SSLH Blog - SSLH Research Bursary Report: Thomas Ottley (Edge Hill) visits the 'Searchlight' archive at Northampton University

The bursary from the Society for the Study of Labour History allowed me to complete research for my dissertation project that I am undertaking at Edge Hill University. My dissertation assesses how the National Front sought to sell their ideology to difference audiences, with a particular focus on working-class votes. Specifically, it examines how the party used Spearhead (the National Front’s mouthpiece journal) to build upon insecurities within the working class, such as the fear of perceived competition from immigrants for housing, healthcare and jobs. The National Front attempted to take the votes of traditional Labour voters who became disengaged with the Labour party because of their stance on immigration from the Commonwealth.

I travelled to the Searchlight archive held at Northampton University. This archive holds a major collection of material relating to the activities of British and international fascist and racist organisations. Spearhead provides a crucial insight into how the National Front’s ideology was articulated for a wide audience, specifically allowing me to research how the National Front appealed to working-class voters. The Searchlight Archives holds an extensive range of Spearhead from 1964 when the journal was first created by John Tyndall. The Archive’s collection also includes every edition of Spearhead in the period from 1975 to 1979 which is the time period of my dissertation.

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Research published by Martin Harrop discovered that around 6% of the British electorate had the potential to vote for the National Front, specifically finding that these potential voters came from mainly urban areas and were typically manual workers. My dissertation focuses on how the National Front attempted to use Spearhead to win these voters. My research also considers how the party spread their ideas much wider in an attempt to gain the support of disillusioned Labour voters. For example, the National Front encouraged readers to pass Spearhead on to increase its circulation. It also encouraged readers to write to local and national newspapers to further legitimise the party. The 85th edition of Spearhead contained a double paged feature titled ‘Use the Press’ which included letters written to local newspapers that were then published by Spearhead. These letters to local newspapers often carry the rhetoric that the National Front portrayed. For example, one letter titled ‘Ugly scene in capital’ discusses how recent riots in London could spread to provincial towns. However, the National Front was legitimised without the need for activists writing letters to newspapers as often national newspapers carried stories that legitimised the party’s anti-Immigration rhetoric. My research looks at the extent to which this pushed more urban working-class voters to the National Front. Despite the party’s use of the national press to legitimise itself, movements such as the Anti-Nazi League worked to counter the growth of the National Front in urban areas. Likewise, Labour councils worked against the National Front through a method now known as “no-platforming” where the National Front were refused access to meeting halls.

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The research I completed at the Searchlight archive allowed me to build upon the literature focusing on the National Front to understand not just their ideological stand points, which have been well covered in secondary reading, but how the party took their ideology and attempted to package their racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. I found that the party packaged their ideology through a combination of academic discourse and then emotional rhetoric that targeted the insecurities within the working class about changes that were taking place in Britain. I discovered that they focused on stories that appeared in areas with high numbers of immigrants and retold these stories in an alarming fashion in order to scare those readers (and potential voters) living outside these areas that adverse and irreversible changes were taking place in British society.

Thomas Ottley