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Explaining the Success of the British National Party (BNP) between 1999 and 2003

The May 2003 council elections were a breakthrough for the British National Party. Thirteen new BNP candidates were elected, seven in Burnley, two in Sandwell, one in each of Dudley, Calderdale, Stoke and Broxbourne. BNP leader Nick Griffin secured 993 votes in Oldham Chadderton North, although without winning the seat. Around ten thousand people voted for the British National Party in Sunderland. Another BNP splinter, the Freedom Party, won a seat on South Staffordshire District Council, with 641 votes. The results were a consolidation of BNP gains going back to the 2002 elections.

Between May 2002 and January 2003 they won five seats, three in Burnley, one in Burnley and one in Halifax. We are in danger of witnessing a pattern previously seen in France in the mid-1980s. Then Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National used the publicity surrounding local electoral gains to establish a national party, with electoral credibility and widespread roots.

The shocking thing has been the speed with which the BNP has made these gains. Had the leaders of Britain's fascists been asked to gauge their own progress, even as recently as spring of 1999, they would have had to admit an embarrassing failure. The leadership of their party was old and out of touch. Its total claimed membership stood at around 1500, with less than 200 people attending meetings. The party was embarrassed by its failure to achieve any gains, following its previous success, Derek Beackon's victory at Tower Hamlets in September 1993. This success was then frittered away, and Beackon lost his seat one year later (although his vote rose - from 1,480 votes to 2,041). By 1999, the BNP was publicly identified as extremist, far-right or 'Nazi', with many journalists using the latter term. The Daily Mirror's report that convicted London nail-bomber David Copeland had acted as a guard to party leader John Tyndall, only reinforced this message.

Four years ago, the context was also different. Labour was still popular, and Tony Blair's approval ratings were high. 'Race' was seen as an unimportant subject by the press, and one unworthy of sustained comment. In so far as it was discussed, the most important story was the defensiveness of the British state. The public enquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and the police's inadequate handling of the case resulted in the Macpherson report. This document argued that the Metropolitan Police had been guilty of 'institutional racism'. Macpherson called for an end to intrusive, racist policing. The alleged killers of Stephen Lawrence were shown on news programmes, acting out the murder, to widespread disgust. Many anti-racists felt that their arguments had been won.

Over the subsequent four years, the BNP has transformed its image. A new leadership was elected. New leader Nick Griffin appeared on high-profile media slots. In October 1999 he told one journalist of his plans to rejuvenate the British National Party and predicted 'you'll see BNP councillors established in local areas within five years'. Under his leadership, the party's fortunes have indeed improved. Membership has doubled and candidates have been elected. The success of the BNP has alarmed many commentators. In February 2003, the Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens warned that 'In the Pennine towns where race riots are a recent memory, and tension is still high, Labour now sees the BNP as a bigger adversary than the Conservatives ... It is a measure of the profoundly dismal state of British politics that such a party exists or that any decent person should feel able to vote for it.' This article examines the factors behind the BNP's electoral breakthrough. It argues that the BNP has not changed in character, or even much in style. The most important sources of its success have been external. The press, the police and the government have provided the BNP with the chances to grow.

Nick Griffin and the question of leadership

We should start by discarding the most obvious counter-explanation for the British National Party's success, that all the party needed to do was to liberate itself from the hold of an incompetent, extremist leadership. This is a key argument accepted by wide sections of the press. In the words of one BBC report, 'Just as you could once distinguish a Conservative MP from a Labourite, by the three-piece pin-striped suit versus the brown anorak, so it was easy to identify a far-right activist - jackboots, tattoos and a skinhead haircut. But the far right in Britain today, or at least some elements of it, have become altogether less visible'. Although this impression contains important elements of the truth, its logic is unhelpful. For if the main explanation of the BNP's recent success is simply their own conduct, then it would follow that the British National Party's future lies entirely in its own hands. While changes in the BNP's image have made it easier for the party to appear moderate or 'normal', anti-fascists should insist that the substance beneath remains the same.

Nick Griffin today poses as the guru of BNP modernisation, yet as the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight has argued, Griffin is even an intra-party opportunist. When a small group of BNP members, including the convicted bomb-maker Tony Lecomber, started to argue for this politics, Griffin opposed them, and only switched sides when he saw that Tyndall was on the way out. One of Nick Griffin's far-right critics wrote in autumn 1999, 'He has been a conservative, a revolutionary nationalist, a radical National Socialist, a Third Positionist, a friend of "boot boys" and the skinhead scene, a man committed to respectable politics and electioneering, a "moderniser".' Which was he in reality? Perhaps he has been all of these quite sincerely - in which case his judgement is abysmal; or perhaps he has been none of them sincerely - which speaks for itself.' As recently as 1998, Nick Griffin was convicted of inciting racial hatred, and received a two year suspended sentence for publishing anti-Semitic literature. At far-right gatherings, Griffin has insisted that his party is still 'National Socialist'; it just puts across its message differently.

