Thursday, May 29, 2008

Well I'm sorry to say I told you so! If you want confirmation of just how toxic the notion of "community" can be in the wrong hands, just look at the nine BNP councillors recently elected in Stoke-on-Trent who are using classic "community development" approaches to establish themselves in the area. Says Alby Walker the BNP Group Leader: "the BNP Councillors are good hardworking grassroots councillors who are real community champions". according to the Guardian (Labour's lost ground 28/05/08) "community champions" is Walkers favourite piece of vocabulary. Says Michael Tappin, the former Labour Group leader and MEP: "the men and women of the BNP look like your neighbours... they are respectable. It's impossible to demonise them. They wear suits, they look tidy". On the estates where the BNP has established itself, there are to all intents and purposes virtually no black or ethnic minority residents (census returns show just 1.9% from BME communities). Nevertheless in the last twenty years "some say that Stoke's white working class has become and underclass". Labour has effectively abandoned the residents of these areas. As Tappin says: "Labour has not offered people a vision of how to get out of deindustrialisation, how to get its 42,000 residents on benefits back into work. It's put sticking plasters on instead of wholesale reform".

It is the nostalgic and idealised sense of community that has been such a gift for the BNP and that has allowed them a way of "getting into communities". Walker, says the Guardian, "offers a pungent mix of nostalgia and conspiratorial claims about immigrants and Islam". The BNP's most effective leaflet says Walker proudly reads "Hanley 70 years ago" above a montage of photos of the church tower, pottery kilns and smiling housewives. "Is this what you want for our city centre?" its says below, next to a silhouette of mosques and a picture of three women in niqab" etc. etc. Walker confidently expects the BNP to come to power in the city in five years. Tappin from Labour thinks it will be more like three.

It is not easy to see quite how communitarian notions of "bridging social capital" are going to be of any use here - there is virtually no different or minority group to bridge with. What is needed instead is a political camapign that challenges inequalities at national, regional and local level: that seeks to build real and positive solidarity rather than BNP tribalism. A reawakening of the progressive Labour movement of the past might be difficult but at the very least an attempt by local and national Labour to create real jobs allowing for a serious union-based alternative to the currently moribund Labour Party might be the only thing that could succeed. What chance of this under New Labour?