This week, National Front candidate Laurent Lopez won a hotly-contested local council by-election in the southern town of Brignoles, France. Analysts have said that the Front National win in Brignoles, whose mayor belongs to the Communist party, could be a significant barometer of the national mood. This comes amidst a recent poll in France that suggests that the National Front could top European Parliament elections in May 2014, pulling ahead of the two big mainstream parties for the first time.
France is grappling with record unemployment of more than three million, a huge budget deficit and slow economic growth. There are a variety of far right parties across Europe. There are a number of factors that unite these parties. First, the financial crisis and economic downturn and second a growing anti-immigration sentiment, that is partly linked to the economic downturn. Finally, the loss of faith in the mainstream parties and politicians to find solutions to these issues.
With this in mind, I have a growing concern that Europe could be sleepwalking into a far right agenda. There is no room for complacency from the Socialists in France or the UK Labour party if we are to keep the far right at bay at the local and European elections next year.
In my experience, we can fight the far right by showing that it brings false solutions and that Labour’s economic and social policies deliver results.
I worked closely alongside my MP Margaret Hodge in the 2010 local and national elections, where she triumphantly defeated Nick Griffin’s bid to become the MP for Barking and I successfully won my council seat from the London regional coordinator of the British National Party (BNP), Robert Bailey to become the youngest woman on the council.
Our victory over the far right started back in 2007, when I first moved to Barking. It was clear that things were at a low point, with 12 BNP councillors successfully elected the year before.
The local Labour party were looking for a new start and a way to reconnect with the residents. That reconnection started by developing local action teams in each ward, that would knock on doors each week, to find out the issues that residents were concerned about and take these issues up for resolution with the council. This then developed into things that as a team we could tangibly say we had done during the short election campaign, which demonstrated to local residents that we would deliver once in power.
It was far from plain sailing. We were racially abused by BNP members on various occasions during the campaign. This was distressing, but realising that I could rise above their ignorance helped me strive to work even harder for my local community.
Margaret Hodge and the local action teams worked hard to win back the trust of BNP voters who were previously Labour. We showed them that we were a party that cared all the time, not just during election campaigns. The fight against the far right is not just for the short haul; we now have a strong local campaign focus all year round.
Although the BNP have largely been defeated in the UK, as this week’s by-election in France suggests that the far right presence in Europe is increasing. Across the continent, far-right actors and their anti-politics cousins are regrouping. Although the Front National leader Marine Le Pen did not win a parliamentary seat her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen did, becoming the youngest member of the French parliament.
This could provide the ground swell the Front National is waiting for. Their base is increasing from a new generation of voters but it should be the Socialist parties that are the natural home for young people, with pragmatic solutions to tackle youth unemployment such as the European Union youth guarantee (a similar concept to the future jobs fund, which the Tory led government scrapped).
While the rise in right-wing parties is concerning, my experience on the doorsteps of Barking has taught me that people recognise the dangers posed by nationalism and populism and possess the wisdom to stand up to them.
But it will take conscious efforts to build on the open, tolerant and progressive society that we have. Instead of sleepwalking into a far right agenda, it’s time for us to wake up.