What's driving the BNP?

The rapid growth in support at the ballot box for a nationalist party of the right has gone hand in

On a sunny day in Stanmore, north London, a motley crew of people gathers at the Tube station. An elderly man leans on a walking stick, a faded blue, white and red tattoo saying "Proud to be British" just about visible on his forearm. The tattoo might be older than I am. Bert, a sixty-something retired heavy-machine worker, is inappropriately dressed in a woollen jumper and beige overcoat. He lets out a yelp of approval when a truck with a Union Jack on its side - carrying "British Meat" - hurtles by.

Housewives in jeans and short-sleeved tops talk animatedly about the beautiful weather. Charlotte Lewis, a 35-year-old unemployed woman from Croydon, is wearing a loud gold lamé jacket and black jeans. She speaks with a south London twang: "Sometimes I get on a bus and I'm the only white person on there," she complains. "It's a bit distressing."

A white van swerves into view, beeping at the group of 15 men and women to move out of the way. Out steps Richard Barnbrook, dressed in a khaki suit and with a roll-up between his fingers. He has the look and swagger of an old colonialist. I can picture him leaping out of a jeep in white-ruled Rhodesia in the same manner he leaps out of his white van in multi-ethnic Stanmore. His two helpers, big men in T-shirts, unload boxes of leaflets headlined "The Changing Face of London". They show a group of smiling white women at a street party in the 1940s (the good old days) next to a picture of three women wearing burqas, one of whom is giving a two-fingered salute to the camera (the bad new days).

This is the London wing of the British National Party. Five days before the local and London mayoral elections, it has come to Stanmore and Edgware in north London - which have large Indian and Jewish communities - for some last-minute electioneering. Its members are confident, even cocky, about their chances of a seat on the London Assembly. "We'll definitely get one, maybe two," says Barnbrook, who is the BNP's mayoral candidate.

Barnbrook is a graduate of the Royal College of Art, who worked with the gay film-maker Derek Jarman in the 1980s ("Me and Derek and Tilda [Swinton] hung out together, and there was never a problem," he says). His fiancée is Simone Clarke, former prima ballerina of the English National Ballet and a fellow BNP member, who has a mixed-race child. "How can I be racist when I adore that child?" he says, when I ask if the BNP is anything more than a Johnny Foreigner-baiting party. Barnbrook, who leads the BNP's 12 councillors in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, insists the BNP is "concerned about lots of things".

"If I had to put our concerns in order of importance, I would say: housing, transport, health, education, the environment and law and order." So immigration isn't a concern at all? "Well, immigration impacts on all of those things," he says. "It causes overcrowding in housing, strain on the transport system, more pollution in the environment and it disrupts law and order."

I see. Behind Barnbrook's "respectable issues" there lurks the odious far-right idea that immigrants are the root cause of every social ill.

Cocky leafleteers

Barnbrook and his eager leafleteers have reason to be cocky. At the time of writing, many predict that the BNP will make important gains in the local and London mayoral elections. In London, parties must win 5 per cent of the vote in order to get a seat on the 25-member Assembly. That threshold was introduced by the government to allow minor parties such as the Greens to be represented, while keeping out the far right. In the last London elections in 2004, the BNP won 4.7 per cent of the vote - only 6,000 votes short of the threshold for gaining a seat. This time it is expected to win bigger, especially since the UK Independence Party (which won 8 per cent in 2004) is in disarray.

Around the country, the BNP has grown in local electoral strength over the past ten years. Under its founder, John Tyndall, the party was a racist menace but electorally insignificant, only ever winning handfuls of votes. That began to change with the election of the slick Nick Griffin as party chairman in 1999. He set about trying to improve the BNP's image. The party had won its first-ever council seat in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets in 1993. After the local elections of May 2006, it had over 50 council seats: 12 in Barking and Dagenham, and a smattering of seats in the north of England: mainly in Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and West Yorkshire.

"The BNP has tended to prosper in segregated poor, white communities in the north, and in parts of the south-east where there have been unexpected infusions of new immigrants," says Tony Travers, an expert in local government at the London School of Economics. The party's vote has grown exponentially at general elections, too. In 1992, it won 7,005 votes; in 1997 it won 35,832; in 2001 it won 47,129; in 2005 it won 192,746. What is behind the growth of the BNP? How has it managed to gain a toehold in local politics?

Many would argue that the party's recent success represents the re-emergence of flick-knife racism, even that "neo-fascism" is on the march. In fact, the expansion of the BNP can be seen as a product of mainstream political failure. The party - a ragbag of ageing skinheads, slick wannabe politicians and ditzy women with chips on their shoulders - thrives on disillusionment with the three main parties.

"There is research evidence that a lot of people who vote for the BNP are not aggressive neo-fascists, but rather are cheesed off with mainstream politics," says Travers. "The rise of the BNP can be seen as a grim indicator of the failure of the Labour and Conservative parties. If the parties functioned properly, then probably the BNP could be contained. Its supporters would be tempted away by old-fashioned Labour values or by the legitimate, centre-right nationalism of the Tories."

But today, Travers says, there is a "clustering in the centre" in mainstream politics, and a "collapse of the ability of the mainstream parties to win new members and supporters". The effect has been to allow the BNP to proliferate.

"If the other parties were doing their job properly, we wouldn't be here having this conversation right now," says Barnbrook. "I know we win votes because people are angry with the other parties."

Far from being a clear-headed neo-fascist party, the BNP comes across as a mess of contradictions opportunistically trying to pick up the votes of the disillusioned. For example, Barnbrook tells me the BNP has "no problem with black people". Someone clearly forgot to brief Bert, an older member of the BNP, who says "mixed marriages are just wrong because both races become denigrated". Bert has "no comment" on the question of whether six million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, yet Charlotte from Croydon tells me she was "really, really moved" when she visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam a few years ago. Barnbrook says the BNP has "nothing in common with the thugs of the NF"; Bert tells me the NF "are decent blokes". Most strikingly, where Barnbrook tried to convince me that "millions of Britons empathise and support our message", Charlotte reveals that a party stalwart advised her to walk to the top of a cul-de-sac and leaflet outwards. "It's safer that way," she says. "You can run away if people get angry."

With them for a day, I noticed two things about the BNP: its reliance on mainstream fear about immigration and its opportunistic exploitation of people's disdain for Labour, Tories and Lib Dems. BNP doorsteppers talk about Britain being "overcrowded" and claim immigrants are polluting our environment; they argue that Poles lower British wages. These are thoroughly mainstream ideas. They tell voters, in the words of Bert: "If you're pissed off with the rest, vote for the best!"

All parties should be concerned that the growth of the BNP over the past 15 years - from 7,005 votes in the 1992 general election to 192,746 in 2005 - has coincided with political malaise and cynicism across the UK.

Perhaps the best way to smash the BNP is to challenge the mainstream fear of immigration that it feasts upon and give voters something inspiring to vote for in its place.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times