Nick Cohen: communalism and the BNP
Nick Cohen has an article in today’s Observer (which can also be found at his blog and at Comment is Free; the Observer’s website is inaccessible to me at the moment) attempting to explain why the BNP won such a dramatic “victory” in the Barking and Dagenham borough local elections (11 seats out of 13 they contested). This is despite all that has been revealed about their party (European far right and KKK links, criminal records etc), including their notorious inactivity and incompetence when they actually get elected. Cohen sticks to familiar territory and blames all this on the fact of communal politics:
If polite society stuffs British citizens into hermetically sealed boxes and labels them as the blacks or the Muslims, it is not so strange that people should decide to be the whites and vote accordingly.
Cohen relates this to the communalist politics which he claims led to the election of Respect councillors in similar numbers in Tower Hamlets. The BNP targets white voters, while Respect targets Muslims, and both “have believers in Jewish conspiracy theory - the BNP engages in Holocaust denial and Respect’s candidate for the mayorship of Newham declares: ‘Israel has been formulating and directing UK and US foreign policy’”. He conveniently conflates the Holocaust denial and highly-developed Nazi theories of Jewish domination associated with the far right with the rather simpler assumptions of some Muslims, born largely out of anger at the Palestinian situation.
Cohen is quick to blame multiculturalism and “polite society”, but it is not lost on any Muslim that it is not (white) polite society which defines us as Muslims; it is us ourselves. The fact of Muslim dissatisfaction with conventional party politics and with the tendency of the race relations establishment (or race industry, as some call it) to divide us into ethnic groups rather than uniting us as Muslims should be known to anyone who has read the Muslim press over the years (primarily Q-News). I personally know of a Muslim brother of Afro-Carribean origin who wanted to run a youth service for Muslims in Hounslow, but ended up running one for Asians because there was no public funding for faith-based groups - only for ethnically-based ones. And a central fact of Islam is that it is not an ethnic religion. It is open to all, and has followers of just about every race on earth.
Any link between the formations of parties which free Muslims from their traditional loyalty to Labour, telling Labour that it can no longer take Muslim votes for granted, and the BNP gaining seats in another part of town is rather tendentious to say the least. The BNP won because its voters’ heads had been filled with hostility to immigrants by the popular press, which may well be why people believe the bare-faced lies its activists sometimes issue. Even if the same press occasionally runs features exposing the BNP’s criminal and Nazi elements and encourages people not to vote for it, if it appears to be the only party which addresses their fears, they will vote for it.
As for the comparison with Sinn Fein, perhaps Cohen missed the difference between Sinn Fein (the political organisation) and the IRA (the related paramilitary group). Since Respect has no access to a paramilitary outfit and never has had, and its members are not thugs and do not have a substantial criminal record, it cannot possibly be compared to Sinn Fein. But Cohen’s section of the left has a noticeable fondness for inappropriate and offensive comparisons.
(More: Harry’s Place, in which another factor which helped the BNP get elected is talked of - namely low turnout. In the case of some wards, the turnout was only 29%. Brett Lock writes that “fringe parties with a particular communalist axe to grind will get a very high proportion of their supporters to the polls”, while the “middle ground … doesn’t get off its collective arse”. I would add that local people are often dissatisfied with local political party groups, which may well consist of people trying either to fill a blank space on their CV or to impress their party enough to get a Parliamentary seat to fight. Regardless of their political colour, they may also be incompetent. People may also be far less informed of what is going on in their local council because it is nowhere near as well-reported on as Parliament is - even the proceedings of the GLA, for example, are not reported on the London TV or radio news - and thus feel that they are not well-enough informed to know who really stands to deliver what, if anything. I hesitated to vote in my local election, where there were no BNP candidates standing, for precisely that reason: voting blindly in that way seemed irresponsible. Also see Meaders at the Sharpener.)
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