Anti-Fascist Action strategy article in the lead up to Labour being elected in 1997. From Fighting Talk issue 16.
When a Far-Right political party in Central Europe wins 27.6% of the vote in free and fair nationwide elections it should be clear that the time for complacency has gone - and gone for good. Particularly when it is widely acknowledged that much of the support comes from formerly socialist working class voters.
Compounding the problem is that right now most European governments are committed to introducing austerity budgets in order to comply with the demands of the common currency. Logic dictates that it is the weakest economies that are required to impose the most stringent cutbacks. Britain is acknowledged as one of the more fragile economies. And we all know that Labour, firm favourites in May, are totally committed to the European and monetary union. We also know that to offset the cuts Labour will not raise taxes. That means that the brunt will have to be borne by the bottom 40%.
The last time so many governments committed themselves so comprehensively to financial orthodoxy was by pegging exchange rates to the gold standard in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As then, the political chaos and social devastation that ensued was literally designed for a party with a Far-Right agenda. Here responsibility for the mayhem will of course be laid at the feet of the 'socialist' government. Labour's history anyway has been to swing sharply to the Right once in government.
So from day one the pressure will be on. Labour's every move will be scrutinised for the slightest hint of progressive reform. The smallest deviation from Labour's quite candid agenda of reactionary reform will be jumped on by a bitter and vengeful Tory press. That Labour, elected on a Right-wing programme, will almost immediately be driven even further to the Right is a safe bet. Equally certain is that total working class alienation will be swift. Unless we really believe that Britain as an island race and as such is above such developments, then we have to accept that the conditions outlined are a ready-made opportunity for the Far-Right to impact directly on the political mainstream with the same devastating effect as in Austria, France, Italy, Belgium, etc.
ABF - ANYONE BUT FASCISTS
What can we do? Well, let's first examine what we must not do. For seventeen years the, cry of the conservative Left has been "Get the Tories out!" The real message is "Get Labour in!". Once Labour are elected, the same unity will then be demanded to "Keep the Tories out!" And so on...
As the deteriorating situation in Europe has demonstrated, this strategy is a proven disaster. Primarily because it forces the very people who want change, the bottom 40%, the natural constituency of the Left, directly into the arms of the radical Right. (Even The Times columnist William Rees Mogg complains that "there are too many fascists in Europe nowadays".)
Remember it was under a Socialist government that Le Pen made the breakthrough in France. Now one French anti-fascist magazine complains that "everywhere you turn you see them". Even more significantly the FN is now the biggest working class party in France, and in Austria more than one in two blue collar workers voted for the Freedom Party in October 1996.
It is worth remembering as well that it was under the last Labour government that the NF briefly threatened to become the 'third' party ahead of the Liberals. Today it is this working class constituency, already badly mauled by the Tories, that Labour is determined to cut further adrift. So predicting the outcome could not possibly be more straightforward. And while the call for 'unity' between Left and Right - the ‘Anybody But Fascists’ strategy - has an attractive simplicity, it is in reality a siren call on to the rocks.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
As the BNP explain in their magazine Spearhead, the central aim of standing in elections is not to win votes:
"the central aim is to win recruits...so the vital period is six months after the election. This is the crucial time in which the follow ups must be turned into recruits, the recruits into activists and the best of the activists identified for further education and training...any other proposal is, for the foreseeable future, a time-wasting fantasy."
The BNP are working hard to stand 50 candidates in the forthcoming election which would entitle them to a Party Political Broadcast, but they would also get election leaflets delivered to two million homes - free. If in the follow up only one in 250 is convinced and joins that is 8,000 new members. Given political conditions generally that is not at all implausible. Worse than that, no matter how well they do in the immediate term, the fact is that the situation for them can only improve as Labour gets into its stride. On top of that the orthodox Left is in meltdown throughout Europe.
In all countries, to one degree or another, the agenda is driven by Right-wing and radical Right-wing ideas. So without a doubt this is the biggest challenge we have ever faced. This was also the challenge previously faced by our European counterparts in the 80s and early 90s, who chose to fight the resurgent Right with orthodox tactics, employing with a particular counter-productive skill the ABF strategy. The logic of that strategy ultimately demands unity between anti-fascists and elements of the State. The consequence is that when the fascists address working class issues, their radical credentials are established by the propaganda of the opposition. Obviously this is no longer a viable strategy, so what then is to be done?
