Supporting Racism

The Government claims to be stamping it out: in truth it is encouraging it

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 6th May 1999.

You might imagine that there has never been a worse time to launch a racist campaign in Britain. The British National Party believes that there has never been a better one. As the flowers pile up in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho, the BNP is preparing for what, it hopes, is its first realistic chance of obtaining a foothold in national politics.

Proportional representation in the European elections next month will ensure that votes for smaller parties will not necessarily be wasted. The BNP will use the opportunity to begin the biggest racist recruitment drive ever to have taken place in Britain, launching a new party political broadcast and delivering 15 million leaflets. It is unlikely to win any seats, but it hopes that its efforts will prepare the ground for future proportional elections, particularly in London next May.

So how do we prevent proportional representation from opening the door to racism? Nick Raynsford, the Minister for London, believes he has the answer. On Tuesday, with the support of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, he introduced amendments to the Greater London Authority Bill which will, he hopes, kick racism out of British politics. He has raised the threshold for electability: parties seeking seats on the authority will now have to win at least five per cent of the London vote.

Mr Raynsford’s proposal is, at first sight, sound. Last week I used this column to show how the BNP’s arguments have changed: it has become a cleverer and therefore more dangerous political party. French ethnic communities are all too aware of the way in which electoral success has served to normalise the ravings of the National Front. Were the BNP’s new arguments, in combination with a low threshold for representation, to secure the party seats in the London assembly, racism in Britain could wrap itself in the cloak of respectability.

The problem with Mr Raynsford’s amendments is that the BNP is not the only organisation they might have shut out of London’s politics. Proportional representation was the means by which a score of other small parties were hoping to enter national life. In seeking to protect minorities, the new policy threatens to eliminate minority politics.

Small parties, intentionally or otherwise, have always laid on the entertainment at elections. But some exist to promulgate policies which are both sensible and necessary. While the three largest parties have inflicted grievous harm on the environment, the Green Party offers the only coherent vision of a sustainable Britain. Labour’s plans to de-select rebellious MPs and groom and indoctrinate its candidates mean that, in future, only the tiny leftwing parties will have much to offer to those who have discovered that the Private Finance Initiative means placing public life in the hands of corporations, or that Jack Straw’s criminal justice policies make Michael Howard look like Nelson Mandela. If Raynsford’s system is to become the model for proportional representation in Britain, it is hard to see how our emerging political monoculture might be challenged.

It is surely possible to stamp out racism without stamping out political diversity. The government is right to reject the option of banning the BNP: racism in Britain feeds on conspiracy theories and persecution complexes, which would only be fertilised by its exclusion from party politics. But ministers should learn from the BNP’s one electoral success. The race card is trumps only when racism is the political game.

In the 1993 local elections, the BNP won a seat in Tower Hamlets after the Liberal Democrats made its politics respectable by copying them, claiming that the council was in thrall to the Commission for Racial Equality, and was wasting ratepayers’ money by sending it to Bangladesh. The same thing seems to have happened in France, where the conventional right wing, by seeking to capture votes from extremists, helped to persuade voters that the National Front was right.

If Mr Raynsford is serious about eliminating racism from politics, he should have a word with Jack Straw about his Immigration and Asylum Bill. The Bill informs us that racism is acceptable, as long as it is directed against the most vulnerable foreigners. As the BNP seeks to convince us that we are drowning in a flood of refugees, the Bill tells Middle England that there must be something in the party’s ludicrous claims.

Mr Raynsford’s amendments will, ironically, exclude from mainstream politics the only parties prepared consistently to speak up for refugees and challenge the government’s own racism. His strategy condemns us to inhabit a political world without opposites, a nation shorn of dissent, in which the dispossessed, the vulnerable and the racially abused have no authoritative voice.