The myth of a far-right surge
The BNP won seats not because support for it has exploded, but because of the demise of the mainstream parties.
‘I think it’s a terrible thing that we’ve now got representing Britain in the European Parliament a party that is a racist party, a party that doesn’t believe black people should even be allowed to join this party.’
Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, was reflecting the sentiment of all the major parties at the news that the British National Party (BNP) had won its first ever seats in a Euro-election poll – one in the north-west region of England and one in Yorkshire and Humber. But while the political elite and the media get their collective knickers in a twist, it is worth noting that the BNP still has very little support and isn’t even the main beneficiary of a widespread protest vote against the big parties.
The BNP was formed in 1982 by the union of two other far-right fragments, the New National Front and the British Movement, and was initially led by a former National Front (NF) chairman, John Tyndall. In the late 1970s, the NF had caused a frisson of anxiety by doing moderately well in a handful of electoral seats and by organising a number of high-profile demonstrations. However, the NF quickly disintegrated and the far-right made no impact again on political life for over a decade, until Derek Beackon won a council by-election for the BNP in the London district of Millwall in September 1993. However, this still didn’t mark a breakthrough for the party, with Beackon losing the seat the following year.
The BNP popped up again in the north-west English town of Burnley in 2002, winning three seats on the council; since then it has been able to win a tiny trickle of seats around the country. In 2008, the BBC estimated it had 56 councillors; it won three more seats in the local elections last Thursday. That still leaves it with only a quarter of one per cent of all councillors in the UK. For all the coverage the BNP has received, it is still far from popular.
There is no doubt that the BNP is an appalling anti-immigrant party. Its website declares: ‘On current demographic trends, we, the native British people, will be an ethnic minority in our own country within 60 years. To ensure that this does not happen, and that the British people retain their homeland and identity, we call for an immediate halt to all further immigration, the immediate deportation of criminal and illegal immigrants, and the introduction of a system of voluntary resettlement whereby those immigrants who are legally here will be afforded the opportunity to return to their lands of ethnic origin assisted by a generous financial incentives both for individuals and for the countries in question.’
Its European election manifesto, however, strongly emphasised how the BNP would withdraw Britain from the European Union (EU) while avoiding the kind of dubious behaviour – widely seen as corruption – which has characterised the MPs expenses scandal. The manifesto promised to ‘expose and oppose’ EU corruption and waste and ‘maintain the highest standards of probity and integrity’ – an opportunistic attempt to feed off the resentment towards the established parties in Westminster.
Indeed, the BNP has gained ground by feeding on resentment in two ways: firstly, by portraying itself as representing a put-upon ‘indigenous community’ of whites, on a par with organisations that have a solely ethnic minority membership, and taking advantage of the divisive language of multiculturalism; secondly, by appealing to the disconnection between voters and the political elite.
The feeling that the political elites aren’t listening is very widespread, and the BNP is just one of a number of parties that have gained because of this mood. Yet it is the party least capable of taking advantage of this feeling of disgruntlement. The party’s views on immigration and a variety of other issues are simply not that popular with the majority of the electorate. So instead, anger at the state of British politics has floated round a variety of smaller parties. Usually, the Liberal Democrats are the main beneficiaries, as they showed in the local council elections where they won 28 per cent of the vote, pushing Labour into an ignominious third place with 23 per cent.
However, the European elections have demonstrated how little loyalty such votes represent. The Lib Dems were fourth and it was the UK Independence Party (UKIP) that came second with 17 per cent – despite UKIP’s own well-publicised problems with allegations of corruption. Even this doesn’t capture the full spread of the protest vote, however. The Greens, too, increased their vote from 6.3 per cent in 2004 to 8.6 per cent in 2009.
The BNP’s share of the Euro-vote is certainly up – but not by much, from 4.9 per cent in 2004 to 6.2 per cent in 2009. In this election, everything was reportedly in the BNP’s favour: a recession, a political crisis, a voting system that favours smaller parties, an election that is routinely used to deliver protest votes because it is not taken seriously, and the kudos of being the one vote that was sure to get up the noses of the political establishment. Yet the BNP still barely registers in British political life except as a bogeyman to be employed by the big parties to scare us down to the polling booths. In fact, the number of votes the BNP received actually fell in the two regions where it won seats compared with the 2004 Euro elections: by almost 3,000 votes in the north-west and by around 6,000 in Yorkshire and Humber. It was the collapse of the Labour vote that allowed the BNP to win seats.
While there is little to suggest that the BNP can make a major impact on political life more generally, the fact that such a pariah party can have any success at all is indicative of the increasing isolation of the mainstream parties. As the Conservative shadow defence spokesman Liam Fox put it, ‘all politicians should be asking themselves “How did we allow this to happen?”’. The answer is that all the mainstream parties can offer is a managerial approach to solving society’s problems. There is so little difference of principle between them that they spend an inordinate amount of time jockeying for position in the febrile atmosphere of the ‘Westminster Village’ in an effort to differentiate themselves. It is no surprise that voters have chosen to give the political elite a kicking at the ballot box, if they could summon up enough enthusiasm to vote at all.
It is this loss of legitimacy – not the highly unlikely prospect of neo-fascist electoral success – which is central to the handwringing. The only way that Nick Griffin and friends will gain more support is if bankrupt mainstream politicians continue to have nothing more to offer than ‘at least we’re not the BNP’.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.