Oldham election disaster – where next?
Woolas’s leaflets – and remember these were Labour leaflets issued by the man who was then immigration minister, not BNP or National Front leaflets – included the following statements:
- “Extremists are trying to hijack this election. They want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil for being strong on immigration. The Lib Dems plan to give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay. It is up to you. Do you want the extremists to win?”
- “Exposed: Shady Mosque deal in Oldham Election Planning Scam”
- “Straight talking Woolas too fair for militant Muslims”
- “Leaflets from Muslim Militants are doing the rounds in Asian areas calling Woolas supporters ‘Chamcha’, a significant insult that means ‘Bum kisser’.”
- “Phil has toughened up the immigration system since he became Minister and clearly some groups don’t like that.”
Private emails from Labour agent Joe Fitzpatrick to fellow campaign officials had expanded on Labour’s intention to exploit local racial issues:
- “I think we need to go strong on the militant Moslem angle and explain to our community what is happening.”
- “Tory voters are talking of voting Lib Dem. …If we can convince them that they are being used by the Moslems it may save him [Woolas].”
- “We need to do an article …to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him out.”
- “[Conservative candidate] Kasif asking for support as a Muslim is very strong and [Lib Dem Councillor] Musud has stitched up his clan and the Bengalis. If we don’t get the white folk angry he’s gone.”
- “All the work he [Woolas] has done in the Asian community will count for nothing. They are going to vote on religious ground and they don’t care that they will lose a good man. The Tories will not vote for an Asian but will vote against Gordon Brown and the Labour Party. I believe that every white member of the community that reads the paper [the Labour newsletter playing the race card] and learns what is happening will vote for Phil and will tell his mates to read the paper.”
- “The issue is not that the extremist campaign itself is effective or not but whether we can use the campaign to galvinise [sic] the white Sun-reading voters.”
Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins, who worked as personal assistant to Saudi Sheikh Abdullah Ali Alhamrani, took Woolas and Fitzpatrick to an election court – the first time such an action had been taken for “lies” about a rival candidate since 1911!
After the court ruled against Woolas the Labour Party dissociated itself from his anti-Muslim campaign and selected left-winger Debbie Abrahams as the new by-election candidate. Ms Abrahams could hardly be accused of racism since she is married to Lancashire cricket captain John Abrahams, part of a dynasty of South African Coloured cricketers. (Forty years ago her late father-in-law Cec Abrahams was a professional cricketer for Oldham Cricket Club, which is in the Derker area of the Oldham East constituency.) Many nationalists have incorrectly assumed that Ms Abrahams is Jewish because of her surname, but in fact her husband’s family are part of the long-established mixed race “Coloured” community in the Cape region of South Africa (originally immigrant labourers from Indonesia).
The racial polarisation of the Oldham East & Saddleworth constituency was evident in Labour’s candidate selection process. Alongside Ms Abrahams the shortlist comprised two Asian former Mayors of Oldham – Cllr Abdul Jabbar and Riaz Ahmed – representing the towns two main non-white ethnic varieties, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
Cllr Jabbar was the first Bangladeshi to serve as Mayor of an English town, but one of the lesser known facts about racial politics in Oldham is the deep hostility between Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Jabbar’s council ward (Coldhurst) is in the neighbouring Oldham West & Royton constituency and is the most Bangladeshi ward in the country, outside Tower Hamlets. In Oldham East they are heavily outnumbered by Pakistanis, though far more Bangladeshis are Labour Party members. Several Pakistanis refused to back Jabbar as a second preference, handing the nomination to Abrahams.
The constituency is less than 15% Asian, with virtually no blacks or other ethnic minorities. Asians are heavily concentrated in the notorious Glodwick ghetto, mostly in St Mary’s ward, but spilling over into Alexandra. Some of England’s poorest white working class areas are the Alt, Holts and Fitton Hill estates (in Alexandra) and the Sholver estate and Derker terraces, many now boarded up and awaiting demolition, in St James’s. By contrast the Saddleworth area is a cluster of prosperous villages in the Pennine foothills.
Oldham was the centre of the industrial powerhouse which in the 19th century made Britain master of the greatest empire the world has ever seen. In 1871 there were more cotton spindles operating in this single town than in any entire country in the world apart from the USA, while as late as 1909 Oldham still produced more cotton than the whole of France and Germany combined. The Oldham firm of Platt Brothers was the largest manufacturer of textile machinery in the world. During World War II Avro built the RAF’s Lancaster bombers, and after the war Ferrantis pioneered the British computer industry.
