Why banning the BNP is bad for democracy

We might never know exactly why some voters in Oldham supported the BNP - because the whole affair has been a debate-free zone.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

One of the few results of the general election that took people by surprise was the ‘record vote’ for the British National Party (BNP). In Oldham West and Royton, BNP leader Nick Griffin won 6552 votes (16.4 percent), pushing the Liberal Democrats into fourth place; while in Oldham East and Saddleworth, BNP candidate and ‘local taxi driver’ Mick Treacy won 5091 votes, almost 11 percent of the total vote.

According to political analyst Anthony King, this was ‘the highest vote for any such party in a decade’ (1). And according to the BBC, political observers were ‘stunned when the BNP took more than 11,000 votes across the two Oldham constituencies, the scene of recent race riots’ (2).

The support for the BNP is unlikely to have been the result of the BNP’s politics or the odious Nick Griffin’s charisma. Its increased support was a product of the recent events in Oldham. The authorities argue that the BNP and its marches gave rise to the riots and disturbances in Oldham, but in fact it was more the other way round: the BNP benefited from the media circus surrounding the riots, as its support at the polls demonstrated.

In recent weeks, Oldham has been depicted by the media as a hotbed of racism, where whites hate Asians and Asians hate whites – the ‘capital of racial tension’, according to the Observer (3). And as the managing editor of the Oldham Evening Chronicle pointed out, ‘Being seen as the race-hate capital of the north of England doesn’t help’ (4).

With the media referring to Oldham as a racist hell-hole and the Greater Manchester Police on the lookout for racially motivated crimes (even those not reported as such), it is not surprising that ‘racial tensions’ show no sign of subsiding. When every issue and incident is seen through the prism of race, it is hardly a shock that some people start to see their problems in racial terms – and it is this that created the environment where the BNP could win some votes. Some political observers might have been ‘stunned’ by the BNP’s support – but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the BNP is merely benefiting from the racialisation of events in Oldham.

But the idea that we are witnessing a ‘rise in neo-Nazism’ is nonsense. Scratch the surface, and it turns out that the kind of people who voted BNP are those who might normally have voted Labour. It is unlikely that the votes were cast for the idiot manifesto of the BNP, but were more of a two fingers up to the mainstream parties – not so much pro-BNP, as anti everybody else. But we might never know exactly why some voters in Oldham supported the BNP – because the whole affair has been a debate-free zone.

On polling night, as the results were coming in, Oldham council was keen to ban the BNP from speaking from the platform – but didn’t want to be seen to be singling out one political group. Its solution? To ban all candidates – even the New Labour winners – from giving a speech. Justified as an attempt to stop the BNP from ‘inciting further racial tensions’, the candidates were told to just listen to the results, keep quiet, and then ‘head away from the venue’ – on the night they had won the support of Oldham’s voters.

When the BNP candidates turned up wearing gags to protest at the ban, they were ridiculed by some for trying to turn this ‘practical measure’ to limit racial tension into a free speech issue. But what was really depressing was that, as everybody else remained silent, it was left to the likes of BNP social inadequates to pose as the defenders of free speech.

Throughout the election campaign open debate was stifled in the name of sidelining extremists like the BNP. BBC Online, for example, referred to all of the parties’ manifestos – except for the BNP’s. The website ran articles on minority groups like the UK Independence Party, the Greens, the Socialist Alliance, and even the Natural Law Party (‘Where are they now, and why aren’t they standing?’), but it avoided the BNP – presumably, as has been the case in previous attempts to ban BNP election broadcasts and propaganda, to protect its readers and the electorate from unsavoury and ‘inflammatory’ views.

And prior to the election, MPs were lining up to sign the Commission for Racial Equality’s compact to keep race out of the election campaign – an attempt to clamp down on debate before the debates had even started (5).

But what does it say about the electorate when there’s an assumption that we need to be kept safe from nasty opinions and words? It seems to be accepted that voters cannot handle politics – and especially cannot handle anything too offensive, in case we get suckered into supporting it. So certain views are kept under wraps, and politicians, whatever their party, can be clamped down on whenever necessary.

So much for democracy being about weighing up ideas, making a choice, and deciding who should represent your views.

In the 1980s, the Northern Ireland broadcasting ban was ridiculed, for allowing us to hear republican politicians’ words but not their actual voices. Now it seems the authorities can shut politicians up whenever they like, by raising the spectre of the BNP and its ‘outbursts’.

Michael Meacher, the New Labour candidate who held on to the Oldham West and Royton seat, has called for an inquiry into why the BNP ‘won so many votes’ and what can be done about racial tensions in Oldham. ‘Something has gone wrong in Oldham’, says Meacher, ‘and we need to find out what, so that we can work out a solution’.

But if the pre-election clampdown on all discussion of race and the election-night bans are anything to go by, it looks like the last thing we’ll get is an open debate about what is really happening in Oldham. Instead we can expect Oldham to become something of a laboratory for the race industry and New Labour’s anti-racist initiatives. No doubt this will do wonders for Oldham’s community relations.

This isn’t a debate – and it certainly isn’t democracy.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume

Ban first, speak later, by Josie Appleton

Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O’Neill

Oldham: unasked questions, by Brendan O’Neill

Same Oldham story?, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Free speech

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Election night in quotes, BBC Online, 8 June 2001

(2) Labour romps home again, BBC Online, 8 June 2001

(3) Oldham, capital of racial tension, Observer, 10 June 2001

(4) See Same Oldham story?, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) See Cook plays the curry card, by Mick Hume

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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