Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee