Right-wing populism

There is no such thing as the ‘alt left’

Earlier in the week, a journalist at the ABC asked me some questions about whether there was such a thing as the ‘alt left’ and the possibility of left-wing violence in the twenty first century. I responded, but in the article published, there were no quotes from me. As the article has attracted significant criticism online, I thought I would quickly post my original comments (only with a slight edit). 

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The term ‘alt right’ was first used as a branding tool by those on the populist and far right, who wished to do away with the connotations with traditional far right politics and white supremacism. It is often used nowadays to describe the various groups and individuals who inhabit the space between hard right conservatism and the organised far right (primarily in North America), with a lot of crossover with what some people have described as right-wing populism.

Some have proposed that a left-wing populism is necessary to counter right-wing populism, but the term ‘alt left’ has not been a popular term and it is not a very useful one. Some on the American left, particularly around certain podcasts, have described themselves as the ‘dirtbag left’, which has been used to identify a ‘non-PC’ left – although this is a mixture of left contrarianism and class reductionism (seeing class as the most important form of oppression to the detriment of any other struggles against oppression). It is unclear how far this concept has permeated into the organised left in North America, such as around the Democratic Socialists of America – although the self-described ‘dirtbag left’ have championed the DSA in the past.

Some others have used the term ‘alt left’ to describe websites that support Jeremy Corbyn, such as The Canary or Skwawkbox in the UK, but I also don’t find this useful. Left populist might be a better term.

The far left has traditionally been organised around distinct political parties or entrist groups inside parties such as the Labour Party in Britain. The decline of the organised left outside the Labour Party, particularly in Britain, has meant that there are more independent leftists inside Labour nowadays, although these activists should not be labeled ‘alt left’.

The number of left-wing organisations involved in explicit political violence in the Western world have been minimal. The Weather Underground in the US, the Red Army Fraction in West Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy captured the headlines in the 1970s, but they were always on the fringes of the left.

Other leftists have been involved in direct physical action over the years, such as militant anti-fascism, but this has primarily been a self-defence measure against racist, fascist and state violence. Destruction of property at demonstrations, such as those committed by some anarchists, has been sensationalised in the media over the years, but is also a minor part of left-wing activism in most Western countries.

Far right terrorism and political violence is far more prevalent and dangerous than any militant left-wing activism. The right have attempted to portray ‘antifa’ as a violent and organised left-wing movement, but antifa is a broad term used to describe various and often unconnected people involved in anti-fascist activism. The supposed ‘extremism’ of antifa is a moral panic stirred up by the right and perpetuated by conservative media.

I would like to return to this topic in the near future, but due to time constraints, this will do for now. 

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Two new opinion pieces on the history of fascism and anti-fascism

A quick post to let people know that I have had two opinion pieces published this week on the history of fascism and anti-fascism in Britain and Australia.

Firstly, the Times Higher Education website published a piece on the pre-history of ‘no platform’ and the protests against far right speakers on university campuses in the 1950s and 1960s.

Secondly, in response to the debate over whether those who attended a far right in St Kilda earlier in the month were Nazis, Overland published a longer piece on the history of neo-Nazism in Australia and the far right.

Now back to the book!

The last time the government evoked the ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ slogan

The new Home Secretary Amber Rudd has, in the wake of Brexit, evoked the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’, which has been used in the past by Gordon Brown in 2007 and by the British National Party and the National Front in the 1980s. While she has been heavily criticized for her statements, this is an on-going issue. The following is from a 2010 book chapter on discourses of ‘race’ and immigration in the UK under Thatcher and New Labour, which looks at the last time the slogan was widely used – at strikes in 2009 where a section of the British labour movement embraced Euroscepticism. In the aftermath of Brexit, these strikes reveal some of the debates that the left were unwilling to have about the EU, European workers and a consistent anti-racism.

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In their 2009 European Parliament elections, UKIP gained 16.5 percent of the vote and thirteen seats,[i] heavily campaigning for withdrawal from the EU and limiting immigration from Europe. Their campaign document for the European Parliament elections, intertwining opposition to the EU with an anti-immigration position, declared:

Our membership of the European Union is already costing jobs in the UK. Major construction projects now hire many of their staff overseas, with British workers not even having the opportunity to apply…

The only people who should decide who can come to live, work and settle in Britain should be the British people themselves. We can only do this outside of the EU political union. The open-door immigration policy has been voted against by only one party–UKIP.[ii]

The 2009 European Parliament elections saw a swing by British voters, albeit a low voter turnout, to the right, with the explicitly Eurosceptic and anti-immigrationist UKIP and the British National Party (BNP) gaining votes and/or seats, and the Conservatives, with a more toned down rhetoric on Europe and immigration, winning a majority of British seats.[iii] However anti-EU politics are not always defined by the right, with the Labour Party until the era of New Labour traditionally opposing British involvement in the forerunners of the EU, and are not always linked to anti-immigrationist politics. The labour movement has also traditionally opposed British entry into Europe, viewing the EU and its predecessors as a capitalist super state that allows the flow of economic benefits into the hands of a supra-national ruling capitalist class and away from the working classes.

