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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?

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation