For England and St George: the English Democrats' voter base has disintegrated. Photo: Getty
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Whatever happened to the English Democrats?

Peter Davis’s election as mayor of Doncaster remains the far-right fringe party’s biggest achievement.

In June 2009, shortly after public regard for politicians following the MPs’ expenses scandal reached its nadir, Peter Davies was elected mayor of Doncaster. As he had run on a hard-right manifesto that promised tough punishments for “young thugs”, to cut translation services and “PC jobs” and to slash council funding for Doncaster’s annual LGBT Pride event, his tenure as mayor began to unravel only a few days after the election when he gave a car-crash interview to BBC Radio Sheffield. Under gentle quizzing from the station’s presenter Toby Foster, it emerged that Davies had not bothered to find out if he could legally fulfil his pledges.

Foster: OK, now you’re going to cut the number of councillors from 60 to 20 . . .

Davies: Well – we can appeal to their moral consciences.

Foster: You can’t do it, can you?

Davies: Look, you keep telling me what I can’t do. I’ll find out what I can’t do and if I can’t do it, I will tell . . .

Foster: You are finding out now; I’m telling you, Peter, you can’t do it. You’d have thought you [should have] thought of this before you started.

Davies was a member of the English Democrats – a fringe party that campaigns for an elected English parliament, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and an end to “mass immigration” – and to date, his election remains their greatest achievement. Despite widespread anti-immigration sentiment, disaffection with the mainstream parties and the rise in numbers identifying as English rather than British, the party has fared poorly in local elections and received a derisory 0.17 per cent at the 2013 Eastleigh by-election.

There is one obvious reason for this lack of success: Ukip. As the political scientist Matthew Goodwin, the co-author of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, explains, there is “no question” that Nigel Farage’s party has “hampered the progress of other radical-right movements that also target English nationalism as a recruiter of votes”.

Ukip’s support is certainly strongest in England, yet the party explicitly defines itself as British and is staunchly unionist when it comes to the UK’s member nations. Does that show there’s no appetite for English nationalism? “English identity is growing,” says Sunder Katwala of the think tank British Future, but he argues that it is usually more concerned with cultural recognition than with political representation for the English.

That desire for “cultural recognition” plays a role in votes for right-wing nationalist parties, whether they identify as British or English – a collection of “real and imagined” grievances memorably summarised by the Tory pollster Michael Ashcroft: “Schools . . . can’t hold Nativity plays . . . you can’t fly a flag of Saint George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more . . . you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist.”

With such grievances as a driving force, support for the parties can be volatile – just look at the British National Party, which five years ago was the main beneficiary of this discontent yet whose support has since drained away. It’s a lesson some of its more capable activists took to heart. After the collapse of their party following its terrible performance in the 2010 general election, they were looking around for a new home – and alighted on the English Democrats. Among them was Eddy Butler, who had been a senior member of the BNP since the 1980s, when the party did not try to hide its neo-Nazism, and who masterminded its by-election victory on the Isle of Dogs in 1993 off the back of a “Rights for Whites” campaign.

Although the English Democrats, founded in 2002 by Robin Tilbrook, a solicitor, is not fascist in origin and describes itself as “civic” (as opposed to ethnic) nationalist, its openness to former BNP members has led the anti-fascist campaign organisation Hope not Hate to list it as a “hate group”. Present and past members of the party have links with the Stop Islamisation of Europe protest group and a former BNP organiser, Chris Beverley, is a prospective lead candidate for the English Democrats in the 22 May elections for the European Parliament.

And what of Peter Davies? Shortly before he was booted out of office in 2013, he quit the English Democrats, complaining about “members of the BNP . . . being hoovered up by the party leadership”. But the boundaries between reactionaries and something more extreme are often porous – which is why it’s worth keeping an eye on the hard right, even when its most prominent activities seem to be run so incompetently.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.