Since taking over the leadership in autumn 1999, Nick Griffin has indeed re-modelled his party along the line of the Front National, copying its language, and establishing a party magazine Identity, along the lines of the French Indentité. Policy has changed, and the previous line that all black migrants to Britain - even their grandchildren - would be expelled, has been dropped, although Griffin continues to call in public for an 'all-white Britain'. The BNP has established a routine of meetings, a monthly speaker event, with informal discussions in between. A network of paid regional organisers has been appointed. The party has centralised electoral technique, running campaigns around a hard-core of full-time organisers. Several journalists have suggested that the quality of British National Party's leadership has been decisive in enabling its breakthrough. This is also - of course - the BNP's perspective on recent events. We can cite Peter Hitchens, again:

'Most of the time Griffin sounds quite reasonable. A Cambridge graduate with pleasant manners, who did his A-levels as one of two boys in an all-girl school, he is plainly intelligent and has a strong sense of humour ...
He suspects that many Labour voters find it easier to switch to the BNP than to vote for the party of Margaret Thatcher, especially in the industrial areas where she is still blamed for the decline of manufacturing ...
Nobody should underestimate this man's acumen or his knowledge and understanding of the British political system.'

In reality, the BNP's leadership has not suddenly acquired any greater talent than before. Before joining the BNP, Nick Griffin was for many years a leading figure in the rival National Front. He alienated the party's cadre by means of a series of 'dialogues' with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, Ayatollah Khomeini and Colonel Gadaffi. Even since becoming leader, Griffin has continued his talent for provoking dissent. He launched an ethnic minorities committee, which alienated long-time members but then folded without any trace. He antagonised the BNP's most successful candidates in the 2000 elections. He promoted the Leeds student Mark Collett, who was then caught on TV announcing his own Hitler-complex, and so on. For most of the past thirty years, the British far right has been striven by permanent internal feuds. In a period of success, the tensions have been hidden. Were the electoral successes of the BNP to pause, the clashes would return.

In the period since Griffin took over as the leader of the BNP, the party has benefited from outside circumstances that have been largely favourable. The most important have been changes in the reporting of race. Through a series of public crises over asylum, a mood of tolerance has given way to one of hostility. Not just the BNP, but the police, press and government have driven this process.

1) Asylum and the South Coast

Ever since Labour was elected in 1997, parliamentary opposition to Blair been muted. The challenge has instead tended to come from outside. On the left, trade unionists, local Labour Party members and other campaigners have challenged the party's admiration for big business, its privatisation of public services, and its support for the various American war efforts. On the right, the main focus of hostility has been the Conservative tabloids, hungry for the next big story after Blair. The press has been hindered by the fact that since 1992, the main economic and social planks of Thatcherite Conservatism have been publicly discredited. The newspaper owners would prefer a world of privatisation, de-industrialisation and neo-liberal economics, but there is no prospect of campaigning around these demands. Only on the issues of crime, security and race, have the press found an anti-Labour majority.

By the late 1990s, the two main forms of post-war migration, labour migration and the migration of dependents, had been made effectively illegal. Press attention turned therefore towards asylum seekers. A series of headlines warned that British public that asylum seekers were entering Britain - legally - often by ferry, from Northern France. The local press responded using language out of all kilter to reality, exaggerating the extent of the crisis, blaming refugees for all manner of crimes. The Dover Express condemned an invasion of 'Illegal immigrants, asylum seeker, bootleggers and the scum of the earth drug smugglers. We are left with the backdraft of a nation's human sewage, and NO CASH to wash it down the drain.' The claim that refugees were 'flooding' Britain was untrue. Britain found a home for a mere 0.05 per cent of the world's refugees in 1997, according to the Refugee Council. Four years later, Britain came tenth in the list of European countries, receiving half as many applicants per head as Austria.

Despite the modest reality, press coverage treated asylum in a lurid fashion. 'Clamp em at Calais', shouted the Sunday People. The Daily Star told its readers that 'Refugees get flats with jacuzzi, sunbeds and ... a sauna.' Journalists on the Sunday People wrote that 'The figures for asylum seekers, almost all of them bogus, are totally appalling'. The Mail insisted that 'Pensioners in particular are outraged that they have to scrape by while a few refugees receive huge benefits'. The Southend Advertiser blamed the collapse of local services on 'Asylum Strain'. 'End asylum lunacy', 'Beggars build mansions with OUR handouts ... Time to kick the scroungers out ... Britain has had enough', claimed successive issues of the Sun. In the space of a few months, the press coverage of the issue entered a new moral universe. The very poorest people in Britain were accused of thieving from the rest. Racist attacks were justified on the grounds that Britain was under attack. The public was fed malicious, intended lies. In this favourable context, the British National Party was able to secure 100,000 votes across Britain in the May 1999 Euro-elections.

The Labour government joined in. Since 1999, a panoply of changes have banned refugees from working while their case was being heard, replaced cash benefits with vouchers, and then with cash, and then denied almost all access to welfare. Changes to the law include a new Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, passed in 1999, Statutory Instruments and executive orders, introduced in 2000 and 2001, an Immigration (Leave to Enter) Order, 2001, and a further Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, 2002. Following the introduction of anti-alien legislation at the start of war in 1914, Britain went nearly five decades before passing new immigration controls. At the start of the new millennium, the gap between the passing of new, ever more draconian laws was reduced to months. Large numbers of refugees came to be jailed on arrival, some in de facto prisons, such as the Campsfield detention centre near Oxford, others in actual jails, including Walton in Liverpool. Whole categories of refugees were denied any right to claim asylum en bloc, no matter how harsh their lives had been back home.

Spring 2000 witnessed a series of demonstrations on the South Coast. One hundred and fifty people turned out on an NF march in Margate, a larger number than the organisation's national membership. In the local elections of spring 2000, the British National Party won 47,670 votes in the party list section of the London Assembly elections. The May 2000 vote was a step forward for the British National Party. Yet this success was outdone by results in outer South London. In July 2000, the BNP achieved 456 votes in Bexley North East, or 26.2 per cent, behind Labour. Three years earlier, in the general election, the BNP had obtained just 429 votes, or 0.89 per cent, across the whole of Bexley. The rise was alarming.

2) Police against Macpherson

By spring 2001, the British National Party could boast of a certain up-turn in its fortunes, yet even now the party did not possess one single elected councillor or MP. At two national rallies in March 2001, the combined BNP audience was just 350. Levels of activism remained low. The hold of the party leadership over the ranks remained fragile. In the two years since then, however, the British National Party established a regional base in the North West, a victory crowned by the election of far-right councillors in Burnley and Blackburn. The background to these events lay in early 2001, and a series of moves taken by Oldham police. The intention of senior officers can hardly have been to boost the far right; this, however, was the effect.

On 31 January the Oldham Chronicle ran an article, 'Huge rise in race attacks on white men'. This story was based on a claim by Chief Superintendent Eric Hewitt, the head of the Oldham police division, that there had been a massive increase in racist attacks on whites. He claimed that over the previous twelve months, the police had investigated 572 racial incidents, and that 60 per cent of the victims had been white. The figures were extraordinary. Only fourteen per cent of the Oldham population was Asian, so where did all these anti-white attacks come from? Many anti-racists felt that the police had cooked up the entire scare.

The situation escalated further when 76-year old war veteran Walter Chamberlain was shown on national television, his face beaten raw in what appeared to be a racist attack. One detective told the Manchester Evening News an Asian gang had attacked the pensioner. Before approaching the man, this young group of men had apparently shouted, 'Get out of our area', and these words made the paper's headline. Yet when the police interviewed Walter, he denied that he had been attacked in this way, and also denied hearing those words. Steven Chamberlain, Walter's son, told the press, 'It was a violent attack on an elderly man. [But] as a family we don't think it was a race issue at all.'

The police and the Oldham Chronicle succeeded in creating an impression of constant racial tension, which became national news. The white population of the city was told that they were the victims of an Asian race 'mafia'. Many Asians believed that they suffered much greater injustices - higher unemployment, worse schools and housing. While unemployment among whites in Oldham stood at 4 per cent, it was at 16 per cent among Pakistanis and 25 per cent among Bangladeshis. When European funding was spent on Oldham, mainly white Hathershaw received £53 million, and mainly Asian Glodwick £5.6 million. A mood of common victimhood represented an open invitation to the BNP. According to Dee Johnson, 'the BNP flooded the town with leaflets and whispering campaigns ... Racism was allowed to become "respectable" in the paper's letters columns through the absence of any public and systematic challenge from the local political leadership.'

On 31 March 2001, the National Front attempted to march through Oldham. Anti-racists organised protest meetings of 350 and then 500 people, and a counter-demonstration 1000-strong. The following month, further attempted marches by the Front sparked counter-demonstrations in Oldham and Bradford. Members of the BNP and the NF collaborated with local football hooligans in organising further marches on 5 and 27 May. Following the third march, the far-right gangs refused to disperse, but congregated in Oldham's pubs, waiting for trouble. When white crowds gathered, the police allowed them to march, taking them through Asian areas. When Asian crowds gathered, the police waded in. Finally, such areas as Glodwick erupted with anger. Young Asian men hurled petrol bombs, torched cars and shattered windows. The arrests fell disproportionately on Asians.

In the aftermath of the riots, the Home Office commissioned a report to study the problems of segregation that ran through the town. The study found that the council had promoted racial separation in its housing policies. It had also failed to employ ethnic minority staff, and was in certain regards guilty of 'institutional racism'. In June 2002, Oldham Council published its response, the so-called Oldham Independent Review, which gave the council a clean bill of health. Former Home Office advisor Marian Fitzgerald spoke of a 'white backlash'. The BNP's explanation was simpler. The riots, like everything, were the Muslims' fault.

Following the riots, Nick Griffin was able to win a vote of sixteen percent in Oldham. It was the British National Party's best result on election night, the highest vote secured by a far-right party in a British parliamentary election. Elsewhere, however, the BNP showed signs of being squeezed by 'national' politics. The party did not possess enough councillors to cover all the ground required. Its vote in constituencies - while increased, compared to 1997 - was noticeably lower than the results achieved in individual wards. There were only five seats where the party scored more than five per cent, three in the North West, and two in outer East London. In the inner East London seat of Bethnal Green and Bow, where the party had done best in 1997, the BNP saw its vote halve from 7.5 to 3.3 per cent.
June 7 saw Labour re-elected with a huge landslide, but on a vote that was two million down on 1997. Tony Blair's biggest source of strength was the universal contempt felt for his challenger William Hague. Speaking for of old Labour, the Daily Mirror ran a front page showing a gaggle of celebrating New Labour ministers. The words were, 'What are you smiling about? Now get back to work!' There was none of the optimism, none of the euphoria of four years previously.

