Whether or not the European elections in June will produce Britain’s first ever far-right MEP, the British National Party (BNP) poses a real threat.
Although the far right is often viewed as an ephemeral phenomenon, the factors underpinning its support are not. Working-class anxieties over immigration and multiculturalism are often dismissed as bigotry, but concerns run deep.
According to one poll, 60 per cent of Britons feel that there are too many immigrants in Britain, and 80 per cent feel that the government has lied to them about the scale of migration. In another poll conducted on the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, nearly half of voters said they would support policies encouraging migrants to return to their country of origin.
And immigration is brought up by between three and four in every ten respondents in regular MORI polls asking about the most important problems facing the country. Put simply, these concerns need to be addressed.
Another reason the BNP needs to be taken seriously is its changing strategy. It is often pointed out that the party has replaced boots with suits and ditched street fighting for community politics. Yet arguably the most significant change has taken place in cyberspace.
According to the Alexa rank, which measures the level of traffic to an internet site over the past three months, the BNP, in 45,000th place, easily outperforms all the major parties (as well as other popular political sites such as the Guido Fawkes blog, which is at 57,000th).
The BNP also finishes first when the average number of minutes that users spend on a site is taken into account: over the past three months visitors to its site spent longer there than users on the website of any other political party. Surfers on the BNP site spent on average 6.3 minutes a day checking out the party and its ideas, compared to 2.6 minutes for the Conservatives.
For the European elections, the BNP is launching an unprecedented online campaign. While retaining its emphasis on door-to-door canvassing, the party will also use online advertisements and send text messages to random numbers, asking voters to donate small sums and spread the word to friends and family. Voters who decide to make an inquiry will find themselves directed to one of several call centres that the BNP has set up in the hope that, whether or not it wins a seat at Strasbourg, it will finish the campaign with a much-enlarged membership base.
The BNP’s shift towards an Obama-style online strategy enables it to circumvent the tactics used by other parties to starve it of publicity, and also shows up the dangers of that approach.
Previously, mainstream politicians have refused to co-operate with democratically elected BNP councillors, and newspapers have ignored or condemned the far right. But this risks fuelling a sense among voters that the Establishment is out of touch and does not take their concerns seriously.
Meanwhile, the durability of BNP support in areas such as Barking, Dagenham and Stoke shows that just simply bashing the party as “Nazi” no longer works. Voters in some areas are so exasperated with the political Establishment, and so desperate for an alternative, that they don’t care about the party’s extremist credentials.
The BNP is sidestepping a hostile press and an indifferent political elite by delivering its message direct to the desktop. Regardless of what happens in June, the challenge it poses is now more complex and multifaceted in nature, and calls for a more innovative response than that which is currently on offer.
Matthew Goodwin is a fellow of the Institute for Political and Economic Governance at the University of Manchester