08/12/2012 03:02 GMT | Updated 08/12/2012 03:11 GMT

Labour Must Stand Up Against Immigration Hate Speech, Says Hope Not Hate's Nick Lowles

With the rise of UKIP, and immigration reform back on the agenda, The Huffington Post UK meets Nick Lowles, director of anti-fascist campaigners Hope Not Hate, on one of the UK's most toxic political issues.

For a man who campaigns against extreme hate speech, Nick Lowles inspires a lot of it.

Online, he's called a communist, a censor of free speech, a Zionist, a Muslim apologist, and an Islamophobe, and his attackers range from BNP supporters to Islamists.

It's what can happen when you head an organisation such as Hope Not Hate, which targets extremism and hate speech.

Nick Lowles is the director of Hope Not Hate

Lowles is clear that his organisation cannot just speak out against the far right, but against any movement or individual who incites hatred, be they hate-preaching bishops or imans, or even mainstream politicians.

And he's had to learn to deal with the hate that comes back in his direction, from those he targets, including the British National Party, the English Defence League, Muslim extremists, and the far-left too.

"I've been doing it 20 years, I've grown myself a thick skin. No-one likes the criticism, from Nazis or from people on the left. But you get used to it.

"And, at the end of the day, you can't ignore it. You have to look at whether the criticisms are valid, but also have faith in your ideas."

Lowles, a former editor of Searchlight (he cut official ties with that anti-fascist organisation last year), founded Hope Not Hate in 2004, to organise communities against the rise in popularity of the BNP.

The group has grown fast, and won ardent celebrity backers like Lord Alan Sugar, Amir Khan, Dermot O'Leary and comedian Eddie Izzard.

Hope Not Hate campaigners in 2010, during the election in Barking and Dagenham

But the fight against extremism in 2012, Lowles says, is now changing focus. The BNP is close to total defeat, underlined by their performance in the Rotherham by-election a week ago.

"In Rotherham they got 8% of vote," Lowles said. "It should have been a strong area for them, they had councillors there in the past, Denis MacShane [the Labour MP for Rotherham] departed after a scandal.

"And of course they have been exploiting the grooming issue, the case which was so horrific in Rotherham.

"But there was so much media attention on UKIP. I think the BNP could have got 15% of the vote, but it's clear some voters switched to UKIP, they're seen as more likely alternative."

Members of the British National Party demonstrate against Radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada in front of the High Court

Lowles believes the BNP are in their "weakest position they've been in for many years, which is surprising given the economy and the continued distrust of mainstream parties. He says the BNP have not really recovered from 2010, when they raised the expectations of their supporters, and completely failed to deliver.

"Many of their newer supporters just dropped out.

"And then at the same time, you have the rise of the EDL, much more attractive to a lot of young people. Handing out leaflets, doing respectable election campaigning doesn't really appeal to them."

But the BNP cannot be ignored, and Hope Not Hate is gearing up to attempt to dislodge leader Nick Griffin in the 2014 MEP elections.

Lowles is worried that even though the BNP has lost support, the party's ideas and concerns still permeate many communities.

"The conditions that gave rise to them, are still there and getting worse.

"And we have to understand why people voted for the BNP, it was not just about racism or immigration. It was the anti-party politics movement.

"The longer we leave that vacuum, some is going to come back to fill it."

'Younger people have turned to the EDL, not the BNP'

The concern is that younger anti-immigration activists flock to the militant EDL, while mainstream parties, like UKIP and even the Conservatives, look to take on the anti-immigration mantle which attracted older, traditional voters of the BNP.

Lowles' answer is to lobby mainstream parties on the way they address immigration - and encourage progressive voices to take a stand.

"People see the "extremist" parties as value parties. My dad was a Labour party man, loyal, very active, an local organiser. And he said to me a few years ago "what does the Labour party stand for?"

"He had to go looking for the mission statement on the website. And for my dad to say that, it really hits you."

The rhetoric of the Conservative party, particularly in the wake of the challenge from UKIP, and the appointment of controversial right-wing, anti-immigration campaign advisor Lynton Crosby, has worried Hope Not Hate.

"Even in the last few days we have seen all sorts of really right-wing views on immigration coming out. And that poses a challenge for Labour.

"On the one hand they can move into the middle, move right-wing, and show voters they can also get tough on immigration.

"But I think demographics of voters in Britain are changing. That's what happened in the US, with Latino voters.

"A progressive alliance forced Obama to change his views on certain issues. He went in on a pretty conservative platform, he ended up announcing immigration reform, the DREAM act, a product of years of campaigning.

"That needs to happen to our politicians in Britain. We need to call them out on things like immigration, child detention, scare them a bit. They can't ignore these issues.

"But it feels like a daunting task to go on the offensive about immigration, against the negativity, to talk about the positives."

Ed Miliband 'must stand up to the negativity on immigration'

Hope Not Hate has come under attack from both left and right in the aftermath of the grooming scandals in the north of England, in Keighley, Rochdale and Rotherham.

It has been accused both of ignoring the issue, and, particularly by the Institute of Race Relations's executive director Liz Fekete, of not taking a hard enough line against the racial narrative in the press.

The group produced leaflets to combat the far-right's anti-Islam campaigning in the aftermath, which "clearly state that a minority of British Muslims are involved in grooming but it will stress that this is a tiny minority of Muslims and it is wrong to blame a whole community.

It is an issue the organisation has struggled with, but it shouldn't be so difficult, Lowles said.

"It's undeniable that a lot of those perpetrators come from the British Pakistani community, when it comes to street grooming by gangs. Does that tell us something about Islam or Pakistanis? No it does not.

"I strongly believe this is not about race.

"But the problem is, left unchallenged, these become real racial issues. There are eight or nine big trials concerning this pattern next year, each time there are going to be issues to be taken on."

Hope Not Hate also campaigns against Anjm Choudry's Islamic extremism

He encounters charges of hypocrisy regularly on doorsteps, which has made the organisation more determined to campaign on other areas of extreme hate.

"People say to us on doorstops, you campaign agains the English Defence League, but you don't say anything on Muslims. And we have to. In Tower Hamlets we have campaigned against Hizt-bu-Tahrir [widely perceived an an extreme Islamic movement].

"We have campaigned against Anjem Choudry [Islam4UK and Muslims Against Crusades], and imams are grateful to us that we do. We will be working with mosques in Luton on anti-extremism tactics.

"It seems complex but it shouldn't be. If someone preaches hate, we will stand up against it."