Friday, 22 April 1994


New Statesman & Society, 22 April 1994

As the BNP threatens to make more gains on Millwall council, Labour is changing tactics; fascists in power are bad for house prices. Paul Anderson reports

Nah, mate," says the young woman with cropped blond hair, opening the door to the Labour canvasser on the 15th floor of the Isle of Dogs tower block, "I'm voting BNP." And with that she slams the door.

Her neighbours in this block are less forthright. Of those who bother to answer the door, a few say unenthusiastically that they "suppose" they will vote Labour, others say that they're not voting or claim to be undecided. Which is not to say that only one inhabitant of 80-odd on the electoral roll in the 20-floor block will actually vote for the neo-Nazi candidates in the Millwall ward in the 5 May local elections. After all the negative publicity the BNP has had since the election of Derek Beackon as a councillor for Millwall in a by-election last September, plenty of people who are thinking of voting forhim and his colleagues this time are keeping their views to themselves, particularly when the Labour Party comes around.

The tower block is one of four built in the 1960s on the otherwise low-rise Barkantine Estate on the west side of the Island, with spectacular views over east and south-east London. Once the dominant features all around were the docks and warehouses that provided work for the people of (he Island and, across the river, Bermondsey. Today, the landscape is a strange mix of dereliction and spanking new office buildings and flats erected under the auspices of the London Docklands Development Corporation, the unaccountable quango set up in the early 1980s to regenerate the local economy after the docks disappeared. Unfortunately, few of the offices employ local labour. As the view has changed and unemployment has increased, so the tower block has become more and more run-down.

"The whole block is filthy," says a man on the fifth floor, a long-time resident active in the tenants' association. "The council never does repairs. Nothing is ever given a coat of paint and the windows are falling out. One of my neighbours has waited four months to have his central heating fixed." He reckons that there are four or five families here who are definite BNP, and maybe ten or 12 other people who might vote BNP because of their disillusionment with the way they have been treated as tenants.

And this, according to the local Labour Party, is by no means a hotbed of BNP support. Canvassers elsewhere on the Barkantine Estate report far more vocal support for the BNP – up to 50 per cent in some streets. "And that's just the ones who admit it," says a glum-looking Liverpudlian man who has come down from Bethnal Green to help out with Labour's Millwall mass canvass.

The Barkantine is where Beackon and his party have expended most effort and time, knocking on doors every weekend. Windswept, tatty and largely white, with unemployment estimated at getting on for 50 per cent, it is the part of the Island most receptive to the BNP message that "immigrants" are getting favoured treatment in housing and jobs. But it is by no means the only place that the BNP can expect a big vote. Even among the attractive semis in Thermopylae Gardens in the south of the Island, once council but long since bought by their former tenants and now proudly displaying the manicured lawns and carefully tended hedges of suburbia, Labour canvassers report a third of voters to be BNP or hostile to Labour, although half declare that they are Labour.

All this is very much in line with an opinion poll conducted at the end of last month by ICM for the Institute of Community Studies, chaired by Lord Young of Dartington. It suggests that 53 per cent of decided Millwall voters plan to vote for Labour, with the BNP on 20 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 12 and the Tories on 10 per cent. But it also showed that only 21 per cent of those questioned admitted to voting for the BNP last year, while 52 per cent claimed to have voted for Labour: in fact, the BNP took 34 per cent in the by-election, with Labour on 33.7 and the Liberals on 29.4.

Many who voted BNP were obviously ashamed to admit it, and the same almost certainly goes for those planning to vote BNP next month. According to the ICS, if underreporting of planned BNP voting is as high as that of under-reporting of BNP voting in 1993, the contest is too close to call. That means that the BNP has a good chance of taking all three Millwall seats. And, because Liberal-controlled Tower Hamlets decentralised its operations in the late 1980s, that would give it a majority on the Isle of Dogs neighbourhood council (composed of three Millwall councillors and two from neighbouring Blackwall) and control over its £23-million budget.

For all this, Labour is cautiously confident that it will win Millwall. "You've got to remember that the level of under-reporting of BNP support is a matter of guesswork," says one campaign organiser. "Actual voting intentions in the poll show us clearly ahead."

Some in the Labour camp think that BNP support has peaked, arguing that the neo-Nazis have spread themselves too thinly in the local elections to run the sort of campaign that they organised for the by-election. Altogether, 30 BNP candidates are standing for seats elsewhere in the country, five of them in other Tower Hamlets wards and six in the neighbouring borough of Newham, with the rest scattered in the rest of London and the north-west. That doesn't sound a lot, but, say Labour optimists, it could just be too much for a party of 600 members to handle.