3) September 11

The destruction of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 was a turning point in global politics. Billions worldwide stared at their TV screens, wondering what was to blame. An isolated Republican president, tainted by electoral scandal and widely derided as an idiot, was suddenly remarketed as a great leader. Most Europeans believed America's overwhelming military power was the major cause of the catastrophe. British public opinion largely concurred. Yet with the Prime Minister anxious to play the role of world power number two, the press was closer to its American counterpart. News came through from America of war-plans, projects for indefinite military expansion. Muslims and Arabs were subject to indefinite detention. The atmosphere became rich in suspicion, paranoia, longing and regret. This has been the context in which fascism has been made to appear normal.

In Britain's largest cities, the conflict between left and right-wing explanations of the crisis was largely won by the left. Anti-war marches were the biggest the country had ever seen. Yet in declining areas, with low trade union density, and where conflict was already apparent between whites and Muslims over scarce resources, other explanations have flourished. The BNP blamed September 11 on the religion of the hijackers. Racists set fire to the Al Hazar mosque in South Shields. The local police warned that such incidents 'would not be tolerated', but also described the incident as a 'revenge attack', half-excusing it in the process. Meanwhile, press coverage of asylum remained hostile. During the bombing of Yugoslavia, Britain had taken Kosovan refugees, welcoming them as allies. During the bombing of Afghanistan, there was no such opening.

By late 2001, Britain's fascists were already on something of a roll. The BNP was then assisted by the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the French elections in May 2002, during which the FN came second, narrowly qualifying for the run-off phase. This success raised the profile of the BNP dramatically. For those watching the news, it felt at times as if some hostile entity had conquered the media. Every day Radio 4 or 5 would open with an interview with the BNP, or if not them BBC, ITV, Channels Four and Five. The editor of the Radio 4's Today programme instructed his presenters to give the BNP an easy ride. Meanwhile, sections of the tabloid press (while remaining hostile to asylum seekers) began for the first time to warn of the dangers of a BNP breakthrough. The Express, for example, showed front-page photographs of marching Russian neo-Nazis and warned of the BNP threat. Other papers preferred to run anodyne 'lifestyle' pieces about the home-life and moral values of various BNP candidates.
The 2002 elections of brought further dividends to the far right. The BNP stood in 66 wards, winning votes of between ten and twenty per cent in nineteen of them. Nine constituencies saw the BNP achieve twenty per cent or more. Votes of over ten per cent were won in Gateshead, in another three Sunderland wards, in Kirklees, in thirteen wards in Burnley, in Stoke, Hillingdon and Broxbourne.

Given the above figures it may appear surprising that the British National Party won three councillors in Burnley, where the party secured an average vote of twelve per cent, but none in Oldham. One secret of their success in Burnley was the electoral system. The whole council was up for re-election, and divided up into three-candidate seats. The BNP was able to win, therefore, with a small number of first preferences. Meanwhile, in Oldham, the British National Party faced a considerable anti-fascist campaign, recorded by Nick Lowles, 'Searchlight joined with Oldham United Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League and Side by Side in what was the most offensive anti-fascist campaign for over two decades. Over 35,000 leaflets were distributed, including 20,000 that were delivered on two Sundays in the campaign by groups by over 100 activists.' Anti-fascists were also able to point out that Robert Bennett, in charge of distributing BNP leaflets in the town, had served five years in prison for his part in the gang rape of two seventeen-year old girls.

One of the British National Party's greatest successes was the result in Sunderland. This then encouraged local racists to wage attacks on refugees. The most graphic sign of rising levels of host racism was the killing of an Iranian man, Pehman Bahmani, in August 2002. The murder was treated by the police as racially-motivated. Bahmani had complained to the police of racial abuse and demanded action to halt persistent attacks. After a march on Sunderland police station by fifty asylum-seekers, the city's police commander, Superintendent Paul Weir, conceded that there was a mood of 'anger and apprehension' among minorities in the city.
Most major cities in Britain do contain small areas where asylum seekers can realistically fear attack. Yet as late as autumn 2002, the general situation in the cities was not one of racism. Despite further British National Party successes - an 18 per cent vote in mayoral elections in Stoke, and the election of a fourth councillor in Burnley in November - the party's membership remained low. Despite the lies pumped out by the newspapers, many people were still suspicious of the press.

4) Stephen Oakes

Through this period press justifications of war were met with scepticism. Polls found that anything up to seventy-seven per cent of people would not support a war against Iraq without a second United Nations resolution. Many people treated press stories of asylum seekers with a similar (but weaker) attitude of scepticism. Over time, however, the press have succeeded in pulling public views rightwards on race. One moment when this became clear was January 2003. The finding of the poison ricin the home of asylum seekers, in January, and the killing of special branch officer Stephen Oake, encouraged the tabloid press to link refugees to terrorism. This connection had not been made previously. It opened up a further space for racists, legitimising their interpretation of September 11. According to Steven Morris of the Guardian, 'Teams of reporters have been asked to "stitch up" asylum seekers. A source at Kent police said that he had received half a dozen calls from newspapers asking for examples of crimes committed by asylum seekers. Leader writers and columnists have been ordered to write damning commentaries.' Morris cited the News of the World, which published an aerial photograph showing where Algerians, Kosovans, Albanians could be found. He judged their piece guilty of incitement.

