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 ...
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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'.
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.
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
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.