IT’S BEEN A STRANGE SUMMER – not least for the values and priorities of our mainstream media. One edition of London’s Evening Standard led with a front page of Margaret Hodge complaining that “Labour’s new style of politics is bullying and intolerance” – pretty brazen for the MP who reportedly called Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite and a racist. In the same issue, the far right attack on Bloomsbury’s Bookmarks bookshop, in which UKIP activists were involved, got less than half a column under the headline “UKIP members suspended after bookshop rumpus”. Rumpus!?
This is just one small example of a trend now backed by academic research: that press coverage is partly responsible for increased support for the far right. And after the Bookmarks attack - following on from the premeditated ambush in London of anti-fascists by supporters of English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson - nobody should be in any doubt that the far right is feeling more emboldened than it has for decades. For the first time in living memory, it is able to mobilise larger numbers on the streets than its opponents. This constitutes a menace to the left, people of colour, Muslims, Jews and many more.
We must call out soft coverage of hard right figures like Nigel Farage wherever it occurs. Owen Jones has raised the impartiality of BBC presenter Andrew Neil, who chairs the company which owns The Spectator magazine, which has links with a foundation funded by Hungary’s hard right government and regularly pumps out Islamophobic copy.
The extreme right is further buttressed by international factors – the Trump presidency and the moral and material support it gives to hard right movements, the rise of the virulently anti-migrant AfD party in Germany and the formation of a new Italian government whose interior minister, the leader of the racist Lega, is using all the resources of the state to wage war on refugees and Roma.
These movements were once marginal. But the collapse of the political centre after its implementation of ten years of austerity has given them purchase. Now their agenda is increasingly being adopted by mainstream conservatives to shore up their own dwindling popularity. Boris Johnson’s diatribe against women wearing burkas was carefully calculated and will inevitably fuel anti-Muslim sentiment. One Tory peer accused him of “courting fascism”.
But the whole Conservative Party is complicit in making the far right respectable, with its closer links to UKIP, its hostile environment against migrants and, most recently, its alliance in the European Parliament with the Swedish Democrats, an anti-immigrant party with roots in white supremacist politics.
How to respond? John McDonnell has called for the launch of a modern equivalent of the Anti-Nazi League to resist racism and the far right’s growth. In the late 1970s, to counter rising organised fascist activity, the ANL and Rock Against Racism carried out exemplary work among young people and organised huge demonstrations and musical festivals.
To build something similar today is critical – but it requires a real change in the political culture. The old ANL drew support from a very wide spectrum. Today, predictable voices on Labour’s right have already belittled the idea, primarily because the person proposing it is John McDonnell.
Which brings us back to Margaret Hodge. Will she and her supporters who have voiced concerns about rising ethnic and religious intolerance engage with this proposal? After all, her own Barking constituency faced a serious electoral challenge from the British National Party not so long ago. We’re hopeful, but not optimistic. In 2007, she was applauded by the BNP website, to the horror of her parliamentary colleagues, when she said British-born families should take priority over immigrants in council housing. Who would you trust to lead a campaign against resurgent racism – her or Jeremy Corbyn? The rise of the far right dictates a need for unity. The chaos of this Tory government - which has suffered yet more resignations since our last issue as its carefully constructed approach to Brexit has fallen to pieces - necessitates that Labour be battle-ready. Yet, as in 2016, a clique of over-entitled MPs seem determined to put factional plots ahead of our movement’s broader interests. Nor can it be a coincidence that a secret meeting in a country retreat of key right wing Labour MPs coincides with an increase in public attacks on the leader. They can destabilise, but they can’t win. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is secure and the prospects for a new centrist formation, however much money and media backing it may drum up, are electorally bleak. The noise they make is born of frustration and impotence. But the decision by Unite’s conference to back full mandatory reselection for sitting MPs sounds a warning that there are limits to how much self-indulgence we should tolerate from our elected representatives.