The steady progress of the Far Right British National Party in the electoral arena calls for a united response from progressive movements and minorities.
IN England the press has had a field day over the past 20 years, chronicling the rise of the continent's Far Right. First, in the early 1980s the emergence of Front National led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man who believes the Americans built the gas chambers in the Buchenwald concentration camp after the War. Then the re-emergence of the Italian neo-fascist Moviemento Sociale Italiano (MSI) and the birth of the German Republikaner.
More recently, the rash has spread like wildfire as new parties that dance in the limbo between the Fascist Light and the Far Right proceed by saltation from candidates to council chamber, from coalition to Cabinet. Such parties have been established components of the governments in Austria and Italy, while their merely xenophobic stepbrothers serve in the Netherlands and set the asylum and immigration agenda in Denmark, Belgium and Switzerland. In Italy, Gianfranco Fini, leader of the Alleanza Nazionale, the direct successor of the MSI, serves as Deputy Prime Minister, while in this year's presidential election in France Le Pen finished second (albeit as a poor second) behind Jacques Chirac.
During these decades, the British mediapersons, and to a lesser extent those in the political establishment, have quietly sneered at the inability of their continental colleagues to deal with the phenomenon, quietly muttering over their gin and tonics, as the thwack of leather on willow echoed from the village green, that continental politics could do well to learn from Britain how to handle these problems.
Now they may have a rude awakening. Like other Western-style democracies the end of the Cold War and the growing apathy to, alienation from and disillusionment with the political process have led to a vanishing participation in elections, creating a vacuum that can be filled by fruitcakes, fascists and frauds. The first evidence was in the general elections of 1997 when, obscured by the Blair tidal wave that swept the Tories from power, Britain's home-grown Nazis, the British National Party (BNP), recorded votes in London and the northwest of England that distinguished them from other fringe candidates - obtaining 10 per cent and more of the vote.
Nick Griffin, England's erstwhile Le Pen, wrote that his aim over the next decade was to replace the Tories and the Liberals as opposition to Labour in Britain's inner cities. The process is under way. On the strength of the riots by Asian youth in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, often provoked by BNP members and sympathisers, the BNP scored particularly well in Oldham in the 2001 general elections; Griffin obtained the highest vote for an extreme Right candidate since the 1930s and the days of the British Union of Fascists.
In the local elections of May 2002 the BNP's progress continued in northwest England. It won seats in Burnley, with a squad of squeaky clean candidates with none of the BNP's traditional collection of criminal convictions. In Oldham, it polled even better, although it narrowly failed to capture a seat, despite having a series of candidates with convictions - including one for gang-rape.
Since it obtained almost 20 per cent of the vote in Stoke-on-Trent's mayoral election and in late November captured a council seat with 32 per cent of the vote in a byelection in Blackburn, the constituency of Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. All achieved in the `first past the post' electoral environment that is traditional to the United Kingdom. In the meantime, Griffin made the explosive claim that sections of the police were colluding with the BNP by providing it with internal police material and reports, a claim that, if proved correct, will only stoke up tension in areas where trials are due to start against Asians arrested in the rioting, and where exemplary sentences are to be expected. The fact that the community is being policed by those who share the political philosophy of the racist BNP can only call into question the validity of some of the cases where the very same officers may be called to give evidence against the Asian accused.
Things can only get worse. Next year, they may well have parliamentary representation, for the first time. Elections will be held in June 2004 for the European Parliament across the European Union. The electoral architecture for these across the member-states includes all varieties of proportional representation. The U.K., when it first adopted the system for the European elections in 1999, chose to have multi-member constituencies of wildly varying sizes, ranging from three in Northern Ireland and four in the northeast to 10 in London and the northwest and 11 in southeast, despite warnings of the electoral consequences in terms of a proliferation of minor parties in the larger regions.
Already in 1999, the number of `minor party' candidates elected, outside of Northern Ireland which is a special case, went up from one to 10. In 2004, they are likely to be joined by at least one representative from the BNP.
In 1999, all it would have required in northwest England was 7.06 per cent to the votes, around 72,000 people. On current projections the BNP could well reach that target, with all the consequences of enormous media coverage and the apparent legitimation of its politics.
Stopping the BNP will require, first, a mobilisation of all those who see the dangers it poses to Britain's multicultural, multiracial society. The Labour and trade union movement need to unite with the faiths, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, to incorporate people of all parties, to proclaim loudly to reality that the BNP is a Far Right wolf in sheep's clothing.
Alongside this mobilisation for tolerance, traditional political parties have to stand up against the seductive short-term calls of election strategists and reclaim the streets of their heartland areas too often deliberately abandoned for leafy suburbia.
Glyn Ford, is a member of the European Parliament from the United Kingdom.