If the crucial growth period for them is six months after the election, then that too is the crucial period for us. The problem is, if we cannot prevent them handing out propaganda, then we cannot prevent them following up recruiting afterwards either. The only way to remain effective is to be in a position where we can recruit ourselves. We can only negate their growth by growing in influence ourselves, in tandem with them. For this to happen we must mimic their campaign. We must shadow them all the way.
The best, indeed the only guarantee against the Far-Right entering the mainstream is not a strong anti-fascist movement, but a strong working class movement. The Far-Right have re-invented themselves throughout Europe and we, the Left, must do the same. To begin we must at least try to match their ambition. This must be done first of all to avoid being side-lined as has happened elsewhere, like in France.
And if, because of the circumstances, we cannot actually prevent them attempting to enter the mainstream, we can still deny them their just reward for doing so by working to enter the mainstream ourselves. In brief, we must not only attempt to match them physically but we must do so politically. That is to say we must mimic their ambition, their tactics and their campaign. In other words we too must mount an election style campaign - but without candidates. We have to win the battle for working class hearts and minds. For militant anti-fascism this is a quantum leap, but if we are serious than this is what we must do.
MEANS TO AN END
From 1989, when AFA was relaunched, it was understood that its strategy was designed as a means to an end. The objective was to create space for a progressive alternative to the Far Right to develop in working class areas. AFA has created the political space for an independent working class organisation to be built, which will in the changed conditions prove to be a lifeline for militant anti-fascism. So to claim that militant anti-fascism and working class independence are peas in a pod is almost to understate the relationship.
Equally, to state that the formerly Socialist parties rather than the Christian Democrats or Tories lay the foundation for the fascist renaissance in Europe is a pattern that is also undeniable. During the 90s, London East End Labour councils in particular, despite offering the Tory government as mitigation for their own failures, still managed, even with the most Right-wing government since the war, to create a virus known as the BNP.
With Labour in government, as well as running the majority of councils, the intensity of polarisation in working class areas between pro and anti-Labour can only be imagined. In such an atmosphere the pro-Labour position will quickly become politically untenable. And for anti-fascism to attach itself to it would make anti-fascism untenable as well. Any suggestion of supporting or collaborating with Labour even inadvertently would be political suicide in the eyes of a working class audience anywhere.
In the early 90s AFA declared its objective was to create the space fora political alternative to Labour in working class areas to emerge. In doing so it set itself the target of ensuring that a credible challenge to Labour came only from the Left.
Circumstances beyond our control are conspiring against this 'Plan A'. The background scenery is in the process of being shifted. The likely outcome being that it will be Labour rather than the Tories who will be the new hate figures nationally. This will change the political fortunes of everyone overnight. By far the most dramatic impact will be on the opportunity for growth of the Far Right. With the Tories in government Labour at a local level could blame them for everything. The electorate took their revenge with Tory representation being almost wiped out completely in whole swathes of the country.
With Labour in government the Tory alibi that served them so well will automatically vanish. In addition there will be expectation among voters that many of the cuts will be reversed. When the precise opposite happens there will be a real feeling of betrayal and a vicious backlash against Labour. Equally certain, particularly in working class areas, the political beneficiaries will not be the previous party of government. So the Far Right will expect, as they have already done successfully elsewhere in Europe, to don, as if by right, the cloak of the genuinely radical grassroots opposition.
We can still stop them if we take on board a couple of simple facts. One, the old policy of containment is already obsolete. Two while the election of Labour represents a real opportunity for progressive elements to get their feet under the working class table for the first time in a quarter of a century – that is to say the chance to step forward politically - for militant anti-fascism it means the reverse.
Our ability to consistently and physically impose ourselves on events will be significantly retarded because the BNP have abandoned the old strategy of "march and grow" in favour of a "hearts and minds" approach. We must accept that the police have improved their intelligence on AFA and how we work, which coupled with the new powers that they have under the Criminal Justice Act means it is much harder for AFA to physically confront the fascists.
Adding to that the mounting social pressure triggered by a Labour government means we will no longer be able to hold the political vacuum. That is to say, we will no longer be physically able to ensure that the challenge to Labour comes only from the Left. Consequently, the role of militant anti-fascism is now to ensure that the political challenge does not come only from the Right. This must be our objective. This must be 'Plan B'.