I wasn’t going to write anything on the electoral victories of UKIP, but discussion on other blogs (such as this on the Socialist Unity blog and this from Hope not Hate) got me thinking about how the left, the labour movement and the anti-fascist movement were going to react to this. Was it going to be similar to the rise of the BNP in the mid-2000s? Will there be calls for ‘no platform’-ing UKIP in the lead up to the 2015 election? At the prodding of a few twitter friends, I decided to post this little discussion.
After UKIP’s electoral gains at the council level across Britain and strong showing in the South Shields by-election last week, the political sphere has been debating over what this means for the future of British politics. In the mainstream, the questions being asked are essentially:
- Are UKIP now established enough to be the ‘fourth’ political party after the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems?
- Will UKIP sustain this momentum and make a headway at the 2015 elections?
- Will this split the Tory vote, or push the Conservatives further to the right?
- Will UKIP replace the Lib Dems as the ‘third’ political party (after the Lib Dems’ woeful results last week)?
The political space between UKIP and the fascist far right
But many outside the mainstream are also asking other questions, particularly about the political space on the right that UKIP occupy and their stronger foray into politics of immigration. Traditionally UKIP have been seen as occupying the political space between the Tory right and the fascist far right, predominantly represented in the 21st century by the British National Party– the policies of UKIP are more extreme than what can be proposed within the Conservatives, but UKIP do seem to abide by the ‘rules’ of liberal democracy and are certainly focussed on electoral politics, rather than extra-parliamentary politics. Unlike the BNP (or in the past, the NF), UKIP have no interest in street-fighting or even holding large scale demonstrations, with their mobilisation practices generally being reserved to meetings or debates.
While the central plank of UKIP’s platform is their opposition to the European Union, the rest of their policies are mixture of right-wing libertarianism and conservative populism. At the Euro Parliament and local councils levels, UKIP have established themselves as a significant protest vote winner. In the past, this protest vote has been viewed as that of the ‘enraged petty bourgeoisie’, who are unhappy with the Conservatives, but willing to stick by them when it counts – at the General Election – because a Labour victory is seen as worse. Since the mid-1990s, UKIP have had quite extreme views on (and policies towards) immigration, ethnic minorities, women’s rights and gay rights, which have led some in the past to call them ‘Brownshirts in Blazers’, but these views have always been secondary to their anti-EU platform and never really used to mobilise people to vote for UKIP.
But something seems to have changed in the last few years. In the lead-up to these local elections, more focus has been placed upon people gravitating from the fascist far right to UKIP. Since UKIP and the BNP both had electoral victories in 2009 at the European Parliament elections, the fortunes of the two parties have been on opposing trajectories. While UKIP have grown incrementally, the BNP has imploded. There are several reasons for this, including a revitalised anti-fascist movement and a disastrous court battle with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and by 2010, the BNP’s electoral surge had been routed, leading to huge loss of members and finances. With the last remaining BNP councillor actually unseated last Thursday (and the English Democrats again doing very poorly), the far right’s electoral vehicle had disappeared. The collapse of the BNP coincided with a return to the street-fighting strategy of the 1980s-1990s as the English Defence League mobilised the far right into symbolic demonstrations against ‘radical Islam’ and against immigration more generally. The sudden rise of the EDL and their ability to use the internet to muster a significant number of bodies on the street caught the anti-fascist movement by surprise, but by 2011, anti-fascists, as well as the police (for very different reasons), were quick to mobilise to prevent any EDL marches from occurring. As the League was reliant upon public demonstrations as their political output, when this road was denied to them, there was no electoral road to follow (unlike the BNP in the 1990s).
