30 October, 2009 — The Morning Star Online
Sometimes in politics what is absent is more revealing than what is present
Negative space is a concept that artists are more familiar with than either politicians or the BBC. This is the space between objects that helps to define the objects themselves. Often what is absent is far more intriguing and revealing that what is present.
This is the notion that has stayed with me long after the BBC’s inclusion of British National Party leader Nick Griffin on its Question Time panel.
The law and not the BBC will ultimately decide whether the BNP is a legitimate political party or not.
The recent court ruling that its constitution is racist will test whether the party’s desire for a platform will override its more visceral appeal to ignorance and prejudice.
What the BBC decided, however, was that the BNP was both legitimate and significant.
It did so on the basis that the BNP had won two seats in the European Parliament and, as such, could not be ignored.
I will come back to the BNP “victories” in a moment but would just point out here that the left-wing of the Labour Party regularly wins 25-50 seats in British parliamentary elections but never appears to pass the BBC’s “legitimate and significant” test for Question Time panelists.
To be fair to the BBC, I have been invited to appear on Question Time on five occasions since entering Parliament 17 years ago.
To be fair to myself, I would add that on each occasion the BBC has stood me down before the event on the grounds that the Labour Party had objected.
New Labour was only to be represented by new Labour. Dissenting voices were to be ignored.
And the BBC concurred.
It never occurred to the BBC that this lack of balance – the absence of a left alternative from within the political system – was to provide the negative space around which the BBC would ultimately embrace the ultraright.
The same perspective should be applied to the BNP “victories” and the conduct of Question Time itself.
The BNP vote did not go up in the Euro elections. Voters simply turned their backs on mainstream parties and stayed at home.
The BNP became the negative space that defined the failings of the rest of us.
For new Labour, it nailed the lie that the party’s rightward march did not have to think about its core voters – “they had nowhere to go.”
This is precisely what they did – went nowhere, stayed at home, watched telly.
Those who did vote for the BNP, however, are more disproportionately drawn from disgruntled Labour backgrounds.
Griffin has become Labour’s negative space. He occupies the political ground that Labour has abandoned and fills it with a different emptiness.
Of course Labour has built schools and hospitals on a scale the Tories had turned their backs on.
But in doing so, we have transferred assets from public to private hands, saddled the public sector with long-term debts to the private sector, moved from universal rights to divisive means-testing, turned citizens into customers – if you can pay – and widened the divide between the rich and the rest.
This is the disquiet the BNP dances in. What we find to despise in Griffin is also the contour that connects him with ourselves. Which brings me to the Question Time programme itself.
An indignant pursuit of the question about Holocaust denial doesn’t take you far into serious politics. Better just to consign this to the category in which you put flat-Earthers and those who believe the Earth was formed 6,000 years ago.
Ridicule if you can be bothered, ignore if you can’t, but do not get drawn into the trap of giving credence to someone else’s confusion.
Why wasn’t Griffin pursued on the “new” issues of big-picture politics? What did he want out of the Copenhagen climate conference?
If the climate can only be stabilised at 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and we are already at 385ppm – how would the BNP get us there?
If global scientists are telling us that the whole shape of this century will be defined by what we do in the next three years, what exactly is Old Nick’s plan?
If the Beeb considered this would have been too much like roughhousing, it could have picked questions that gave Griffin an easier way in.
What was his line on the melting of the ice caps or the plight of the polar bear?
The BNP might be expected to have a sympathetic line on either of these. After all, both are largely white and definitely “indigenous.”
Griffin might even have managed a little rant about the purity of the icebergs being consumed by the darkness of the sea.
It is on the big issues that Griffin and his ramshackle tribe of followers best come across as complete asses.
This, however, was the space the BBC chose to vacate.
Only in their absence do we get to see the importance of challenging the consumer society that will consume itself to death, the duplicitous record of global summits where, in truth, failure might be our best hope of success or the ability of existing market rules to take us anywhere than into oblivion.
I know that the BNP cannot be analysed out of existence, any more than the BBC and political parties can be analysed into an urgent transformation of society itself.
From experience, I know you have to fight the BNP on the streets if the streets are to remain safe and open.
But the foot soldiers of the BNP are our children, stripped of hope, security and a belief that they are part of the answer rather than the blame.
This battle will not be won on the streets. It will be won when the space that surrounds political debate defines us as relevant to the most turbulent of challenges we have ever known.
Do this and the BNP becomes irrelevant. Griffin will not even be asked to make the tea.
Alan Simpson is Labour MP for Nottingham South.