The Sun followed on 27 January, describing asylum seekers as a sea of humanity, 'polluted with terrorism and disease'. Refugees 'threaten[ed] our way of life.' 'Read this and get angry', the paper said, 'Britain is now a Trojan horse for Terrorism.' The following day, Holocaust Memorial Day, saw no let up in the press campaign. The Daily Mail complained that 'soft touch Britain' was the victim of refugee terrorism and refugee crime. The Express carried on its front page a picture of twenty of its front pages, all with similar themes. Asylum seekers were ruining Britain. They were responsible for crime, sexual disease and prostitution. Single-handedly they had destroyed Britain's welfare state. This composite of hatred ringed a headline, 'We told you so!' The Times weighed in, giving a column to the Sun's Trevor Kavanagh to argue that 'You don't need to be racist to worry about terrorists or vicious criminal gangs, armed with guns and knives and ready to use them.'

All over the country, reports came in of racist campaigns organised to prevent detention centres or asylum courts. Just in the last week of January 2003, the following campaigns were recorded. In Sittingbourne in Kent, a twenty-year old man attempted to use his car as a battering ram to attack a hotel planned for asylum use. Five hundred people turned out to block plans for a detention centre in Portland in Dorset. Two hundred and fifty people gathered outside a hotel in Saltdean in East Sussex, where the press has announced asylum seekers would be housed. Two hundred people gathered for a similar protest in Caythorpe in Lincolnshire. In Stoke, newspapers claimed that an 88-year old woman had been taken off her GP's books, to be supplanted by asylum seekers. The Conservative shadow health secretary Liam Fox wrote to all Hospital Trusts arguing that they should not give 'preferential access' to refugees. A junior minister in the Labour government John Spellar banned asylum seekers from his surgery, arguing that they wasted time.

There is no satisfactory model to explain the level of hostility that could then be found in British society. Yasmin Alihai-Brown, the child of Asian Ugandan refugees, argued that Britain had become 'a more hate-filled place than it was during the days of Enoch Powell.' The British National Party won their Halifax councillor, right in the middle of this hysteria. The tabloids denied that they had influenced the vote, with Mitchell Symons of the Express declaring that 'Any reader who actually voted BNP should consider themselves ineligible to buy this newspaper.' Despite the bluster, the papers could congratulate themselves on a job well done.

The damaged centre

Various commentators have attempted to analyse the successes of the BNP, going beyond the standard press line that the party's makeover has done the trick. In the Observer, Nick Cohen argued that the ascendancy of this party has been made possible by the weakness of the centre-right in areas of previous strength. 'The shrivelled Tories haven't the support in the inner cities to field candidates in every ward. Even when they can find old loyalists willing to stand, they are too isolated from urban Britain to persuade the white poor to try working-class Conservatism.' Nick Lowles of Searchlight echoed this point, 'There is undoubtedly a strong conviction vote among many BNP supporters but for others a vote for the BNP is still a protest vote. It is our belief that many of those who voted BNP, particularly the more affluent ones, would quickly switch their support to a more respectable right-wing alternative if it offered a more populist and right-wing agenda. The BNP's success in these more affluent areas has to be seen against the continuing lack of identity of the Conservative Party.' Again, after Halifax, Searchlight observed that one factor had been the collapse of the Tory vote, which fell from 700 to 214, despite a doubled turnout. The core of the BNP vote came from two villages, Mount Tabor and Pellan. 'In Pellan, where the Tory vote usually stands at around 150, they received just 19 votes. The BNP took 144. Similarly, Mount Tabor saw the Conservatives poll 79 votes where they would normally take 250.' There was a pattern to this movement. Tory voters had also switched to the BNP in Oldham and Bradford. 'In Blackburn, where a BNP candidate scraped home by 16 votes, the Conservative Party leaflet was hand-drawn with a marker pen.'

Yet while the continued disarray of the Tories has helped the far right, this explanation is not sufficient. One of the BNP's three Burnley wards was indeed an area of relative wealth, Cliviger with Worsthorne, probably the town's most affluent ward. In the next four seats that the party won, however, the main challengers were Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Writing in spring 2002, Gary Younge argued that the BNP benefited from 'the crowded centre' of mainstream British politics, 'the incremental, presentational and rhetorical distinctions among the main parties between who many see no, or insufficient difference.' In this account, it has been Labour's adoption of neo-Thatcherite economic policies, which has lost it the support of its roots. The initiative belonged now to 'the margins':

'Not just the hard left and far right but the locally committed and individually extravagant. The monkey mayor of Hartelpool, the independents who took seats in Stoke on Trent, the BNP in Burnley. Anyone, in short, who is not connected to the main parties and who reaps the benefits of an electorate which is either disillusioned with the choices, indifferent to the outcome or desperate for a voice. The trend is in the ascendant.'

Most of the constituencies where the British National Party has enjoyed its successes return Labour MPs. The high votes achieved by the far right are just one further sign of the disillusion of Labour voters with the party that has long claimed their allegiance. Markers in this process have included the protests over cuts in disability payments, the abolition of student grants, the low turnout in the 2001 election, the firefighters' strike of winter 2002, the giant anti-war marches of February 2003. 'As Labour falls back in the polls', writes Jackie Ashley, 'the BNP is slithering forwards.' Ashley blamed the Home Office. 'You might have thought that the images of army camps being prepared for asylum seekers, and the miles of razor-wire put up, and the closure of Sangatte, and the tough talk from the Home Office, would have calmed public anger about asylum. Yet it has had the reverse effect. The more the government protests that it is cracking down, the less voters believe it.'