The catastrophe of that 1939-45 war sealed the fate of the British Empire and condemned Oldham’s industry to inexorable decline. While there had once been more than 360 cotton mills in the town, operating 24 hours a day, a steep decline began in the late 1920s and accelerated in the 1950s. Platt Brothers closed in 1982, by which time most of the cotton mills had gone – the last of them closed in 1998. In an effort to extract the last pounds of profit from a dying industry, Oldham’s mill owners had encouraged Asian immigration into the town during the 1950s and ’60s, but the demand for Asian workers barely lasted a single generation.
Typical of Oldham’s demographic change is Glodwick. When legendary British fascist William Joyce briefly lived in Glodwick during the early 1920s it was an Irish ghetto. In the immediate postwar years it housed large number of West Indians, but by the turn of the millennium almost all of these had been replaced by Asians. Entire streets – in fact entire polling districts on the St Mary’s ward electoral register – contain nothing but Asian names.
The disappearance of Oldham’s manufacturing industry had very different consequences for the different sections of the constituency. In Saddleworth former cotton mills have been converted into luxury flats or arts centres, and the former homes of mill workers are now occupied by wealthy commuters. Meanwhile on the Sholver estate and the Pakistani terraces of Glodwick the only thriving local industry is the drug trade, which has led to a spate of shootings in recent years.
Simmering racial tension boiled over at the turn of the millennium. During 2000 Oldham police logged more than 600 “racist” crimes, with whites the victims in around 60% of cases. Many of these involved attacks on white victims by gangs of Asian youths, and the problem finally began to receive widespread media attention after the brutal beating of 76-year-old Oldhamer Walter Chamberlain by Asian muggers.
Oldham BNP had fought its first election campaign in 2000 and made worldwide headlines a year later. During the last weekend of May 2001 five hundred Asian youths fought running battles with police, hurling petrol bombs and bricks. The office of the local newspaper, the Oldham Evening Chronicle, was petrol bombed and ransacked. More than a hundred people were injured and damage to property ran into millions of pounds.
Less than a fortnight after the riots Oldham (and the rest of Britain) went to the polls for the 2001 general election. BNP leader Nick Griffin beat the Liberal Democrats into fourth place in Oldham West and Royton, securing 6,552 votes (16.4%), while Oldham’s branch organiser Mick Treacy achieved arguably an even better result in Oldham East & Saddleworth with 5,091 votes (11.2%).
The only relief for the political establishment was that Oldham had no local elections in 2001, but May 2002 saw Oldham on the frontline of racial nationalist advance. Of the five wards contested across the borough, the party finished runner-up in four (and a good third in the other), with an average vote of 27%. Roy Goodwin in St James’s ward polled 929 votes (35.0%), just 91 behind the Liberal Democrat winner and well ahead of Labour and the Conservatives.
Unfortunately (but typically) Nick Griffin cared more about his personal factional position than the BNP’s interests, still less the broader nationalist cause or the interests of Oldhamers. In July 2002 he ruthlessly purged the present author, who had been a prominent Oldham activist and key election campaigner.
The consequent splits and demoralisation devastated Oldham BNP. Mick Treacy bravely battled on, and in 2003 briefly had the assistance of able student activist Tony Wentworth, but the party was never again to reach the heights of 2002. Within twelve months the Liberal Democrats trebled their majority over Roy Goodwin in St James’s, while Tony Wentworth was crushed by almost 600 votes in Alexandra.
A crippled branch was humiliated at the 2005 election. Mick Treacy lost his deposit in Oldham East & Saddleworth and began to withdraw from active politics, while new branch organiser Anita Corbett managed only 6.9% in Oldham West & Royton. Both results were less than half their 2001 equivalents. By 2007 the BNP vote in St James’s had fallen to 17.5%, exactly half the achievement five years earlier.
In May 2010 there was barely any sign of a BNP campaign in Oldham, despite the free gift of Asian Conservative candidates in both constituencies. Alwyn Stott was the lone council candidate, polling 9.4% in Crompton, and contested Oldham East & Saddleworth with a single, minimal leaflet and no canvassing. The fact that even so he (just) retained his deposit with 2,546 votes (5.7%) was a mere relic of past glories, boosted by the unwillingness of many white Conservatives to vote for their “local” candidate Kashif Ali, a barrister who works pro bono for illegal immigrants!
