Holding back the BNP

The British National Party (BNP) sees the European Parliament elections as a key opportunity to advance its influence. Andy Bowman reports on the campaign to keep them out of their target seats in the north-west of England
May 2009

For better or worse, the UK's first past the post electoral system largely prevents smaller parties gaining a serious role in government, at both local and parliamentary levels. For the EU elections, however, the UK uses a version of proportional representation that ensures representation of minority opinions. While the legislative influence of a single MEP is relatively minor, the position can - as amply demonstrated by the Green Party's Caroline Lucas - dramatically enhance the public profile of individual and party. The job also brings £250,000 of funding.

With this in mind, the BNP has picked the North West out of the 12 UK constituencies, as its primary target for concerted electioneering. The party won 6.4 percent of the vote here in the previous European Parliament elections of 2004 - compared to 0.7 per cent nationally in the last general election - and hopes to make serious gains this time round. It has certainly started work early. The European elections are already central in BNP campaigning and publicity, with activists out on the streets canvassing around the region. Buoyed by the recent acquisition of a council seat in Swanley, Kent - ending a 40-year Labour incumbency with 41% of the vote - the BNP claims it is about to mount 'the largest and most sophisticated campaign in the history of patriotic politics.'

The party's lead candidate is its leader, the holocaust denier and former National Front member Nick Griffin. If successful, he would become one of eight North West MEPs, drawn from the UK's allocation of 72. The voting system means Griffin is practically guaranteed a seat if he wins 9 per cent of the vote. Depending on the spread among other parties, he could get one with only 7.5 per cent.

Keeping the BNP out will be a challenge. Anti-fascist campaign organisation Searchlight sees low voter turnout - 41.1 per cent in the North West last time around - as a boon to the extreme right. Searchlight's 'Hope not Hate' campaign aims simply to get people out to vote - for anyone but the BNP. Based on the 2004 results, it calculates that an additional 35 non-BNP voters in every council ward (on average comprising 6,000 people) would be enough to stop the BNP.

The key battlegrounds will be the densely populated conurbations of Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Renowned BNP strongholds such as Burnley have seen declining activity and lost council seats (down to four in Burnley from eight at the party's local peak). However, in some of the more deprived areas in north and east Manchester, such as Blackley, Charlestown and Miles Platting, there has recently been an upsurge in BNP campaigning. The BNP's Derek Adams received 27 per cent of the vote in last May's council elections.

'You've got to be creative'
A Blackley resident speaking to Red Pepper (she asks not to be named), who has lived in the area for the past 20 years, described her shock on seeing a BNP leaflet drop through her letterbox prior to the elections. In response, she ordered £30 worth of Searchlight's 'Hope not Hate' leaflets and distributed them around the neighbourhood, speaking with people about the issue. She likes the non-divisiveness of the campaign. 'Most people here have switched off, so you've got to be creative,' she says. 'Even if I managed to change one person's mind it would be worth it.'

She feels efforts such as hers are hampered by the distanced attitude of her local Labour representatives. 'What really incensed me was that not one of our local councilors even bothered to come round,' she says. She emailed to complain, but received no reply. 'Whatever I think of the BNP, they were out there speaking to people. People here feel hard done by and not listened to, and the Labour government doesn't seem to care.'

Other anti-racist campaigners in the area attribute the BNP's rise to loss of faith in the main parties, and in electoral politics more generally. The BNP does best when turnout is low, and attracts protest votes more than committed supporters. If it's anywhere near as difficult for residents here to speak with their political representatives about these issues as it was for Red Pepper, it's easy to see the problem. Repeated attempts to talk with a range of Labour Party councillors in Manchester were ignored, forgotten, prevented by holidays abroad, or outright refused.

