Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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 20, 2009
8 min read

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum