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.