It looks as though a number of former BNP/EDL members (or supporters) have now joined UKIP or are now willing to vote for them, because in their view, as Tommy Robinson (one of the leaders of the EDL) recently expressed, ‘they are saying exactly what we say in a different way’. The racist rhetoric of UKIP has now become a more noticeable feature (or has at least garnered more media and political attention), but the different way is that UKIP are fighting elections and not the police and anti-fascists on the streets, and this has made UKIP seem the most viable option for the far right. It seems unlikely that if the fascist and hardcore racists coalesced inside the UKIP that it could be dragged further towards the fascist paradigm. As Richard Seymour has argued, the main thrust of UKIP is that it is a middle class party with the aim of presenting an acceptable alternative on the right to the Conservatives. However UKIP may make far right ideas more palatable and add to an already excessive aura of racism, anti-immigrationism, homophobia and misogyny that exists on the political right.
So the electoral gains of UKIP last Thursday present a challenge. As a political party with links to the fascist far right, any electoral breakthrough is a concern for those on the progressive side of politics. Those involved in anti-racist and anti-fascist politics are particularly concerned that UKIP’s anti-immigrationist message is being amplified and that fascists and neo-Nazis are openly campaigning for them, hoping that UKIP make the explicit racism of the far right more passable.
The strategy of ‘no platform’: A brief historical outline
In the past, this explicit racism and anti-immigrationism came from primarily from the fascist groups of the British National Party or the National Front (or one of the even smaller fascist/neo-Nazi groupuscules) and the anti-fascist movement had a strategy for countering this – the strategy of ‘no platform’. As I have argued here, the strategy of ‘no platform’, which had existed since the 1940s and became more codified in the 1970s and 1980s, was essentially the denial of a public platform for fascist and racist groups to speak or meet. This was not just physically combating fascist agitation in the streets, but also campaigning for fascist groups to be denied the use of public venues to espouse their point of view or to organise their offensive politics, either by petitioning the local government or other institutions, or by physically preventing fascists from entering a particular location, or the disruption of fascist meetings. The premise of ‘no platform’ also extended to the media, with many anti-fascist activists appealing for the media, particularly television, not to allow fascists to use the media to promote their politics, even in the form of debate (which was seen as legitimising fascism as a debateable and reasonable form of politics). The National Union of Students and the TUC adopted the policy of ‘no platform’ in 1974, the NEC of the Labour Party adopted it in 1977 and most left groups adhered to it. Although there was a danger that ‘no platform’ could simply become about physical confrontation and not attempting to win over those attracted to the fascist groups, the strategy of ‘no platform’ was agreed upon by almost all groups working within the anti-fascist movement from the 1970s to the 1990s. Many of those involved in the fight against fascism during that period would argue that ‘no platform’ was effective against the National Front, the British Movement and the BNP until the turn of the century (see this website for a wealth of material on the history of the British anti-fascist movement).
But the usefulness of ‘no platform’ was contested when faced with groups or individuals that were not clearly identifiable as fascist or neo-Nazi. In the 1970s, Enoch Powell, the Tory pressure group the Monday Club and the controversial psychologist Hans Eysenck all became subjects of debate within the left and the anti-fascist movement over whether ‘no platform’ could be applied to them. In a debate of whether the NUS should have extended its platform of ‘no platform’ to the Monday Club on campuses in the mid-1970s (when the Monday Club was acting as a conveyor belt for recruitment to the NF and several NF entrists were within the organisation), the Communist Party of Great Britain argued that ‘no platform’ was to target ‘organised racialism and fascism’, adding ‘[n]o matter how nauseous we find the views of individuals who are not members or such organisations… or the views of the right wing of the Tory Party, e.g. the Monday Club; the fact is that both of these differ significantly from organisations whose aim is declaredly racialist’.
Similar debates were held in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was in early 2000s, when the British National Party made its local council breakthrough, that the strategy of ‘no platform’ was really questioned. After the success of beating the BNP off the streets in the early 1990s, the anti-fascist movement became complacent about the threat of the BNP, but under Nick Griffin, who took over from founder (and stalwart fascist) John Tyndall in the late 1990s, the party attempted to ‘clean up’ its image and throw its efforts into electoral politics, which caught anti-fascists off guard. Between 2001 and 2009, the BNP rose in profile, with increasing membership and electoral victories at the local level, before the European Parliament win for Griffin and Andrew Brons in 2009. While slow to initially mobilise, the anti-fascist movement, with Unite Against Fascism and Searchlight being at the helm, eventually organised to counter the BNP’s growing presence, with significant emphasis placed upon ‘no platform’-ing the BNP.
