Has Anyone But Nick Griffin Changed Their Minds?

And you thought *your* dinner parties were tense.
And you thought *your* dinner parties were tense.

Did Question Time change anything? Much has been made of a YouGov poll taken in the hours after the programme, which showed that one in four would consider voting for the party. But ‘consider’ is different to ‘would’ – and that hardcore was pegged at 4%, less than the share of the vote the BNP won at the European elections.

Those sorts of figures don’t surprise me. I was born, raised and still live in the sort of white working class area which is precisely the kind of constituency widely regarded as the type Labour has too readily ignored. The BNP put leaflets through the doors here at election time; they tie material to our lamp posts. Sandwell Council, my local authority, plays host to two BNP councillors (neither from my ward, but that’s cold comfort). Bob Piper, who sits on that council himself, makes a fair point that the rise of the BNP is a failure of the whole political class; but the people around here have never looked to the Tories for help. If they have previously been politically active or interested (and Mike Smithson has some data on that), then their sense of powerlessness must be to some extent the fault of the party they have trusted. Either way, though, these figures don’t surprise me – they reflect what I hear around these parts every day.

So did Question Time change anything? There’s a very worthy discussion of the programme at Pickled Politics. There are a whole range of opinions on this topic – whether Griffin should ever have appeared, whether he was dealt with properly given that he did, what ‘properly’ even means, and whether – even if in a free democracy Griffin should appear on a programme like Question Time – the show was the right forum to begin the long work of engaging with and defeating the BNP’s hideous ideology. But the general consensus that come out of the debate in those comments, which I share, seems to be that Griffin did himself no favours – but the other panellists didn’t quite take him apart as they could have done. Sayeeda Warsi had her line in populist reassurance (as Don Paskini writes at Liberal Conspiracy, how far must we go with that, exactly?), Jack Straw started well, and Bonnie Greer seemed to get the conceptual issues better, but by and large all backed off from getting their hands dirty by really engaging with what racism is and how it powers the BNP and perverts the fears of the party’s putative constituents. Instead, they all ganged up on Griffin and laughed at his undergraduate performance.

In the short-term, then, Question Time did no harm but nor did it do very much positive good. In the medium-term, this may well prove to advantage the BNP: they challenge for the majority who don’t want to see that is to use this week as a platform from which to launch the sorts of arguments which will damage the party. No change yet, then.

The EU Elections, The BNP and the Labour Party

EU FlagThe papers are naturally filled with more leadership speculation and deconstruction of the reshuffle fall-out today – the frequently confused Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun and the always potty Melanie Philips in the Mail (who chooses to repeat Iain Dale’s little breakdown meme) in particular have scathing words for a Prime Minister they see as bereft of all authority, commanded by an unelected, shadowy First Secretary of State. (Guido discussed all this in his usual conspiracy buff tenor on Saturday.) The full text of those Mandelson-Draper emails reveals just how much (and, contrary to the Mail’s reports, how sympathetically) the Baron of Foy and Hartlepool understands our Prime Minister; he was undoubtedly instrumental in ensuring that Purnell was left out on his own by Friday morning.

Still, step forward people like Charlie Falconer and Jackie Ashley (is this really the best the rebels can muster?), demanding that Gordon go today – perhaps following what will be a fractious meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party at 6pm this evening. Because, of course, all of the weekend’s maneuvring has been superceded by yesterday’s atrocious results for Labour: 15% of the national vote, beaten in Scotland by the SNP and, for the first time since 1918, defeated in Wales; wiped out in the South West (in Cornwall coming sixth) and South East (scoring just 8%), losing out across the non-urban Midlands, and seeing their vote collapse in the party’s Northern heartlands, heralding the election of two fascist MEPs. Dismal, dismal stuff.

Renewal is therefore the order of the day, and already last night the left was out in force – Nick Brown talking down the privatisation of Royal Mail, Michael Meecher talking up social housing, and, er, Polly Toynbee being Polly Toynbee. This post at LabourHome refers to ‘redefining our core values’, but I’m not sure that’s what needs doing at all. Bob Piper might be missing the point a bit when he moans that the media are wots causing it, but he’s spot on in this call to arms: whatever the details of policy, going back to core values, back to the party’s  roots in an electorate which has abandoned them (and yet who have not sided with the Tories in doing so), is what needs to happen.

It’s not often I agree with Eric Pickles, but when he said on the BBC last night that a vote for the BNP is a sign of disaffection, he was spot on. Back in April 2006, around the time Margaret Hodge courted controversy in speaking candidly about the BNP problem in Barking and Dagenham, I wrote in another place:

It is a denial of the truth in these areas to ignore – and thus fail to combat – the racist motive of BNP voters. Equally, it is a denial of the roots of working class facism simply to ignore people because they are saying things we would rather not hear. You don’t get seven per cent in a poll only from the ‘go out on a Saturday night and kick the Paki’ crowd. You don’t even get it from the types of people who routinely discriminate against non-whites. You get it from, well, the older lady in the shop. This type of seasonal racism is a way for disenfranchised people to explain their misfortunes. It is usually born of ignorance, of course – the BNP’s strongest shot in Birmingham, Kingstanding, has a significantly lower number of non-whites than the city as a whole, which seems to cope with integration quite well, thanks – but, again, that ignorance, whilst uninteresting in itself, tells us something of more lasting importance. It is not often considered that the BNP makes people into racists by pretending to have easy solutions to difficult problems too often swept under the political carpet. The real racists are few in number – remember, a few months ago, BNP support wasn’t showing on the map. These racists can be talked down, weaned away yet again from the same old rumours and knee-jerk assumptions, but only if we understand not just their concerns, but also their racism. (Johann Hari starts to delve into it here, but it’s not all about the Daily Mail being horrid, however much we’d like it to be.)

This is about race. But it isn’t about the cartoon, simplistic racism that we can easily reject as the purview of skinheads and, er, the BNP. (And which Searchlight et al campaign against well and need more help in doing so.) It’s something else – a soft-headed, certainly ignorant but also predictable attempt by those of us not so fortunate as to type rubbish into a blog to explain how the gap between rich and poor is growing, and no one seems to care.

Labour RoseMost of that, alas is still true: again last night, talking head after talking head lined up to say that BNP voters aren’t racist. This is much too simplistic. Voting for the BNP is incontrovertibly a racist act (as John Austin might have said, by saying something, we do something), but, importantly, a voter can make a racist vote without being in their everyday conceptions a racist. One of the first things the Labour Party could do in returning to their core values is to begin to engage with what makes a non-racist voter feel so disaffected as to cast a racist vote. To deny they have done so is to miss a real opportunity to hit two birds with one stone.