Who’s afraid of the British National Party?

Only a clapped-out political class could see Nick Griffin and his band of nobodies as a threat.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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It is an unusual election tactic to vastly inflate the chances of the other side. Yet Britain’s employment minister Margaret Hodge looks like a stand-in press officer for the British National Party (BNP), with her comments that eight out of 10 working-class white families in her east London constituency of Barking are considering voting BNP in the 4 May local elections.

Eight out of 10? That would be a remarkable result, especially given that as few as one in four voters turn out for local elections. After hyping up the BNP, Hodge proceeded to confess her own party’s inadequacies. ‘The Labour Party hasn’t talked to these people. This is a traditional Labour area but they are not used to engaging with us because all we do is put leaflets through doors. Part of the reason they switch to the BNP is they feel no one else is listening to them.’

Concerns about the ‘BNP threat’ have become a routine part of British elections. During every election, politicians and media commentators warn that the voters are ‘angry’ and ‘disgruntled’, and may be chased into the ‘arms of extremists’. A survey by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust added fuel to Hodge’s flames, finding that up to a quarter of voters were considering going to the BNP. The fear is that British swing voters in their millions could swing into the fascist camp.

Apparently, the BNP’s tentacles are creeping into the nooks and crannies of the land. An Observer investigation warned that the BNP is ‘expanding its influence’ through a network of secret organisations, including churches, unions and a civil rights pressure group (2).

Politicians are joining forces in opposition to the BNP. A group of over 50 MPs has formed an emergency organisation, the Labour Friends of Searchlight, to tackle the far-right party on its home turf. One tactic included producing leaflets with photos of the England football team, pointing out that as well as excluding black players such as Rio Ferdinand, the BNP would kick out David Beckham (who is a quarter Jewish) and Wayne Rooney (who is of Irish descent).

However, votes for the BNP are not a vote for white supremacy; they are primarily a protest vote, a way of sticking two fingers up to the political elite. And the more that politicians attack the BNP, the more they give the party a rebellious feel. The BNP is a tinpot organisation, which relies more on media publicity than massed ranks of racists. As the Sun put it after Margaret Hodge’s comments: ‘The BNP couldn’t get publicity like that if they donned their swastika armbands and marched up Whitehall.’

Inasmuch as the BNP strikes a nerve, it is less a result of racism than of voters’ sense of disconnection from the political elite. On a BBC Radio Five Live phone-in yesterday a number of callers said they were concerned about growing ethnic minority communities – the problem was not seen as the communities themselves, but the way they have apparently been favoured by the political elite. The BNP plays on these notions, with one article in its magazine, the Barking and Dagenham Patriot, claiming that the council is running a secret ‘Africans for Essex’ scheme, giving ‘African families up to £50,000 to buy their own homes in Barking and Dagenham’.

No doubt the BNP leadership is made up of despicable racists, but they don’t make great play of their views. Indeed, the BNP website is anodyne, a cultural support group for the disaffected. ‘Feeling despondent or depressed, perhaps bewildered by daily events? Feeling ignored, abandoned and forgotten by Blair’s regime? Feeling exploited, over-taxed but unrepresented on your local council or in parliament?’ The website sells music (including ‘Patriot’: ‘Singer/songwriter Dave Hannam plays the guitar on this cover of a very popular song which was also used as the theme to the 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11’), and urges supporters to donate £2.50, ‘the typical price of a pot of Earl Grey at a modest pierside or high street tearoom’.

At base, the fuss about the BNP reveals the elite’s fear and loathing of the masses. Voters are seen as a strange and volatile lot, who could turn bad at the blink of an eye. Both Hodge and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust survey were asking who people might vote for, rather than who they intended to vote for – they might be ‘tempted’ by the BNP, commentators said. Here voting is seen as an impulsive act, and voters as easily seduced by the BNP’s weasel words. Who knows what crazy things east Londoners could do on 4 May?

Politicians blow up the BNP as a way of trying to keep voters on the straight and narrow. There is a warning here: if you vote BNP, there will be consequences. Better to stay in the safe fold of Labour, even if you don’t like it that much.

BNP-bashing also gives politicians a chance to come over all Churchillian, and present the local elections as a fight of good against evil. It’s a rule of thumb that the worse the position of the mainstream parties, the more they attack the BNP. Former Tory leader Michael Howard went all the way to Burnley to ‘challenge’ the BNP in the 2004 elections. At a time when New Labour is tired and ravaged by internal splits, fighting Nick Griffin on the Barking beaches is a way of trying to inject some urgency into proceedings.

The Labour Party is certainly losing its former heartlands. Places like Barking and Dagenham were previously solid Labour, but are now looking distinctly shaky. That isn’t surprising, given that over the past 10 years Labour has turned itself from a mass class-based party into something approximating an Islington-based PR company. New Labour’s loss of its base is continually trivialised, however – it is seen in psychological terms, as politicians not ‘paying attention’ to voters, or not ‘talking enough’ about ‘sensitive subjects’. If only Hodge’s party workers knocked on the door, rather than just putting the leaflet through, the people of Barking would apparently return to roost.

The BNP isn’t taking over Britain. It’s just taking up some of the slack, as the mainstream political parties continue their slow decline.

(1) White voters are deserting us for BNP, says Blair ally, Sunday Telegraph, 16 April 2006

(2) BNP link to new campaign groups, Guardian, 16 April 2006

(3) Worried Labour MPs open new front to fight BNP threat on their doorstep, Daily Telegraph, 15 April 2006

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Topics Politics


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