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What killed the BNP?

It's not extinct, but it might as well be.

The British National Party is not quite dead yet. On Friday, the Electoral Commission announced that the BNP had failed to confirm its registration details, and so had been removed from the official register of political parties. Within hours the party posted the necessary paperwork to the Electoral Commission, and expects to be re-registered by the end of this week.

Not that it matters much. The BNP might not be officially extinct, but the party has already descended into irrelevance. From 563,743 votes in 2010, the party won only 1,667 votes in the general election last year. It has collapsed from 338 councillors to just two, and lost both its European Parliament seats to boot. Only a few hundred members remain. The party’s offices in Wigton, in Cumbria, appear abandoned, with party work taking place at the home of one of the BNP’s admin staff instead, according to Matthew Collins, director of research for Hope not Hate.

The BNP’s collapse is partly a classic tale of factionalism and vicious infighting destroying a political party. Many BNP members came to loathe Nick Griffin, who hoarded power during his 15 years as BNP chairman from 1999, almost as much as those outside the party.

For years, an ugly war simmered between Griffin and Andrew Brons, the two men elected as BNP MEPs in 2009. Brons came within nine votes of ousting Griffin as leader in 2011, and then quit the party in 2012, railing against how Griffin had “destroyed the party”. A year before Brons left to join the British Democratic Party, 400 BNP members moved to the English Democrats with Eddy Butler, a senior BNP figure, in 2011. Griffin was eventually expelled from the BNP in October 2014 for "trying to cause disunity".

The BNP’s strategy was also flawed. After successes in 2008 and 2009, the BNP “gambled everything” in the 2010 general election, Collins says. The party stood in 339 seats at the general election, and won over half a million votes: 1.9 per cent of UK voters. Yet the election “nearly bankrupted us,” admits Stephen Squire, a party spokesman and London BNP organiser. Two hundred and sixty-seven candidates got under five per cent, leaving the BNP to foot the bill for £133,500 in lost deposits.

But even the best-organised party in the world could not have overcome the British public’s contempt for crude racism. Every generation in Britain is becoming less racist than the last: while almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do. This was reflected in the BNP’s poor performance among young people: 18-24-year-olds provided only 11 per cent of the BNP’s support, compared with 40 per cent for the National Front in the 1970s. Unlike the most successful far-right parties, the BNP failed to link immigration to a wider political narrative, allowing the party to be depicted as racist thugs: BNP policies were far less popular when associated with the party.

The BNP also suffered from being confronted head-on by the anti-extremist group Hope not Hate. In 2010, Griffin expected to be elected MP for Barking, where the BNP had won 41 per cent of the wards they contested during the previous local elections. Hope not Hate mobilised 1,500 volunteers and handed out 350,000 newspapers, leaflets and letters across the borough before the elections; not only did Griffin lose, but the BNP’s vote share actually decreased from 2005.

“We organised a massive voter drive and hammered the BNP on the ground,” Collins says. “Everywhere the BNP got a foothold, our activists worked hard in each local community to expose and undermine their message of division. We ran very localised campaigns in each area. Our campaigners were backed up by our research team, who continually found dirt on BNP councillors and candidates. Only a handful of BNP councillors held on to their seats in subsequent elections after 2010.”

Yet perhaps most important to the BNP’s collapse was the rise of Ukip. “Ukip are stealing our policies,” Squire says. He has previously called Ukip “an establishment safety valve”, while Griffin attacked Ukip as “plastic nationalists”.

“No one has done more to damage the BNP than me,” Nigel Farage has said, claiming that Ukip has absorbed a third of the BNP vote. Farage has described Ukip’s message for BNP supporters thus: If you are voting BNP because you are frustrated, upset, with the change in your community but you are holding your nose because you don’t agree with their racist agenda, then come and vote for us.

There is a significant overlap between BNP and Ukip voters – both are older, poorer, whiter and more male-dominated than the population as a whole – and Ukip has wooed thousands of former BNP supporters. “There is a clear relationship between the rise of Ukip in local elections and the disintegration of the BNP," says Matthew Goodwin, the author of UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics. “The same social groups are underpinning both parties, as they are radical right parties across Europe.”

Ukip’s rise is a reminder that, while the British public has rejected the BNP’s crude racism, the population is still deeply dissatisfied with the political elite. Only 15 per cent of voters today feel close to the main six parties (the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Ukip).

The loathing of mainstream politicians has not gone away, even if the BNP is no longer a beneficiary. “Resignations and expulsions are a regular, almost daily occurrence, now,” Collins says. “There are now no longer enough people in the party for factions and splits.”

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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