Despite the nationwide collapse of the BNP during recent months, many observers assumed that the party had already hit rock bottom in Oldham and could only improve. Little did anyone imagine that the BNP could lose a further thousand votes, lose their deposit, and lose to UKIP. In 2001 the BNP vote here was more than nine times the UKIP vote – but in 2011 UKIP were 500 votes ahead of the BNP.
Long suffering BNP members and donors were treated to a YouTube video of Nick Griffin’s daughter Jenny Matthys interviewing BNP activists on polling day, all of whom seemed to think the campaign had gone marvellously well. The only trouble was – none of them were from Oldham! Supporters had been bused in from London, Bedfordshire, Merseyside, Yorkshire and Durham. National election organiser (and Oldham by-election agent) Clive Jefferson was desperate to give an impression of efficiency, but has proved himself the most clueless strategist in nationalist history.
Griffin and Jefferson had managed to alienate even Oldham BNP veterans Jock Shearer and Alwyn Stott, neither of whom took any part in the campaign. The final straw followed Griffin’s farcical dithering over whether to contest the by-election himself. In early December he announced that he would be the candidate, only to withdraw after it became clear that the campaign would be compressed into three weeks over the Christmas and New Year holidays, offering minimal fundraising opportunities. (Fund raisng has of course in Griffin’s mind become the sole purpose of political activity.)
After Griffin’s withdrawal the Oldham branch, seeing an opportunity to reunite at least some of the fragmented local nationalist forces, decided that popular Royton nationalist Anita Corbett should be their by-election candidate. Anita had quit the BNP several years earlier and her last electoral outing had been as an Independent, despite having at various times been a member of the National Front and the Democratic Nationalists. Yorkshire MEP Andrew Brons encouraged her to rejoin the BNP and visited Oldham with his parliamentary aide Chris Beverley to assist what he (and the Oldham branch) assumed would be a Corbett campaign.
Clive Jefferson and Nick Griffin had other ideas, as ever placing faction above party. They insisted that the candidate would have to be a slavish Griffinite stooge. Step forward Derek Adams, the stooge from central casting, a politically inept former pub landlord from Manchester. Having selected the comically clueless Adams, the party might have done best to shield him from press and public attention. Instead Jefferson threw him into the harshest possible spotlight on the Sunday before polling day with a publicity stunt that went disastrously wrong at a hustings in the upmarket village of Delph.
Oldham nationalists must now be tempted to give up in despair, but the discrediting of the Liberal Democrats offers some potential for a nationalist revival. The first precondition for such a revival is the removal of Nick Griffin and the rallying of nationalist forces under a new leader. Griffin’s fellow MEP Andrew Brons is probably best placed to carry out this urgent unifying task, at least as a caretaker. Within weeks moves to draft Brons as Griffin’s replacement may already have been advanced.
The decision by the English Democrats to contest this by-election at less than a month’s notice, having never before appeared on an Oldham ballot paper, proved ill-advised. It was simply not possible to get across the party’s policies in such a short campaign, which was inevitably dominated by the major parties. While the BNP and UKIP already had clearly defined identities in the minds of most Oldham voters, the EDs did not, and despite a brave effort from an able candidate, Steve Morris, they paid a heavy price for this strategic error, polling only 144 votes (0.4%).
The sad truth is that there was no political space for the EDs to get across their message. This was why both the England First Party and the National Front (which at different times in the last decade have contested Oldham elections) decided not to get involved in this by-election.
We all have to face the fact that Labour is temporarily winning back the support of most English working class families, due to concern over the impact of government spending cuts and the blatant dishonesty of the Liberal Democrats. The fact that Labour itself is a deeply dishonest party – committed to agendas alien to English interests – is for the time being obscured in the rhetorical fog.
That is why nationalist parties must (in the short term) choose their battlegrounds carefully. The England First Party continues to target several areas that will see major campaigns at this year’s local elections, while working with nationalists from other parties to develop a longer term strategy for the post-Griffin era.
We can leave Debbie Abrahams and the ideologically bankrupt Labour Party to enjoy their by-election victory. We remain confident that an English party defending England’s heritage and destiny will claim a greater victory before long.