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The BNP’s breakthrough

Observations on Brussels

When the votes are tallied after the elections for the European Parliament in June there is a good chance that British voters will, for the first time, have sent a representative of the British National Party (BNP) to Brussels. Across the political spectrum, many continue to condemn the BNP as a racist and neo-fascist organisation, considering its supporters “knuckle-dragging scum” (Richard Littlejohn) or “ignoramuses and bigots” (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown). Such simplistic stereotypes provide a comforting image of the BNP as a lunatic fringe that may score a few upsets in council by-elections but will never be a serious force in mainstream politics. This is a dangerously complacent view of a party that has grown more rapidly than any other in 21st-century Britain, and is on the brink of an electoral breakthrough that would bring media attention and serious European money.

Public anxiety about immigration may have helped fuel the BNP’s rise, but the party is about more than racism and xenophobia. Under the leadership of Nick Griffin, it has worked hard to develop a full manifesto of policies – a strategy that it hopes will pay dividends by improving its image and broadening its appeal. But who exactly is the party appealing to? A brief skim through BNP manifesto literature brings to light proposals for the following: large increases in state pensions; more money for the NHS; improved worker protection; state ownership of key industries. Under Griffin, the modern-day far right has positioned itself to the left of Labour. Is the strategy working?

In our study (to be published later this year by Routledge in The New Extremism in 21st-Century Britain), we examined a large sample of those who have voted BNP or would consider doing so. We found that the BNP is gaining new support principally from older, less educated, white working-class men – voters from Labour’s historical base who feel they have benefited little from the past decade of Labour government, and whose resentments the BNP has succeeded in articulating.

These voters share the BNP’s hostility to immigrants, seeing demographic change as a threat not only to socio-economic resources such as jobs and housing, but also to cultural values and the national community. Many of these voters are cynical about the main political parties. They gained little from the Blair boom and will be the first to suffer in the Brown bust. Their growing cynicism, distrust and detachment from politics have not been taken seriously by Labour, perhaps because the party’s strategists believed they have nowhere else to go. But many are now beginning to listen to what the far right has to say, and they agree with most of it.

Those who dismiss the BNP fail to appreciate the potential appeal of the modern far right’s fusion of nationalism, xenophobia and economic populism. Our research suggests that roughly one-fifth of white British voters share most or all of the BNP’s views. Most still find it difficult to vote BNP, turned off by the party’s association with extremism, or simply because there is no local BNP candidate to vote for. But even one seat in the European Parliament would provide resources and publicity that could act as a potent catalyst for a party accustomed to operating on a shoestring outside of the media spotlight.

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National (FN) sets a worrying precedent in France. Founded in 1972, the FN was dismissed as a fringe movement for a decade. But after gains in local elections around Paris, the FN achieved a shock success in the 1984 European elections, obtaining ten seats and transforming its electoral prospects. In the next legislative elections, the party increased its vote from 44,000 to 2.7 million, nearly 10 per cent of the vote. It has been a significant force in French politics ever since. Those who dismiss Griffin’s BNP would do well to remember that no one in France took Le Pen seriously in the early 1980s. Twenty years later he was competing with Jacques Chirac for the French presidency.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?

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Will George Osborne soften the tax credit cuts for low-earners?

Labour MP Frank Field offers the Chancellor a partial escape route. 

The Conservatives are the real "workers' party". That is the message that will be delivered repeatedly at the party's conference in Manchester. To this audacious rebranding, there is no more awkward rejoinder than the coming cuts to tax credits. The new "living wage", which will reach £9 by 2020, will not compensate for the losses that low and middle-income families will endure. As the IFS has calculated, three million households will be £1,000 a year worse off. When MPs recently voted in favour of the cuts, there was a small but significant Tory rebellion (former leadership candidate David Davis and Stephen McPartland voted against). It is the loss of income that low-paid workers (the "strivers" in Conservative parlance) will suffer that they object to. 

Now, Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, and one of the Labour MPs most respected by the Tories, has offered George Osborne a partial escape route. In a letter to the Chancellor, the former social security minister argues that he should protect the poorest by raising the withdrawal rate for those earning above the new minimum wage. At present, the planned increase in the taper rate from 41 per cent to 48 per cent and the reduction in the earnings threshold from £6,420 to £3,850 will result in 3.2 million families losing an average of £1,350 a year. 

Field writes: "As you will know I welcome wholeheartedly the introduction of the National Living Wage. But its potentially revolutionary impact will be extinguished next year by these cuts to tax credits. Might I therefore ask please whether you would consider introducing a mitigation policy, at nil cost to the Treasury, to protect the lowest paid while the National Living Wage is phased in?

"There is one cost neutral policy in particular which could protect National Living Wage-earners: a secondary earnings threshold paid for by a steeper withdrawal rate for those earning above this new minimum rate.

"This option would retain the existing £6,420 income threshold but introduce a second gross income of £13,100, the equivalent of working 35 hours a week on the National Living Wage. For gross earnings between £6,420 and £13,100, the taper rate would be kept at 41 per cent. The lowest paid working families, therefore, would experience no reduction in tax credit income compared with the current system. To keep the policy cost neutral, gross earnings above £13,100 would need to be tapered at 65 per cent.

"Might this be something you are willing to consider for the Autumn Statement?"

It might indeed be something Osborne is willing to consider. The Sun reports that Boris Johnson, the Chancellor's chief rival for the Conservative leadership, has been studying the proposal and has warned him of "political disaster" if the lowest-paid are not protected. The Mayor of London, frustrated by Osborne's deft appropriation of the "living wage" he championed, is looking for new means of differentation. Past form suggests that Osborne may well give himself some protective cover when he delivers his joint Spending Review and Autumn Statement on 25 November. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.