The BNP's bid to march in Woolwich shows its desperation

Having once implored BNP members to avoid marches, Griffin is losing a race to the bottom.

A quarter of an hour before the Metropolitan Police announced they were “preventing” the British National Party's (BNP) proposed march through Woolwich, south east London, tomorrow, Nick Griffin bullishly told his Twitter followers that he was “taking over negotiations with them [the police] directly.”

Griffin’s proposed six mile march across south east London from Woolwich to Lewisham is now, instead, a proposed 170 yard shuffle in Westminster, fourteen miles away from the scene of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby.

This is not what Griffin wanted. BNP insiders say he was forced into a corner during the week. He’s developed a habit for rash statements, no more rash than the initial statement of intent to march in Woolwich. It’s been a long time since the BNP marched anywhere in London. Marching was one of the very things that Griffin implored the membership, when he campaigned for the leadership, to eschew. It was always unsightly and marches always ended in violence.

Griffin however, has little choice. The English Defence League (EDL) are proving more effective in filling the streets with far-right revenge and rage over Drummer Rigby’s awful murder. Griffin had originally hoped that the numerically superior weight of the EDL would support and bulk up the march. When it became apparent that the EDL would not support Griffin’s march, the party’s rumour mill began talking of a secret climb-down. London BNP members, what few there are left of them, secretly called it a “Death march”, while in the north of the country the party kept telling their activists that the march was definitely on and that white Londoners would flock to Woolwich to support the BNP’s call to deport “hate preachers”.

It’s most unlikely, given the tensions in the area, that the BNP was ever going to be allowed to march in Woolwich. Certainly not all of the way to Lewisham. Still, Griffin was made to sweat on the Met’s decision until late on Thursday afternoon. Being moved to Whitehall is a slap in the face for the BNP. The EDL were there themselves only a week before, and even the National Front has managed to march in Woolwich twice in the last ten years.

Some BNP members in London had been suggesting that they actually be able to negotiate a move of the march to the “white corridors” of south east London, places like Eltham in south east London, or either Bromley or Bexley on the Kent borders. Whether Griffin ever put those suggestions to the police, we will probably never know. Once the EDL decided to not join him on his march, he’s had no choice but to sweat it out and present himself as some kind of free speech martyr instead.

Feeling more than a bit rejuvenated, the EDL leadership has been keen to make Griffin suffer for a year of his continual attacks on them. Instead of backing the BNP’s march, EDL wreath-layings will take place around the country. Over 50 are planned at the last count.

Griffin was insisting last night that the march will still go ahead in Woolwich, not in Whitehall. Demanding that people ignore the police, Griffin’s facing another of his world famous self-inflicted great tests of his leadership. Claiming that the police were threatening to arrest him if he pursued his “determination to draw attention to mosque knife terror training”, he was still demanding, begging, for people to now break the law and join him in Woolwich.

Nick Lowles, chief executive of anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate described Griffin as both “desperate and foolish”. “He’s talked himself into this position out of hatred and egotism. He’s losing a race to the bottom.”

Last night, in sheer desperation, Griffin called upon the EDL’s leader Stephen Lennon to join him in getting arrested on Saturday. It’s unlikely that Lennon will bother.

Matthew Collins is a researcher for Hope Not Hate and author of Hate: My Life in the British Far Right (Biteback Books)

BNP leader Nick Griffin arrives to lay flowers close to the scene where Drummer Lee Rigby was killed in Woolwich, London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Matthew Collins is a researcher for Hope Not Hate and author of Hate: My Life in the British Far Right (Biteback Books).

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.