Even less sanguine Labour campaigners believe that, since the poll was taken, they have clearly established that Labour is the only party that can beat the BNP. Last September, there was a three-way split in the vote among the BNP, Labour and the Liberals, and just six weeks ago it seemed that May's contest would be four-way, with these three combatants joined by the East London People's Alliance, a tenants' association-based outfit created by former Labour Party members who had left Labour in disgust after being accused of racism in the course of its internal inquiry into the conduct of the 1993 by-election campaign.

But the ELPA was persuaded not to stand after all and the Liberals, desperate to hold on to their seats elsewhere in Tower Hamlets and without a strong base on the Island, have been almost invisible since the campaign has started in earnest. Meanwhile, Labour has been able to call on more than 100 activists from outside the Isle of Dogs to turn out to canvass and deliver leaflets. For a party that was almost moribund in Millwall a year ago and that suffered a major defection of key people just two months ago – those who resigned from the party included the ward secretary and chair, the defeated candidate in last year's by-election, James Hunt, and sitting councillor Ted Johns, a veteran community activist – Labour has put on quite a credible show.

"We've shown that we've got over the problems we had at the end of last year," says Steve Molyneaux, the only one of Labour's three candidates selected before the split over the by-election inquiry (the other two Labour hopefuls next month, Julia Mainwaring and Martin Young, were selected at the very last minute). "We're finding a lot of Liberals and Tories who've decided to vote tactically for us." Molyneaux also points to Labour's success in getting its message across to groups who didn't bother to vote in 1993. Then, notoriously, the party's campaign, following the Liberals' lead, focused on the alleged bias against "local" people – in Isle of Dogs politics, a euphemism for "whites" – in council-housing allocation. Apart from causing a massive rumpus within the Labour Party, this theme managed to alienate the 20 per cent of Millwall voters who belong to ethnic minorities, and made little or no impact on the ward's middle-class white voters, most of whom are owner-occupiers living in newly built flats and houses.

This time around, although Molyneaux says that "the key is still the white working class", and Labour is promising a giant home-building programme in Tower Hamlets if it wins, the party has dropped the racist overtones that it adopted in the 1993 by-election. It has made a point of canvassing in the new owner-occupied areas – warning waverers that a BNP victory will do damage to local house prices – and has made a serious effort to ensure that ethnic minority voters – mainly Bengali, but also Afro-Caribbean, Vietnamese and Somali – turn out to vote.

So far, this effort seems to be paying off. The Timber Wharves Estate in the middle of the ward was originally built as an LDDC-spon-sored luxury development for yuppies – but few were tempted to buy before the housing market collapsed in the late 1980s, and today the apartments are mostly taken by council and housing-association tenants, many of them Bangladeshi families moved from the St Vincents Estate in Blackwall, which has been demolished to make way for a road. The Labour canvassing team gets a friendly reception from the Bangladeshis. Nearly all are registered, the overwhelming majority firm Labour supporters. But their problem is getting to the polling station, in a nearby school: many are scared to walk there, and want to be given lifts on polling day.

It is hardly surprising that this is how they feel. Timber Wharves has been at the centre of the storm over housing in Millwall. The first people to be housed here were upwardly mobile white working-class families, who, when the Bangladeshis started to arrive from St Vincents, began to complain that they were lowering the tone of the place. Next came petitions and letter-writing campaigns, and the resentment among the whites is still apparent. "I've nothing against these people," says a white woman in her fifties, gesturing towards a Bangladeshi Labour canvasser who is talking to her Bangladeshi neighbour. "But have any of them lived here as long as I have? My daughter had to move off the Island to get a place: I had to give her £9,000 to get her started. I mean, they're homeless, I'm sorry for them, but it's not right. I've never been more undecided about who to vote for at this election. It's not just Labour I think is useless. It's the lot of them."


New Statesman & Society leader, 22 April 1994

The west's response to the Serb assault on the supposedly UN-guaranteed "safe area" of Gorazde has been pusillanimous even by the execrable standards of the past two years. Instead of treating the Serbs' actions as a declaration of war on the international community, which is what they are, the western "powers" have merely wrung their hands.

Nothing epitomises this better than the miserable excuses for failing to act offered by the British Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, in the House of Commons on Monday. He had little option but to speak on Bosnia before the House: British servicemen had been killed, and it would have been very bad form indeed if some sort of statement offering condolences to their grieving relatives had not been read out. Not that a full debate was justified, of course – that would have meant Rifkind doing more than repeating the same old smug, dishonest answers to questions fired at him by opponents.

And were his answers smug and dishonest! Rifkind spewed out the whole gamut of distortions that have legitimised western appeasement of Serbian aggression for two years. He described the war there as a "civil war", the combatants as "warring factions". "Each of the factions is seeking to grab as much territory as possible," he droned.

To critics calling for UN or Nato intervention to stop the Serb aggression, Rifkind asserted bluntly that such intervention would require a massive and permanent deployment of ground forces. "There are about 200,000 heavily armed Serbs, Croats and Muslims who are fighting each other," he explained. As for lifting the UN arms embargo on Bosnia, well, that "would require the repeal of the Security Council resolution" banning the supply of arms to all sides, which is impossible because the Russians don't want it. It should not at this stage be necessary to demonstrate that this is a farrago of evasions, the government line in the media and across the political spectrum that even now it is essential to spell out precisely where it is wrong.

To begin: the war in Bosnia is not essentially a civil war, but a war of aggression by Serbia and its Bosnian Serb surrogates against the multi-ethnic, democratic, internationally recognised state of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Croatia joined in the war too, supporting its own Bosnian Croat clients, but gave up the fight after suffering military defeats at the hands of the Bosnian government and being put under pressure by the United States.

What this means is that today there are not "three sides" fighting one another, but two: on one hand, the Serb aggressors, and, on the other, and the once-again-allied Bosnian government and Bosnian Croat forces. Moreover, far from being "even-handed" in condemning "all sides", western policy, and that of the UN, should be strongly partisan in defence of the legitimate government – even if it means ending the humanitarian relief operation in the "safe areas", the sole effect of which at present seems to be to fatten Bosnians for the Serbian slaughter.

Then there is the canard that the Serb forces are so well armed and so numerous that only a giant and permanent deployment of ground forces by outside powers could impose a settlement. In fact, most of the Serbs fighting in Bosnia today are raw conscripts, and they are armed almost entirely with rifles, mines, ancient tanks and artillery. They have no air cover and their lines of communication are stretched. It would not take much for properly armed Bosnian government forces, aided if the Bosnians request it from outside, to inflict a decisive military defeat that would roll back the Serb armies and force them to sue for peace.

Of course, the Russians don't want such an outcome for domestic political reasons – but there are plenty of carrots that the west could dangle before Moscow to persuade it to change its mind on intervention and on the arms embargo. How can misty-eyed pan-Slavism compete with the prospect of substantial aid and trade for the crisis-ridden Russian economy? The real problem, as ever, is not an insurmountable Russian veto, but the lack of political will on the part of the west to stop the Serbs.

There were a few MPs making such points against Rifkind on Monday – but they did not include anyone from the Labour front bench, which has sold the pass on Serbian aggression against Bosnia as effectively as Labour in the 1930s backed the appeasement of Hitler by the Chamberlain government. Its two most senior figures with responsibility for speaking on Bosnia, defence spokesperson David Clark and shadow foreign secretary Jack Cunningham, have played a consistently craven role throughout the Bosnian war, par-rotting the government's rhetoric of "civil war" and "warring factions". Clark's intervention in the Commons on Monday was utterly spineless and unprincipled.

What makes all this particularly galling is that the do-nothing consensus among senior politicians – notable not just in Britain but everywhere else in western Europe – is so out of step with public opinion, which is disgusted by the Serbs' murderous expansionism and by the west's failure to stand up to it. But this disjunction between the public and the politicians is also an opportunity. If popular anger at the plight of Bosnia can be mobilised, and mobilised fast, it is just possible that the politicians can be shocked out of their complacency. What is needed is a movement in defence of Bosnia on the scale, and with the international coordination, of the movement against nuclear weapons in Europe in the early 1980s. That, as anyone who has been active on Bosnia in the past two years knows, is a tall order. But the forthcoming European election provides a unique opportunity to start a continent-wide campaign to press the politicians to change their minds.

Friday, 15 April 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 15 April 1994

This week's attacks by Nato bombers on Serb positions around the beseiged Bosnian government enclave of Gorazde are welcome. By using military force against the invading Serbian armies, the west has done what it should have been doing for two years, ever since the Serbs began their brutal campaign of territorial aggrandisement and ethnic cleansing against the recognised, democratic, multi-ethnic Bosnian state.

