Facing the challenge of extremists

I have campaigned against extremism all my political life and I agree fully with the analysis of those who see the BNP as a dangerous and divisive political force. I believe, however, that much of the tactics used by the BNP's political opponents are ill conceived and counter productive. Parties of the extreme Right emerge from that hinterland that brings together the handful of men who believe in racial identity and the superiority of a white race. This belief, untenable scientifically and practically, is then cloaked in the flag of nationalism and projected into the political arena as the reason for the manifold sufferings of those who feel excluded from the supposed benefits of modern society.

For the right wing extremist there is always a scapegoat; always some other group which is the cause of the problem. For Hitler it was the Jews and the communists. For Verwoerd and his pro-apartheid nationalists it was the "Kaffirs" and the communists. For Le Pen in France it is the immigrants from North Africa. It is never their own fear of diversity or nowadays their own inadequacy faced with the transformation of society as a consequence of greater mobility and of instant worldwide communication. They live in the world of easy answers and glib solutions, which play well when a majority of the electorate is disillusioned with mainstream politics and increasingly excludes itself from the electoral process.< /p>

This group, perhaps comprising as many as 40% of the electorate, is fertile ground for the extremists' simplistic populism. Because it is largely this group that forms the latent support for the BNP it enhances its attractiveness when the very parties, and political establishment, that it has rejected combine together to single out the BNP for attack as the dangerous force they undoubtedly are. If all the old time parties are united on this one line then, wow, their target must be worth consideration.

Even more counter productive are the demonstrations and the attempts by force to prevent extremists having a platform or even taking council seats to which they have been elected. Such actions are substitutes for politics and imply the weakness not the strength of the protestors' case. Put simply, if the BNP does not have a viable case then it must be exposed in debate, but if it has a case, then it must be taken on and defeated in debate. Resorting to abuse and to tricks will not work.

The French political class tried for decades to ignore Le Pen and his Front National. They believed that it would be enough simply to be dismissive of the man, rather than to take on what he was saying. They even changed the electoral system to keep the FN out of parliament. But still Le Pen retained the support of around one in six of French voters. What was more significant was that the previously solid left wing voters in the ring of tower block estates around Paris began to support Le Pen. Polls even showed that 40% of the FN vote had switched to it directly from the Communists! It was only in 2002 presidential election when, as a consequence of the fragmentation of the parties on the left, Le Pen narrowly came ahead of Prime Minister Jospin in the first round and therefore had a straight fight with President Chirac in the second round, that he had to be taken seriously. Since then the FN vote has begun to decline and it polled far worse than expected in the recent regional elections.

For too long mainstream party candidates, Liberals included, were content to receive the votes of voters who were way out of sympathy with their parties' philosophies and policies. From my experience very few supporters with extremist views tell canvassers what they believe. They usually mouth platitudes on the doorstep to get rid of the person, and the canvasser does not broach the issues for fear of losing support. The longer term consequence of this attitude is the tumbling level of electoral turnout and a fertile field for the BNP.

Now we have hand wringing from David Blunkett on the problems of being Home Secretary and a series of measures that are designed to show toughness towards asylum seekers, economic migrants and "health tourists". Politicians never seem to realise that it is impossible to appease the extreme Right. It can always outflank the mainstream parties and it will invariably feed off negative attitudes which stress the need to limit and control, as if there was something intrinsically detrimental in the concept of migration and of multicultural communities. Only a message that these are positive benefits can begin to persuade the xenophobes and the fearful to abandon parties that trade on division and racism. Next, the careful exposition of the appallingly vivid results from history of trying to force nonsensical racial concepts and nationalistic rhetoric on a country, can demonstrate that extremism is a direct cause of violence and insecurity. Finally, we need to give far greater attention to positive ways and means of developing strong sensitive neighbourhoods and communities which can remove the bitterness and sense of exclusion on which the extremists feed.

In recent days the Yorkshire Post has provided much valuable material on the dangers facing this region from BNP malevolence. It is up to the parties and the candidates to take on the challenge.

19 May 2004