Rise of BNP reflects voter disengagement

June 10, 2009

jg- James Graham is the Campaigns and Communications Manager of Unlock Democracy The opinions expressed are his own. -

The rise of the far right in Britain is not a sign that people are flirting with fascism but a signal that disengagement has reached a crisis point.

The BNP’s rise has been slow but relentless over a 20-year period. The big turning point was actually the 2001 general election when Nick Griffin got 16 percent of the vote in the Oldham West constituency following a series of riots around the north of England. In 2003, they became the second largest party in Burnley, a trick they repeated in Barking and Dagenham in 2006 and Stoke on Trent in 2008. The election of Richard Barnbrook to the Greater London Assembly last year made it clear that they were in the running to make gains in the European Elections. If anything, the big surprise is that their gains were as limited as they were.

But there are a number of things to note about this. First of all, their success under Nick Griffin has been rooted in successfully presenting themselves as a non-racist and non-fascist party. Their deep fascist and Nazi links are apparent to anyone who does a bit of research but they have become adept at presenting themselves on the doorstep as something else.

In this respect they have been helped a lot by the relentless pace of 24-hour news. All the evidence suggests that an openly fascist party would continue to get nowhere in the UK. It may not seem much, but we should be consoled at least that the extremists will have to operate by stealth for the foreseeable future if they wish to continue to make progress.

Secondly, the party’s success is rooted in naked opportunism. Wherever there is a political vacuum, the BNP have rushed in. Burnley in 2003 is an excellent example of that, with both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats failing to field candidates in 6 out of 15 wards. Their campaigns are rooted in their ability to exploit local issues and incorporate a narrative about immigration, victimhood, fear and resentment. Often these are based on the most outrageous lies – Richard Barnbrook for example has recently been caught making up three murders in Barking and Dagenham. But of course, by the time they get found out the damage has already been done.

Thirdly, they have yet to gain a sustainable foothold of power. Burnley, seen by some as a pariah council in 2003, is now controlled by the Liberal Democrats with a rump BNP group in fourth place. The BNP saw both their total votes and share of the vote fall this year compared to the London Assembly election last year, despite a much reduced turnout which should have been helpful to them. Their record in local government is lamentable. It would seem that for whatever reason people are voting for the party, for a substantial number of them once is enough.

Proportional representation has been criticised for helping get the BNP elected to the European Parliament. This is ridiculous: all proportional systems do is better reflect public opinion. A mature democracy must confront extremism, not brush it under the carpet. Furthermore, their rise throughout the past decade has been helped by the iniquities of the first past the post (FPTP) system. In Barking and Dagenham for example, they got more councillors elected than the Conservatives despite receiving fewer votes. There is no question that the uncompetitive nature of FPTP has been useful to them.

It is shocking that the BNP now has two out of the 72 UK MEPs but they will remain marginalised in Brussels. The real scandal however is the very real power they have been seizing for years in local government by exploiting the often-undemocratic nature of the FPTP system. If mainstream politicians have now woken up to the threat of the far-right, this is what they need to be concentrating upon.

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