But this week's actions were not enough. The intention was not to defend the legitimate government of Bosnia against aggression: the reason that the bombers went in was simply that Gorazde had been declared a United Nations "safe area" and yet was about to fall to the Serbs, an outcome that would have demonstrated to the world (and might yet do so) that the UN's Bosnia policy is wholly inadequate to the task of resisting the creation of a fascist Greater Serbia by Slobodan Milosevic and his psycopathic Bosnian Serb puppets. And because the intervention was intended to save face rather than to confront the root problem, there is a real danger that the UN will cave in now that the Serbs have decided to cut up rough.

Whereas Nato's downing of four Serb war-planes at the end of February seemed to cow the aggressors, the latest action was denounced as "a joint Nato-Muslim assault" by the Bosnian Serbs, who have threatened to shoot down Nato aircraft if there are any more attacks. On Tuesday, dozens of UN personnel were held hostage or forcefully confined to their offices by Bosnian Serb soldiers. The Serbs have tightened their siege on the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, barring the UN from entering or leaving the city, and there are few signs that they are preparing to reduce their military activity elsewhere.

Already, there are signs of panic in the western establishment that it could be forced not only to take sides in what it has always described as a "civil war" among "warring factions" but also – horror of horrors – to take the side of the militarily weaker party in the conflict. David Owen, whose plans for the partition of Bosnia along ethnic lines gave such encouragement to Serb aggression, has dropped everything to go to flatter again his good friend Radovan Karadzic in the cause of peace at any price. British and French officials are reported to be "worried" by the prospects of escalation. And US President Bill Clinton – whose declaration earlier this month that ground troops would not be used to save Gorazde can only have prompted the Serbs to believe that nothing too serious would happen to them if they took the town – has warned the Bosnian government that it should not take advantage of the air raid to mount new offensives.

Given the west's history of prevarication and procrastination over Bosnia, it would be no surprise if the apparent toughening of the Serb position provokes a climbdown – particularly if Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose preservation is the number one US foreign policy priority, persuades Clinton that facing down the Serbs will inevitably lead, via an upsurge in pan-Slavic nationalism in Russia, to growing support for Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But there are sound reasons for calling the Serbs' bluff.

If the Serbs are appeased once again, the possibility of recreating a multi-ethnic, democratic, secular Bosnia with the borders recognised in 1992 – now a slim chance, it has to be admitted, but nevertheless still there – will disappear forever. What the Serbs want the west to believe is that the choice in Bosnia is between a negotiated partition, in which they give up a little of the land they have seized in return for "peace", and a continuing war in which they take more and more territory unless the west commits massive ground forces to the defence of Bosnia. Hence the bluster this week, with the suggestion that the Serbs will effectively declare war on the international community if it continues to resist Serb territorial aggrandisement and to refuse partition (at least on Serbian terms, if not in principle). If the west is bounced into suing for peace, partition, on terms favourable to the aggressors, is inevitable.

But there is an alternative. The Serbs are by no means as militarily strong as they would have us believe. Even though the Bosnian government has been denied arms by the idiotic UN embargo on "all sides", it has managed to survive the Serbian assault for two years. With the explicit support of the west – most importantly through the lifting of the arms embargo, but also, if the Bosnians request it, through intervention to defend a sovereign government against aggression – it is not inconceivable that the Bosnian government could force the Serbs on to the defensive, just as it forced the Zagreb-sponsored Bosnian Croat armies to retreat.

As everyone knows, the result of the Bosnian army's successes against the Croat insurgency was Zagreb's agreement (under US pressure) to accept a ceasefire and a multiethnic Bosnian federation. It is not hopelessly Utopian to suggest that the Serbs might knuckle under in precisely the same way. But for that to happen, western policy towards Bosnia needs to be changed, and changed fast. First, the west has to make it clear that it is indeed on the side of the Bosnian government, and that it will not accept ethnic partition of Bosnia or the creation of a greater Serbia. Then it has to back these principles with actions: removing from official positions David Owen and the rest of the gang of appeasers who have done such damage in the past two years, offering military support to the Bosnian government if it requests it, and, most important of all, dropping the embargo on arms sales to the Bosnian government.

In short, there is an opportunity today for the west to make amends for its shabby treatment of Bosnia in the first two years of its agony. It is, however, a last opportunity. If the appeasers' counsel is followed, it really will be too late.