One Labour politician who was willing to speak was Theresa Griffin. Already a North West MEP, she is running for re-election, and considers the BNP 'a very real and present threat'. Griffin feels the recent experiences in the London assembly provide ample warning: 'They'll use it as a platform not for serving constituents, but for promoting the BNP.' She states that the Labour Party's anti-BNP campaign strategy is underway, as constituency parties around the region attempt to spread the word about the benefits of the EU parliament, and the 'fair, inclusive and prosperous society' New Labour is building.

Responding to claims that New Labour's distancing itself from the working class has aided the BNP, she says: 'We've got to embrace those criticisms, and make sure we campaign and speak to our constituents all year round. Actually, we are doing a shedload of fantastic work for deprived communities, we just need to be able to communicate that clearly.'

An urgent information war
One non party-political organisation attempting to stop the BNP filling the political vacuum is North Manchester Against Racism. NMAR activist Bernie Murphy feels they are engaged in an urgent information war. 'The welfare state has been shrinking, and so has all the security we had,' she says. In such situations, scapegoating outsiders has extra purchase. The group holds community meetings tackling the BNP's pet issues, such as housing, Islam and immigration.

The extreme racist and nationalist views of the BNP are, they stress, divergent from mainstream opinion in the BNP's strongest areas. The far-right capitalises upon apathy, they explain, and attempts to harness the anger of communities still reeling from de-industrialisation. 'We need to find ways of making people feel positive and having a bit of pride in their area,' Bernie asserts.

The NMAR's efforts have attracted BNP attention, with activists arriving to disrupt meetings in large groups. Denise McDowell experienced this at an immigration workshop she ran. She feels migration into the area isn't the principle cause of the BNP's rise, and disagrees with the strategy pushed by immigration minister Phil Woolas, of 'getting tough' on migrants to draw attention from the BNP. 'Most people think the arrival of migrants here is fantastic,' she says. 'It's a more vibrant and interesting area,' with more people occupying houses and setting up businesses. The BNP myths, she explains, are fuelled by the opaque procedures of government: 'Nobody came to explain why such rapid changes in the area were happening in such a short time. People react to changes in negative ways when they're powerless. There was no support for the community to adapt, and people are treated as if they can't have these conversations.'

Similar concerns proliferated at the Convention of the Left recall in January. In a packed public services seminar, the BNP was a hot topic. Many agreed the decline and commercialisation of social housing provision was a key factors behind the successes of the BNP, which has pinned the blame for housing problems onto immigrants. Speakers stressed the need both to refocus on community engagement and issues of everyday concern, and to provide a voting alternative to Labour. Could the Green Party represent this? In the spirit of cooperation fostered by the convention, Respect North West has backed a Green vote for the European elections. The combined Green and Respect vote in 2004 was 6.8 per cent, higher than the BNP's, so this is no empty gesture.

Crucial percentage points
Peter Cranie, Green Party candidate for the North West, explained to Red Pepper that these percentage points are crucial. Contrary to Hope not Hate, he claims defeating the BNP requires similar levels of tactical analysis used against the BNP on a local level in first past the post. A draft Green Party election strategy document given to Red Pepper, based on projections from previous European elections, claims the deciding factor will be the tussle between the smallest parties.

By winning between eight and nine per cent of the vote, the Greens argue, the party finishing fourth gets the seat. To shave a crucial single percentage point from the BNP total, they say, Labour's vote would have to increase by four per cent, compared to the Green Party's one.

Recent polls and past projections show that if the elections were held tomorrow, the BNP would finish fourth by a narrow margin, and win a seat. However, the failed attempt to form an electoral coalition with UKIP and results in the London mayoral elections suggest the BNP won't experience a surge in support like the five per cent it achieved between 1999-2004.

Divisions remain over how to deal with the BNP, both at the ballot box and on the streets. Each party, of course, makes the case for its own vote being the best. Recent demonstrations in Liverpool, and at the 'Red, White and Blue' festival in Derbyshire over the summer, show that disagreements over the levels of militancy appropriate in confronting the BNP remain entrenched. However, the spectre of the BNP in a position of high office should be enough to make a divided left focus on what it has in common to prevent it happening.


 

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