Over 600 people attended the Unite Against Fascism national conference last weekend including MPs, trade unionists, musicians, Muslim, Jewish and other faith representatives, academics, students, LGBT and disability rights and anti-racist campaigners.
The conference marked the launch of UAF’s campaign against the fascist BNP in the run-up to the local, Scottish Parliament and Wales Assembly elections. The BNP will attempt to win significantly more council seats and it is likely that they will stand four candidates in each region in Scotland and Wales which will be enough to qualify for party political broadcasts and publicity funded by the tax-payer.
The UAF highlighted to the conference that in the May elections, there are 60 wards where a swing to the BNP of 5 per cent or less could see them gaining seats.
In the last six years the BNP vote has increased more than 75-fold from 3,000 votes in 2000 to 238,000 in 2006. Before the local elections in 2006, the BNP had 20 council seats, now it has 49.
Projections into next year’s London Assembly elections indicate a real threat of the BNP gaining seats on the Assembly aided by the climate of racism and the proportional representation system. The BNP missed getting elected by 0.1% in 2004. In 2009 the BNP will seek to gain seats on the European Parliament and join the new coalition of fascist parties there. At the previous elections in 2004 the BNP polled over 800,000 votes.
The conference sent a very strong message that there is still an opportunity to prevent the BNP from entering the mainstream of British politics and poisoning our society, but that this can only be achieved by refusing to concede to their politics of hate – particularly targeted at Muslim communities, asylum seekers and attacks on multiculturalism.
Speakers highlighted that such attacks are creating fertile ground for the BNP.
Opening the conference, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber recalled the critical role played by the trade union movement in defeating the BNP in Tower Hamlets in the early 1990s. He also highlighted the TUC’s important joint work with the Muslim Council of Britain to promote unity in the face of growing Islamophobia.
Peter Hain MP said: “Progressives have a moral duty to fight fascism wherever it rears its ugly head. The Anti-Nazi League played a leading role in helping end the evil of the National Front. Now we must unite to combat the BNP racists and their ideology of hate – that’s why it’s important that we build Unite Against Fascism today.”
Jerry Dammers, who wrote the anti-racist song Free Nelson Mandela said the BNP were like Daleks, because “no matter how many times they’re defeated, they don’t get the message” urging people not to be complacent and do everything they can to campaign against the fascists.
Refugee from the Holocaust Henry Guterman spoke movingly of how fast the Nazis destroyed all democracy after coming to power in 1933 and why we must oppose today’s fascists.
UNISON Deputy General Secretary Keith Sonnet and PCS Deputy General Secretary both warned of the BNP’s attempts to set up a front trade union “Solidarity”. Keith Sonnet added “the BNP’s presence throws a shadow over our democracy. It masquerades as a legitimate political party, but it preys on fear and ignorance and promotes hate. We must reject those politics of hate and division. The fascists and their parties have to be stopped in their tracks. As a nation, we should be ashamed of the growth of far right politics. It should never have been allowed to happen. And we must shake the mainstream political parties out of their complacency.”
National Assembly Against Racism Secretary Lee Jasper said that society must “wake up and stop sleepwalking into more and more BNP victories.” He urged the government to raise its game: to understand that defending multiculturalism and opposing racism was crucial to defending the anti-racist gains made of the past decades and to defeating the BNP. He also challenged sections of the media for giving the BNP a platform and presenting them and some of the myths they spread as legitimate.
Weyman Bennett, Joint Secretary of UAF identified the next twelve months as being critical for our movement’s ability to hold back the growth of the fascists and prevent them gaining the seats and prominence of European fascists.
Soumaya Ghanoushi from Islam Expo noted how the so-called ‘debate’ on the Veil and attacks on Muslims is legitimising the BNP.
General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, Mohammed Abdul Bari, condemned Conservative Party’s comparison of some Muslim communities with the BNP as trivialising the fascist party and the grave danger it poses to Muslims and the unity of the whole society.
Jewish Council for Racial Equality director Edie Friedman told conference that the BNP had had the audacity and duplicity to write to the Jewish Chronicle to announce that it was now Muslims and asylum seekers that were in their sights. She highlighted the historic lessons of scapegoating one community, and quoted a recent Jonathan Freedland article where he noted that if the current barrage of attacks in the media were directed at Jewish, rather than Muslim people, he would be reaching for his passport.
Alan Wardle Stonewall Director of Parliamentary & Public Affairs emphasised the BNP’s homophobia and said: “The BNP routinely incites hatred towards lesbian, gay and bisexual people, as well as targeting people on racial and religious grounds. We welcome this conference as an opportunity to bring minority communities together, to challenge the politics of hatred whatever their motivation.”
Glyn Ford MEP described how fascism has infiltrated society in other European countries and the lessons to be drawn from this. Fascist and far right groups have formally set up the Identity, Sovereignty and Tradition caucus on the European Parliament, entitling them to extra resources and funding.
In a poignant and powerful speech, David Okoro from the Anthony Walker Foundation brought home the reality of racism for black people in Britain; David told the conference that, since Stephen Lawrence was killed, there have been 70 further racist murders in Britain. Unless the daily institutional and violent racism that black people face is challenged this number would continue to rise and the BNP would continue to gather support.
Barking and Dagenham Councillor Milton McKenzie highlighted what happens when the BNP gains seats on a local council and how the spreading of the “Africans for Essex” myth allowed the BNP to grow in the area. The BNP claimed that Africans were given grants to move into Barking and Dagenham, which of course is a total lie.
Five workshops gave attendees the opportunity to focus on key areas of interest and to discuss ideas and share experiences.
A busy session run by Love Music Hate Racism heard from Get Cape, Wear Cape Fly, Asian woman rapper DJ Hard Kaur, pianist Ian Pace and others on the importance of communicating the anti-racist message through popular culture to inspire a new generation to actively oppose the BNP.
Other sessions including challenging racist myths which heard from speakers from across the country about the myths perpetrated by the BNP which are being challenged; opposing homophobia tackled necessity of uniting against the BNP with all communities and not pandering to the fascists agenda by singling out any community as uniquely homophobic.
A session on students and education heard how the BNP is increasing its presence on university campuses, the need to uphold the “No platform” for fascists policy and the difficulty in implementing the Race Relations Amendment Act when BNP members working in the public sector are exposed. A BNP teacher is currently working for the Derby Pupil Referral Unit despite concerns raised by the UAF group.
Another session on “What happens when the BNP get elected noted how the BNP become a normalised part of local politics in areas where they make a breakthrough, such as Burnley and Stoke-on-Trent and the failure to robustly challenge racist myths is allowing them to grow.
UAF has called three national days of action: Saturday 3rd March, Saturday 31 March and Saturday 28 April during which supporters are encouraged to coordinate door to door leafleting in key target areas, contact the local media and organise awareness raising events. The UAF has produced a national leaflet to distribute, which can be ordered from the UAF office. UAF will also be re-launching the “Pull the plug on fascist thugs” campaign in the run up to the elections.