In European elections voted in by just over a third of the eligible UK population, held during a global recession, and in the wake of an unprecedented disintegration of the Labour party's remaining working-class vote, the far right British National Party obtained not one but two seats in the European Parliament. Dark days for British and European politics.
With a 'whites only' membership policy and a leader who once associated with Klu Klux Klan members, the BNP are true right-wing extremists. They present maniacal, paranoid stories about the 'liberal elite' that seeks to destroy the lives of 'ordinary white British people'. They talk openly about 'preserving the bloodline' of the country - yet they garnered over 100,000 votes in some constituencies. Can it really be true, as almost all political commentators have asserted, that the people who vote for the BNP are oblivious to the racism of this fascist party? Or does the language of the BNP tap into something that people genuinely believe in - the language of localism that has been neglected so comprehensively by the left that it has been hi-jacked by the far right?
On the face of it, there wouldn't seem to be much common ground between the xenophobia of the BNP and placard waving socialists. But yet trade union parties such as No2EU - Yes to Democracy (http://no2eu.com/) share a superficial rhetoric with Griffin's thugs: an impassioned rejection of European political structures. Even more bizarrely, the language of Transition Towns (the hippie-ish grassroots response to climate change and peak oil) seems eerily reminiscent of the BNP's. With all the talk of 'buying British', 'shopping locally' and even local currencies, could Totnes be the next Burnley?
Scratch beneath the surface, of course, and the similarities disappear completely. The BNP despise European politics because they despise Europeans. Trade Unionists despise European politics because they share a deep affinity with fellow victims of 'race to the bottom' capitalism - the workers of Europe who are treated as all-too-expendable labour, to be hired and fired as the dynamics of the common market demand. BNP supporters buy British because they distrust multi-culturalism and the produce of foreign lands. Transition Towns supporters buy British to minimise their food miles and are warmly welcoming of cultural diversity.
But the all-encompassing embrace of economic globalisation by the political
mainstream (and in particular, the centre-left) has left a void which the far-right have gleefully filled. The ruthless drive of international capitalism has plucked workers from their communities and distributed them more efficiently. Single occupancy houses are at their highest ever rate in the UK. The language of 'alienation' that the BNP use strikes a chord because people are genuinely isolated in their 'own country'. But the threat - far from being the dark-skinned immigrant or the eastern European worker - is the socially divisive menace of globalised capitalism.
That we are surprised that progressive political parties and left-leaning environmental groups talk about British Jobs and British Produce is a scathing indictment of how successfully the far-right have hi-jacked the language of localism.
That is why it is more important than ever for the left to regain a narrative that leads not inexorably to racism and xenophobia, but to equitable and sustainable solutions to social division and resource distribution. The goal of the Transition Towns movement is to create communities that are resilient in the face of climate change and resource depletion - by encouraging and recognising diversity, not denying it as the BNP would seek to do. The No2Eu Party, anguished and frustrated at being treated like a tradeable commodity, are not angry at the foreign workers taking their jobs - they are angry at the economic system that allows it to happen.
Without a voice to stand up against the perils of economic globalisation, the far-right will shout on people's behalf. With unemployment rising, and a globalised recession to blame, isn't it time the left reclaimed the language of localism from the BNP?