor reported how much they enjoyed a multi-cultural event, and Stoke BNP itself did not oppose the (gay) pride festival early last month.

Does this mean we should stop worrying about the BNP? Of course not. The BNP remains a particularly unpleasant and potentially dangerous enemy of the labour movement. But what Gavin's presentation does is teach us two things. By assenting to the informal rules of neighbourhood polities the BNP can accrue political capital as "reasonable" and "serious" community politicians. Anti-fascists have to up their game by paying more attention to the records they build, in and out of the council chamber. It's no use pretending that the election of a BNP councillor automatically means the sky has fallen on everyone's heads. Secondly, and we need to be careful not to overestimate it, as the BNP colonises local government, local government is also colonising them. This opens it to a number of pressures its not used to, similar to those the socialist movement experienced between revisionists and revolutionaries, and in the greens between realists and fundamentalists. Wherever possible anti-fascists need to help widen the fissures the responsibility of office brings.

3 comments:

complexsystemofpipes said...

It's no use pretending that the election of a BNP councillor automatically means the sky has fallen on everyone's heads.

What are you trying to say? The statement is obviously true, as BNP councillors have been elected and the sky hasn't fallen, but isn't it part of a process? something that can snowball into something bigger? Not so much a trivial occurence but an early warning sign of a catastrophe.

This opens it to a number of pressures its not used to, similar to those the socialist movement experienced between revisionists and revolutionaries, and in the greens between realists and fundamentalists.

Of course it does, and this can go so far as to provoke splits. But this misses the point. BNP electoral successes legitimise intolerance and fascism in general - and if ever it gets to the point where the BNP become a victim of their own success, that will mean that things have got very nasty indeed, besides any splits-from-the-right might well just feed into the NF - and helps them fund and organise things like the Hitler youth YBNP and all. A few "respectable" neighbourhood nazis doesn't change that.

Duncan Money said...

Interesting stuff Phil.

The comparison with the old revolutionary left is interesting as well.

The old CPGB was, on paper, committed to revolutionary change but at a local level the party's energies seemed to be directed into getting members into 'respectable' positions in the community.

complexsystemofpipes,

besides any splits-from-the-right might well just feed into the NF

This is terrible analysis, the National Front barely exists anymore.

The last time they called a march, events which used to draw thousands, they got 17 people out from the entire capital city.

There is only room for one fascist party in this country and the BNP already have the public profile.

Wayne said...

This is really interesting. On identity matters in S-o-T, I think these are intellectually rich times. As you imply, regarding what I assume is Gavin's ethnographic research, analyses risk being read as the story of the soft underbelly of the BNP, and its various manifestations.