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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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Theresa May missed an easy opportunity on EU citizens' rights

If the UK had made a big, open and generous offer, the diplomatic picture would be very different.

It's been seven hours and 365 days...and nothing compares to EU, at least as far as negotiations go.

First David Davis abandoned "the row of the summer" by agreeing to the EU's preferred negotiating timetable. Has Theresa May done the same in guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens living here indefinitely?

Well, sort of. Although the PM has said that there have to be reciprocal arrangements for British citizens abroad, the difficulty is that because we don't have ID cards and most of our public services are paid for not out of an insurance system but out of general taxation, the issues around guaranteeing access to health, education, social security and residence are easier.

Our ability to enforce a "cut-off date" for new migrants from the European Union is also illusory, unless the government thinks it has the support in parliament and the logistical ability to roll out an ID card system by March 2019. (It doesn't.)

If you want to understand how badly the PM has managed Britain's Brexit negotiations, then the rights of the three million EU nationals living in Britain is the best place to start. The overwhelming support in the country at large for guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens, coupled with the deep unease among Conservative MPs about not doing so, meant that it was never a plausible bargaining chip. (That's before you remember that the bulk of the British diaspora in Europe lives in countries with small numbers of EU citizens living in the UK. You can't secure a good deal from Spain by upsetting the Polish government.) It just made three million people, their friends and their families nervous for a year and irritated our European partners, that's all.

If the United Kingdom had made a big, open and generous offer on citizens' rights a year ago, as Vote Leave recommended in the referendum, the diplomatic picture would be very different. (It would be better still if, again, as Vote Leave argued, we hadn't triggered Article 50, an exit mechanism designed to punish an emergent dictatorship that puts all the leverage on the EU27's side.)

As it happens, May's unforced errors in negotiations, the worsening economic picture and the tricky balancing act in the House of Commons means that Remainers can hope both for a softer exit and that they might yet convince voters that nothing compares to EU after all. (That a YouGov poll shows the number of people willing to accept EU rules in order to keep the economy going stretching to 58 per cent will only further embolden the soft Brexiteers.)

For Brexiteers, that means that if Brexit doesn't go well, they have a readymade scapegoat in the government. It means Remainers can credibly hope for a soft Brexit – or no Brexit at all. 

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

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