The 2009 European Parliament election also saw the creation of a new left-wing anti-EU party, the No2EU: Yes to Democracy party, which sought to promote withdrawal from the EU on less nationalist and xenophobic grounds, but did not make much ground against the Eurosceptic right. No2EU had originally emerged from a crisis in the British labour movement over the free movement of labour within the EU, with wildcat strikes breaking out across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[iv] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union.

But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, used by some involved in the strike. This slogan had been first used by the National Front and the British National Party, but had been revived by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in several speeches in 2007, including the TUC Annual Conference and the Labour Party Conference.[v] The slogan was evoked by some rank-and-file striking workers,[vi] which drew fierce media attention to the strike and divided the labour movement over how to support the strike. The reluctance to explicitly support or condemn the strikers using the slogan can be seen in the comments from the trade unions involved. Derek Simpson, a joint leader of Unite, asserted that “[n]o European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job”, while General Secretary of the GMB, Paul Kenny said, “You simply cannot say that only Italians can apply for jobs”.[vii] TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber stated:

Unions are clear that the anger should be directed at employers, not the Italian workers. No doubt some of the more distasteful elements in our towns and cities will try to use the fears of workers to stir up hatred and xenophobia.

But I am confident that union members will direct their anger at the employers who have caused this dispute with their apparent attempt to undercut the wages, conditions and union representation of existing staff.[viii]

Some “distasteful elements”, such as the BNP, tried to make political capital out of the strikes, using the slogan “British jobs for British workers” in a council by-election in the ward of Newton Hyde in Greater Manchester. In May 2008, the BNP had polled 846 votes in the ward, compared to Labour’s vote of 1,124, and this gap of only 278 votes was expected to close as the economic downturn worsened and the BNP campaigned on the “British jobs” slogan.[ix] But this did not happen as the BNP vote increased marginally to 889 votes, but Labour’s majority soared to 1,379 votes.[x] James Purnell, Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, which encompasses the Newton Hyde ward, said, “I think it’s a victory for hope and solidarity over people who want to bring division and hatred”.[xi] However four months later, the BNP had a surprising result in the European Parliament elections, winning two MEP seats for former National Front members Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, in the North West and Yorkshire, exploiting populist anxiety over immigration and the European Union. On the other hand, No2EU only managed to gain around 1 percent of the vote across Britain.[xii] What the wildcat strikes and the No2EU campaign demonstrated was that it is difficult to disentangle anti-EU politics from nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric and left-wing, and generally anti-racist, opposition to the EU is a minor part of the discourse, unfortunately trumped by the right, who continue to dominate the discourses on immigration and the European Union.

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[i] UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”, 17 July, 2009, http://www.europarl.org.uk/section/european-elections/results-2009-european-elections-uk, (accessed 30 November, 2009)

[ii] UKIP, “Campaign Policies Euro Elections 2009”

[iii] UKIP’s vote increased from 16.2 percent in 2004 to 16.5 percent in 2009, with 12 seats in 2004 and gaining one seat in 2009. The BNP gained two seats in the 2009 election, even though their overall vote declined. The Conservatives lost two seats in 2009, but still hold ten more seats than Labour with 25 seats and 27.7 percent of the vote. See: UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”; House of Commons, “European Parliament Elections 2004”, House of Commons Research Paper, 04/50, (London, 23 June, 2004) 11

[iv] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, “Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates”, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, “Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength”, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, “Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes”, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, 4; “Blame the Bosses not ‘Foreign Workers’”, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, 1, 3

[v] Vincent Keter, Government Policy on “British Jobs for British Workers”, House of Commons Library, (16 September, 2009) 2, http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snbt-04501.pdf, (accessed 4 December, 2009)

[vi] See: http://www.bearfacts.co.uk, (accessed 17 February, 2009)

[vii] Cited in, Unite, “Unite’s Three Point Plan for Dealing with the Current Wave of Unofficial Strike Action”, http://www.unitetheunion.com/news__events/ latest_news/unite_has_today_proposed_a_thr.aspx, (accessed 17 February 2009); “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[viii] Cited in, “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[ix] Jon Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”, http://www.24dash.com/news/Local_Government/2009-02-06-Labour-sees-off-BNPs-British-jobs-for-British-workers-by-election-challenge, (accessed 8 February, 2009)