At the same time, some within the movement started to question whether ‘no platform’ was a strategy worth holding on to. It was partly tactical – the movement had been employing the strategy of ‘no platform’, but the BNP’s electoral presence still rose. However it was also partly ideological – some within the anti-fascist movement queried whether the BNP were still a ‘fascist’ organisation and asked whether it was better to debate with them than to give them the oxygen of publicity as ‘free speech martyrs’. Articles, such as this from 2007, argued that by calling the BNP ‘fascist’ or ‘Nazi’ and applying the tactics of the 1970s to them in the 2000s was misguided and allowed the BNP to portray its opponents as ‘silly and hysterical left-wing cranks’ (see also replies to this article here and here). This argument intensified after the 2009 elections and there was increasing calls for the BNP to be seen as a legitimate political party that needed to be debated. The most progressive form of this argument was that BNP’s politics were to be abhorred, but to win over potential BNP supporters, it was necessary to allow the BNP to be debated publicly and its ideas to be scrutinised. Less progressive forms of the argument used the notion of ‘free speech’ and that all voices in the political sphere needed to be heard.
The issue really came to a head when Griffin was invited to appear on BBC’s Question Time, when Jack Straw broke Labour’s 30 year policy of ‘no platform’ by appearing on the same panel as Griffin in an attempt to debate with the BNP leader. Some have argued that allowing Griffin onto Question Time was a success for the anti-fascist movement as it did show that Griffin under quite significant scrutiny from the audience and other panel members, but others have argued that it allowed Griffin an air of authenticity that he did not deserve. But while the fortunes of the BNP reversed over the next two years, the debate over ‘no platform’ was set aside as the English Defence League, which was solely about occupying the streets, became a prominent threat.
A new threat?
So in 2013, both the EDL and the BNP seem to have been abandoned by those on the far right and momentarily seem to have swung behind UKIP (one would remember that many potential NF supporters swung behind the Conservatives in 1979 after Margaret Thatcher said that she understood why people felt ‘rather swamped’ by immigration and voted for the NF). But while there is overlap of rank-and-file membership and some policies, most would argue that UKIP does not occupy the same space as the BNP or the EDL – that is to say, UKIP is not fascist. So when the left, the labour and anti-fascist movements state that something needs to be done about this rise in UKIP’s electoral presence, it cannot rely on the strategies that it has employed since the 1970s to combat the National Front, the British National Party and the English Defence League – although some of the recent comments made on the internet make it seem like applying the policy of ‘no platform’ to UKIP would be a predictable response. UKIP represents a new challenge to progressive politics in the UK as it is arguably the first time that a significant force has threatened the Tories from the right (at least since Enoch Powell joined the Ulster Unionists in the 1970s). Whether UKIP are able to sustain their efforts to promote themselves as the right-wing alternative to the Tories or as a far-right hegemonic bloc is unforeseeable. Many commentators have said that under UK’s first-past-the-post system, UKIP will make little impact at the 2015 election and that comparisons with mainland Europe are unwarranted at this stage. Australians may be reminded of the panic that was experienced in the mid-to-late 1990s when Pauline Hanson’s One Nation contested state and federal elections, before being outmanoeuvred by the Liberals. But an important of establishing what to do to counter the rise of UKIP is to understand the political space in which it operates, which is starting being discussed now. From this point, the left, the labour movement and those on the progressive side of politics can hopefully begin to develop an antidote to UKIP.
 CPGB Political Committee, ‘The Fight Against Racialism and Fascism’, n.d., CP/CENT/PC/13/05, CPGB papers, Labour History and Archive Study Centre, Manchester.