A fatal blow? The latest split within the British National Party

The resignation of MEP Andrew Brons is another blow to Nick Griffin. But the future of the far-right lies elsewhere.

Yesterday, one of the two British National Party Members of the European Parliament resigned his membership of the flagging extreme right group. The resignation of Andrew Brons -a veteran and influential activist within the far right- leaves Nick Griffin as the only BNP voice in the European Parliament. More broadly, the split reduces the total number of elected BNP officials to four -a long fall from its heyday in 2009 when the party had one seat on the Greater London Assembly, two MEPs, and dozens of local councillors.

The departure of Brons was a long time coming, and will surprise few who take an active interest in Britain’s far right. The roots of the split lie in a series of personality disputes, and allegations among the grassroots that Griffin is financially and politically incompetent (or, as some claim, simply corrupt). As journalists poured over the BNP’s ‘success’ at the 2009 European elections, inside the party a growing revolt was fuelled by a feeling among some of the more astute BNP organisers that -looking toward UKIP’s 13 seats- their party should actually have done far better.  ’Perhaps this is as far as we can go with Griffin’, they began to mutter.

The subsequent failure to breakthrough in Barking and Stoke at the 2010 general election, and a series of costly legal disputes, pushed a growing number of these activists to the conclusion that the party could go no further, and that -ultimately- Griffin would never relinquish control. Some of these rebels left politics altogether. Others joined a growing number of far right competitors. The increasing significance of the latter was evident by the time of the 2012 local elections, which -excluding the BNP- were fought by a total of 149 candidates from a range of other extreme and radical right-wing groups, including the English Democrats, National Front, British Freedom, Democratic Nationalists, England First or the British People’s Party. While these parties vary in terms of their ideology and history, most are united in their opposition to Griffin.

Of course, this internal warfare is nothing new. Historically, Britain’s far right has long failed to cultivate the internal unity and discipline that have come to characterise some of its far more successful cousins on the continent. Factionalism is the perennial Achilles heel of the British far right. Similarly, even from 2001, and as its electoral fortunes improved, the BNP exhibited an ongoing tendency to implode: a revolt from activists loyal to its expelled founder, John Tyndall; a rebellion from activists who bemoaned the lack of financial transparency; and then a revolt from the so-called ‘December rebels’ who voiced dissatisfaction over the party’s growing debt and Griffin’s dictatorial style of leadership. Each of these challenges failed, as Griffin’s stubborn persistence became one of the defining features of the British far right. Indeed, for this reason alone Brons’ resignation is unlikely to enact the fatal blow to Griffin, who though embattled will not simply abandon forty years of work on what many within the movement describe simply as “the cause”.

Electorally, however, Griffin is unlikely to retain his seat in the North West region at the 2014 European elections. This owes less to infighting than to the conclusion reached by most voters that his party is simply not a credible or legitimate alternative, despite their concerns over core far right issues. His only hope lies in stubbornly persistent economic stagnation, and evidence that the far right has reaped some electoral benefits from the financial crisis. At the 2010 general election, the BNP polled strongest in constituencies that experienced the largest increases in unemployment rates since 2005. Add to this the prospect of further local service cuts, ongoing public concerns over immigration and asylum, and anxieties in northern towns over the ‘grooming’ or child exploitation issue, and there emerge clear opportunities for the only far right movement in Britain that can realistically claim to be a household name. In other words, while it is unlikely that the thirty-year old BNP will save its last remaining seat in the European Parliament, it is far too early to write off the prospect.

Yet, seen from another angle nor does it really matter whether or not Griffin retains the seat. Since 2010, the BNP has been ramping up its involvement in non-electoral activities, partly as an attempt to flirt with disgruntled factions of the English Defence League, but also because of Griffin’s own ideas about how to sustain a far right movement. Think-tanks and academics like to interpret the relative health of far right parties simply by counting their number of votes. But far right parties like the BNP are also social movements, which view electioneering simply as one of several strategies available to them. Just as important as the quest for votes is sustaining a loyal band of true believers – through the good times, and the bad.

For veteran activists like Griffin, sustaining the ideology and ‘passing over the torch’ to future generations is paramount. And this is where the significance of more recent groups like the English Defence League comes into play: though often reduced to a public order issue, or the ramblings of Tommy Robinson on Twitter, the key point about groups like the EDL is that they have radicalised somewhere in the region of 1,000-3,000 young, working class men into the orbit of far right and counter-Jihad politics. In many respects, these supporters form a stronger foundation for a far right movement than those  who were active in the 1960s and 1970s: they are more likely than average to have experienced unemployment; are economically insecure; pessimistic about their prospects; have already given up on mainstream party politics; and are concerned not simply about Islam but a broader cluster of immigration-related issues. Judging from his recent overtures, it is these young angry white men who veteran activists like Griffin see as the future ideologues of the British far right.

This post originally appeared on Extremis Project.

 

Former British National Party MEP Andrew Brons with BNP leader Nick Griffin in June 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.

Extremis Project is a body dedicated to researching extremism and terrorism.

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.