Throughout this period, Home Secretary David Blunkett has set himself the task of articulating racist opinion. In April 2000 he described asylum seekers as 'bogus' in Parliament. Another speech criticised anti-racists for defending the Asian victims of the Oldham race riots. In January 2003, he warned that asylum would have to be stopped - Britain was like a 'coiled spring'. Again, when one judge queried the terms of the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, including its clauses that enabled the asylum service to cut off all benefits to asylum seekers, Blunkett urged his officials to give briefings to the press. He released details of the judge's voting record, and gave carte blanche to a further series of anti-asylum stories.

Again, in March 2003, David Blunkett encouraged further anti-refugee scares, by providing quotes for another Sun asylum exposé. Not for nothing did the British National Party describe him as 'our favourite politician'.
Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers' Union told one anti-racist event that ministers had been indulging in 'cheap and nasty populism' that 'pander[ed] to the politics of fear'. He also went on to say that the government had gone along with a 'calculated attempt to bury' the Macpherson report. He picked out one sound-bite from Blunkett - that Britain's towns were being swamped by asylum-seekers. Such language, Bill Morris argued, had given the British National Party 'a signal of permission to attack black and Asian communities.' Similar points havee been made by Mohammed Azam, a Labour councillor in Oldham, 'Throughout the past twelve months, there has been a legitimisation of the racism the BNP feeds off. The Government policy of curbing asylum seekers was supposedly designed to reverse BNP gains. It has failed to do so. Rather, it appears to have had the opposite effect.'. John Edmonds of the GMB also blamed the BNP's success on the government. 'People are cynical about politics and politicians. We have lost a core of Labour voters who don't believe this government is on their side.'

Even where the Labour Party has retained a base, the party has difficulty in turning out many of the people who have previously voted Labour. Kester Dean worked for the Labour Party as a telephone canvasser during the 2003 Halifax election. He told Tribune that it had been a 'totally depressing' moment. 'The British National Party won ... because of the Government's failures':

'Former supporters raise issues such as Iraq, privatisation, politicians feathering their own nests and the firefighters' dispute. What can we say? Of course, people have the chance to vote for good local candidates, but the shadow cast by Blairism is a long one. We stay local and do our best but it seems that many one-time Labour voters are choosing to stay at home.'

In a situation where many Labour voters are scrabbling around for alternatives, the Home Secretary's cynical interventions have served only to boost the far right.


The effect of the BNP's activity has been to draw out various forms of opposition, some of which have already been mentioned, the anti-NF riots by young Asians in Oldham and Bradford, the pavement work of anti-racists at election time in Oldham, the right-wing 'anti-fascism' of David Blunkett and the Express. Other networks have played a more important role. The Anti-Nazi League continues to exist and has worked campaigned alongside Searchlight magazine, in Oldham, and again in Burnley, where two hundred and fifty people were involved in door-to-door campaigning in 2002. The trade union movement also continues to provide support to anti-racists. Bill Connor of USDAW told the TUC in September 2002, 'Wherever the far right stands, we'll be there to expose their lies and poisonous messages which are deliberately aimed at causing tensions in local towns and villages.' The health and council workers' union UNISON organised a 'No Racism: No Us and Them' event in Manchester in April 2003 - a week before the May elections. The TUC has set up anti-racist events in many towns where the BNP secured a high vote. Meanwhile, the main focus of BNP activity in the unions has been a campaign to win financial compensation from those unions that have excluded its supporters from membership. Nothing demonstrates better than this the weakness of the far right. In the 1970s, the National Front placed ads for its trade union sections with industry newspapers. It was able to take weekly collections among workers in several sorting offices. The BNP has been able to establish nothing similar since.

One new player is Love Music Hate Racism, launched by the Anti-Nazi League. Several local councils - including Oldham and Burnley - have attempted to block LMHR, by banning anti-racist carnivals booked for September and October 2001. It might have been interesting if the councillors had exercised the same opposition to the BNP. Yet rather than getting trapped in an argument over whether they should have been allowed to play before, the organisers of LMHR have organised events across Northern England. The first was a Chumbawamba gig in Burnley in June 2002. This even was followed by a thirty thousand strong anti-racist carnival in Manchester in autumn 2002, with Ms Dynamite and the Doves. Since then, a further twenty or so LMHR events have been organised, the majority of them in the North West. Noel Gallacher, Faithless and Basement Jaxx have donated tracks for a LMHR CD. There will be a further carnival in Blackburn this summer.

Nick Lowles and Steve Silver wrote that the anti-fascist campaign around the May 2003 elections was 'the largest and most widespread for at least a generation'. It success was its local variety. 'In Clitheroe, the Ribble Valley Against Racism group focused on the threat to the tranquillity of the local area that the BNP posed. In Pendle, a leaflet focused on the failures of the BNP councillors in neighbouring Burnley. The Oldham campaign continued to be directed against the criminality of the BNP but there was also a specific leaflet highlighting the fact that he lived 100 miles away. The leaflet included the time it would take local voters to reach his Welsh farm by a variety of forms of transport.' The source of the Pendle story was Searchlight, which published some 500,000 copies of an BNP-newspaper, which began with the fact that none of the previously elected far-right councillors had contributed in any way to council budget meetings. It was an attempt to get away from the previous anti-fascist slogan 'Don't Vote Nazi', which was judged to have a declining public resonance. The newspaper was brilliantly produced (there was even a competition for a free holiday), but if its point was to highlight the inadequacy of the Burnley councillors, subsequent votes would suggest that the argument was lost.
While the new local networks of anti-fascists have shown the possibility of engaging a new generation of activists, much is still to be done. The BNP's re-branding has convinced some people that the party is less dangerous than it was. Too many activists seem to have been trapped by one of two contradictory emotions. Either they have seen that the BNP remains weak in key areas (London, Manchester, Sheffield), and therefore concluded that there is no real problem (or not in 'their' area). Or they have felt that the BNP has been riding such a crest of wave, that it would be quite impossible to push it back. Both fear and complacency can be disabling emotions. The urgency of the situation demands a different response.

Voters or joiners?

At the end of our period, the police, press and politicians were still continuing to fuel public fears over asylum. On 3 February, Phil Woolas the Labour MP for Oldham East told the Today programme, that the greatest problem facing his constituents was the pervasive character of black-on-white violence. 'There is a perception of unfairness,' he said. Oldham BNP organiser Simon Bennett crowed at Labour's discomfort, 'They are playing catch-up,' he said. The most important indicator of the BNP's success was the ease with which it continued to generate press coverage. Press interest continued, despite electoral disasters for the Dutch and Austrian far right in elections held in autumn and winter 2002. Just one press story has existed, in which the neo-fascists in general, and the BNP in particular, were sweeping to power. Contrary evidence seemed to flout reality, and was not published.

Through spring 2003, the papers continued to argue that asylum seekers were stealing from hard-working British taxpayers. 'Refugees must get working', insisted the Daily Express. Yet, as the journalist knew, the one thing that prevented refugees from working was the law. Two days later, the same paper insisted that lawyers were unfairly extending asylum cases, by encouraging refugees to appeal against court decision. An Ofsted report that schools were improving, but that certain groups of students (including the children of refugees) were falling behind, was duly reported by the Mail as 'Asylum pupils "disrupt lessons for thousands"', by the Express as 'Asylum: the final disaster', and by the Sun as 'Ofsted verdict on asylum madness'. News that refugees were challenging the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act became, 'Handouts are our right, say migrants'. At a public meeting held in Sittingbourne on 13 February, residents read out scare stories from that week's Sun. Within a week, British National Party placards were openly on show.

The highpoint of the BNP's campaign came - of course - in May 2003, with the results they achieved in the council elections. The British National Party won in Burnley, on a low turnout, but not in Sunderland, where the postal vote kept numbers high. They won where their candidates had previously been elected. With the important exception of Burnley, their best votes were achieved were the anti-fascist campaign was least. Some of the highest votes were achieved in traditionally right-wing areas, including Kirklees, where two BNP candidates came second, and were beaten both times by Tories. The result in Burnley was most alarming:

'The BNP claims that it is on course to win overall control of the council in 2004. Were that to happen, a party which aims to create an all-white Britain would then have real power in a city of 89,000 people, of which 7,300 are not white. The Labour Party currently has 24 seats, giving it a majority on the council. But, out of the thirteen Burnley seats in which the BNP stood this week, it was elected in six and came second in the other seven. Labour fielded sixteen candidates and got 8,784 votes; the BNP fielded thirteen candidates and got 8,545 votes. The BNP's claim that it could take Burnley in coming years cannot, therefore, be casually dismissed.'

Even in the North West, it was in the affluent areas where the far-right won. According to Arun Kundnani, 'Noticeably, it is not in the poorer areas of Burnley that the BNP is performing best. These stayed staunchly Labour or, where there was a large Asian anti-war protest vote, went to the Liberal Democrats. But it is in white, middle-class areas where the BNP is strongest. In these areas, there appears to be a significant number of former Tory voters who are unhappy about the Conservative Party's embrace of "diversity" and have been seduced by the BNP's "new" policy of "repatriation by consent"'. Simon Bennett of the British National Party boasted, 'Last time we kicked the door open. This time we have kicked through it.'

Yet while the BNP's rise is a matter of urgent concern, there is no guarantee that these favourable conditions will continue indefinitely, and carry the fascists with them. The internal state of the party remains - by any comparative standards - weak. The British National Party is a vote-gathering party; it is not yet an organisation that people join in number. At 3,500, the BNP's claimed membership is only one-sixth of the figure claimed by the National Front in the 1970s. The BNP claims to have members in eighty regional branches, but none of these maintains a high level of activism, few manage better than monthly meetings. The figure of eighty groups is achieved by adding together functioning branches to smaller cells, and regions with only one active supporter. All of these branches are organised under the direction of a single organiser. The structure reflects low levels of activity by the membership, and an expectation of continued inactivity. We can take the example of Sunderland. Despite winning several thousand votes in the 2002 and 2003 elections, and despite standing as many as 54 candidates in the region, the British National Party was unable to turn out more than forty supporters from all over the North East for its main election meeting, a St. George's day rally addressed by party leader Griffin.

Many of the BNP's local cadres are long-standing neo-Nazis with track records going back to the late 1970s. Only in a few areas - Burnley, Oldham - has a significant new layer been recruited. While there have been attempts to recruit new generations, the numbers joining have been small, and the gap between their experiences and the older members has been vast. The numbers attending the BNP's national rallies, the 'Red, White and Blue' festivals has not risen, despite considerable press coverage of the events. It remained at around 300-400 in both 2001 and 2002. This level is simply too low to sustain the street-level presence that the organisation will need if it is to achieve wider electoral success.