[x] J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xi] Cited in, J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xii] “Crow’s No2EU Gain 153,000 Votes”, BBC News Online, 8 June, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8088911.stm, (accessed 30 November, 2009)

The Communist Party of Australia reports on ‘the Battle of Cable Street’

The importance of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ for the Communist Party of Great Britain has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, but I thought readers might be interested in how it was reported on in the Workers’ Weekly, the bi-weekly newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia. On Friday October 9, 1936, the newspaper reported:

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Of interest to the Communist Party of Australia, and to historians of Australian politics, was that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who refused to ban the march by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, had previously been the Governor of New South Wales. As Andrew Moore has written, Game gained similar notoriety in Australia for the dismissal of the Premier Jack Lang in 1932.

As the creation of the Public Order Act 1936 followed quickly in the wake of ‘Cable Street’, the Workers’ Weekly printed a follow up article denouncing measures by the state to curb Mosley. .On 13 October, 1936, the newspaper published this report:

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The article mentions that the CPGB could not rely on the state to deal decisively with the BUF, as the POA was more likely to be used against communists than fascists, as discussed by David Renton here.

The fascist threat in Australia, presented by Eric Campbell’s New Guard, had resided largely by 1936 and there is little in the CPA’s literature that discusses combating the New Guard in a similar fashion to the street fighting seen in Europe. By 1936, the fascist threat was largely external, with a number of Australian communists traveling to Spain the fight in the Civil War.

My article in The Guardian on the history of the Australian far right

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Just a quick note that I have reached the bourgeois elite now. The Guardian Australia website has published a short piece by myself on the history of the far right in Australia since the 1960s. The argument of the piece is that the far right has swung between electoralism and ‘direct action’ at different points in its history. You can read the piece here.

From Powell to Brexit: My interview with the Weekly Worker on ‘race’, anti-racism and the British left

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This week, the CPGB’s Weekly Worker (see here for more info on its background) conducted an interview with me about my forthcoming book, British Communism and the Politics of Race, as well as on my research in general and the anti-racist movement in Britain since the 1960s. You can read the full interview here. It was an interesting experience and some challenging questions!

Theresa May and UKIP: A repeat of Thatcher and the NF in ’79?

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While everyone is falling over themselves to make analogies between the Labour Party of the 1980s and that of today under Corbyn (or stressing that it’s not a repeat of that decade), we are also in danger of seeing Theresa May’s time (however long) as Prime Minister through the prism of Margaret Thatcher.

In the post-Brexit world, nothing can be taken for granted anymore when it comes to British politics, so any predictions are fraught with error and future embarrassment. With that, despite the prediction by Norman Tebbit that ‘May will drive Tory members into the arms of UKIP’, I am thinking that Theresa May becoming Prime Minister will split the post-Farage UKIP. While Brexit has not been ensured, UKIP’s most prominent policy has been, more or less, achieved, and in the past, single issue groups have struggled to change their message/strategy once their primary objective has been fulfilled or become irrelevant. Coupled with Farage leaving the leadership spot, UKIP look rudderless and will now try to siphon off the anti-immigration vote from both Labour and the Tories as they will probably re-fashion themselves as the ‘sensible’ anti-immigration party – to the right of the Tories but not associated with fascism of Britain First or the British National Party.

This might continue to be a problem for Labour, but May’s record as Home Secretary and her continued ‘tough’ talk on immigration may attract the ‘soft’ UKIP vote back to the Tories. While Cameron was seen as ‘weak’ on controlling immigration, the Home Office under May made the rules incredibly more difficult for non-EEA migrants and their families (and her comments on the future of EU migrants in the UK have not calmed the fears of many). Some UKIP supporters will think that May has not done enough, but many might be swayed by her track record and ‘effort’ in trying to restrict immigration from the EU and the rest of the world.

This is where the Thatcher comparison comes in. Thatcher’s public pronouncements on immigration in the late 1970s helped make her look ‘tough’ on the issue, particularly her comment in 1978 that people were feeling ‘rather swamped’ by Commonwealth migration. Furthermore, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 1979 election announced that the Tories would introduce ‘firm immigration control’ that would ‘end persistent fears about levels of immigration’. After this, the Tories were able to attract a significant number of voters who might’ve voted for the National Front previously and the NF’s vote was greatly diminished at the 1979 election.*

While I am sceptical about making too closer historical comparisons between May and Thatcher, it is plausible that May’s rhetoric might drive a similar wedge between those who waver between UKIP and the Tories, and those who are ‘rusted on’ UKIP supporters. If a snap election is called, this is certain a possibility. Otherwise, it will depend whether new Home Secretary Amber Rudd follows May’s hardline approach to immigration.