Where the BNP has had candidates elected, these have been new or peripheral members of that party, in sharp contrast to the situation in the early 1990s. As an electoral tactic, the policy has worked - denying anti-fascists the opportunity to expose the violent history of the old guard. Yet once elected, the BNP councillors have found it difficult to make a name for themselves, in the party, or in their home regions. The leader of the BNP group on Burnley council decided not to contest his own seat in 2003, pleading work commitments. The BNP councillor in Blackburn used the occasion of his election success to dump his wife and ten-year old son. Of the five councillors to have been elected across Britain in 2003, only one even bothered to attend the budget meetings in their home town over the next year.

Where the BNP branches have responded to this failure of a new guard to emerge by prompting old faces to stand, the results have been equally difficult. In Stoke, for example, BNP candidate Doug Smith turned out to have served six months in jail for robbing a grocer's shop in 1977. This story followed the report that local BNP leader Steven Batkin had publicly denied the Holocaust. Meanwhile in Liverpool, another longstanding BNP activist Joey Owens, was hound to have a series of convictions. In 1982, Owens served eight months in jail for sending razor blades in the post to members of the city's Jewish community. He was also convicted and jailed in 1994 for carrying CS gas and knuckledusters when he worked as a club-land bouncer. In 1998 he was charged with the contract murder of 33-year-old man, but the charge was dropped when witnesses would not speak at the trial.

According to Natasha Grzincic of Red Pepper, 'the BNP fought the Halifax by-election like a general election, throwing all its resources into the one area. Campaigners from as far away as Glasgow and London were bussed in. Griffin himself moved in for a month. Even Mark Collett, chairman of Young BNP until he was exposed as a Nazi sympathiser by Channel 4, was seen canvassing the area.' While the organisation boasts that it is going to stand 400 candidates in 2004, the stretch that this would place on current resources would be considerable. Who would canvass for all these candidates, or does the BNP assume that press interest will continue to grow at the same rate, and that this factor alone will be enough? The strength of the organisation depends on levels of recruitment and party-identification, which have not yet been achieved. While the BNP has set itself a target of winning a seat in the European parliament by 2004 at the latest, the support of other parties who have already achieved this goal - including the Greens and the UK Independence Party - has not actually grown from that point.

Nick Griffin boasts to his supporters that the BNP will soon become Britain's main opposition party, with dozens of MPs in Parliament. A gullible press laps up this language. Yet in so far as such promises are heard by the party membership, they can only succeed in highlighting the gap between ambition and reality. In 1994, the BNP told its followers that as a result of their electoral work, the BNP would win enough seats in East London to control two councils. Yet even if every single one of their candidates had succeeded, the party would not have controlled even one council. Although the levels of press racism are greater now than they were then, the BNP has not changed in character, neither has the purpose of its rhetoric, nor the isolation of such committed racists in most working-class constituencies.

The BNP is already over-dependent on publicity granted by the media, and its consequent success in manipulating one-off crises. At a certain point, the contradiction between the internal weaknesses of the party, and its external opportunities will become more apparent. At that stage, one of two things will happen. Either the party will recruit the sorts of experienced people who could built a massive right-wing cadre party in emulation of the National Front; or the electoral success will dry up, the party will hit inertia, and at that stage, the contradictions between the organisation and its promises will become decisive. There is one law of street politics - either momentum or fatigue. The BNP has no plans for the latter.

Beyond the present

While the press has continued to fan the BNP advance, it has often been difficult to see how the far-right could be stopped. Part of the answer lies outside the circle of local elections, press and government racism, in which anti-racists have been trapped. For two years, the issue dominating British politics has been the war alliance with the US. The effects of the war have been contradictory. Blair's fawning support for Bush has undoubtedly helped to pave the way for fascism. By taking the country repeatedly to war, he has helped to make violent, militaristic politics acceptable. British soldiers have been sent twice against Muslim states, reinforcing the BNP claim that Islam is the problem. Under Blair, Britain has also acquired the harshest anti-terrorism laws in Europe. An Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act was passed by Parliament in December 2001. This provides for the indefinite detention of those the Secretary of State has certified as a threat to national security and who are suspected of being international terrorists, including those whose cases have been not judged not strong enough to stand up in court. Some twenty or so Muslims are currently suffering from indefinite detention. The Anti-Terrorism Act also allowed the police to hold asylum seekers' fingerprints for up to ten years. It was the first time that anyone treated asylum seekers like potential terrorists. The government's response to September 11 legitimised the paranoia about refugees.

Yet even while encouraging the right, the war has also opened up space for new forces that could stop fascism. The Stop the War movement has organised some of the biggest marches in British history. Even the backbench Labour MPs stirred, in two of the largest parliamentary revolts ever. Hundred of thousands campaigned against the war. School student protests brought a new generation to the streets. Most of the people taking part in protests have known full well that the government's assault on refugees was part of the same politics as its attack on Iraq. When they called for Blair to quit, demonstrators had both policies in mind.
Much will depend on the arguments of anti-fascists on the doorsteps. There are forces working in their direction, but obstacles on both sides. Anti-war protesters are only potential anti-fascists. They needed to be persuaded, in person, that their activism will count. The source of the BNP's electoral success is anti-immigrant racism. In opposing it, anti-racists will also have to challenge the wider forces that have enabled British fascism to grow. If we can involve just some of the many thousands radicalised by the war, then there is time yet to stop the BNP.