|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
The BNP’s mixed results
THE FAR-RIGHT British National Party (BNP) did not make anything like the gains it was hoping for in May’s elections. Instead of doubling the number of BNP councillors – put forward as a prospect on its website just before the election – it won ten seats and lost eight, leaving it with a net gain of only two more councillors.
This could create difficulties for the leadership, who have relied on successful election results to keep key activists on board with their project of reinventing the BNP as a far-right populist party.
The results, however, are by no means a sign that the BNP’s influence is beginning to shrink. The very fact that 744 people were prepared to stand as BNP candidates to district or city councils in England (compared with 363 in 2006 and 221 in 2004), and that the BNP was able to put forward a full slate of candidates in all the regional constituencies for the Wales assembly and the Scottish parliament, shows that it is seen as a credible alternative to the main parties by a wider layer of the population than before.
The election results are very mixed. The BNP won several seats in new areas – one each in Broxtowe (Nottinghamshire), Charnwood (Leicestershire), Staffordshire Moorlands council and two in Northwest Leicestershire council. It lost one and gained three in Stoke-on-Trent, lost one and gained one in Bradford, and lost three and gained one in Burnley. In Halifax the BNP lost one of its two remaining councillors; in Broxbourne (Hertfordshire) and in South Holland council (Lincolnshire) it lost its only councillors. It also gained various parish councillors who were mainly elected unopposed (the BNP like to inflate their councillors’ numbers by counting parish councillors along with district/city councillors).
In Burnley, where the BNP made its first significant breakthrough into local government, the BNP is now the smallest party, with four councillors compared to eight in 2003. Its vote has dropped consistently from an average of 768 per candidate at its high point in 2002, to 423 in 2007. Doubtless, the BNP councillors’ miserable record in representing their constituents has something to do with this.
In March this year the BNP was still the third-biggest party on Burnley council, where no party has overall control, so it was in a good position to stand up against cuts in services and increases in council tax. Instead, BNP councillors voted with the main parties for increases in council tax and cuts in spending, including cuts in the Citizens Advice service (CAB) which could mean the closure of its outreach service in an area the BNP represents.
In Stoke-on-Trent, the BNP’s vote held up better, polling 29% across ten wards with an average vote of 836. However, within a week of the election, the BNP had lost one of its seven councillors – Mark Leat, who resigned in disgust after Albie Walker was appointed leader of the BNP group instead of himself. Councillor Leat is now rumoured to have joined the Tory Alliance (a local split-off from the Tories).
But even in many areas where the BNP did not win councillors, it got very worrying votes. In Sandwell it came second in seven wards, with between 25-35% of the vote, and third in the remaining eight it stood in. Even where the BNP did not do so well, like in Sunderland, it still got over 10% of the vote in twelve seats.
In Scotland the BNP had to import candidates from England to allow it to stand in all eight regional constituencies for the Scottish parliament. However, this was a much bigger campaign than it was able to run in 2003, when the BNP only stood in the Glasgow regional constituency. Its vote in Glasgow increased from 1.2% to 1.9% this time, and its total vote across Scotland was 24,616, varying from 0.9% to 1.9% of the poll.
Significantly, Solidarity, the new party led by Tommy Sheridan and supported by CWI members in Scotland, was the only left party that beat the BNP: in Glasgow, the West of Scotland, Central Scotland, Lothians and the South of Scotland. In the Highlands and Islands, Mid Scotland and Fife, and North East Scotland, the BNP came ahead of all left parties.
In Wales the BNP got 42,197 votes (4.3%) in the assembly elections, including over 5% in South Wales West and North Wales. This is a substantial increase on the last assembly elections in 2003 when it polled 1.9% in the one seat it contested, in South Wales East.
So how can the BNP be stopped? In some areas there is no doubt that a determined campaign to mobilise the anti-BNP vote did help stop the BNP being elected in the short term. But to limit the campaign against the BNP to propping up the votes of the main parties ignores the very reasons for the growth of the BNP and so can only be effective in the short term at best. In some areas it can be counter-productive.
In Stoke the BNP blamed the loss of Steve Batkin’s seat on such a campaign, but in another ward the Labour leader of the council lost his seat to the BNP mainly because he was the key person pushing for the closure of six out of twelve elderly care homes in the run-up to the election. It is the pro-big business policies of the three main parties that repel voters. To cut across the BNP’s support we need a genuine alternative that stands up for working people.
One example can be seen in the Crosland Moor & Netherton Ward in Huddersfield, where the BNP has still not recovered from 2006 when Jackie Grunsell, standing as Save Huddersfield NHS, was able to win the council seat and push the BNP into second-last place with 9% of the vote. This year, with Ian Slattery polling a very good 18.6% vote for Save Huddersfield NHS, the BNP remained second last (polling four more votes than last year but with a slightly lower percentage at 8.9%).
In Huddersfield’s Heckmondwike and Dewsbury East wards, where BNP councillors were elected last year, a combination of a reaction against the BNP and a big campaign by Labour, trade unions and Searchlight, succeeded in mobilising the anti-BNP vote enough to prevent it getting further councillors elected. However, in Heckmondwike this was achieved mainly by getting people to switch their votes from the Liberal Democrats to Labour, and in Dewsbury East it didn’t stop the BNP increasing its vote significantly to 2,088 (34.7%).
The growth of local anti-cuts campaigns prepared to stand in elections is a welcome boost to the campaign to stop the BNP, and an important step towards the formation of a party that stands for working people. These campaigns can build a positive pole of attraction and, if they linked up on a local or regional level, could give both solidarity to each other’s campaigns and build a broad challenge to the main three parties in future elections.
The BNP leadership will be desperate to portray the election results as a widening of the BNP’s support, not a step backwards. There are big tensions within the BNP which are much easier to keep the lid on when the party is seen to be going forward, and socialists should continue to monitor what happens.
Hopefully, we will not see any layer of the far-right turning from the electoral field to terrorism at this stage, like David Copeland, an ex-BNP member who planted nail bombs in Brixton, Soho and Brick Lane in 1999 in the hope it would begin a ‘race war’ to help the BNP sweep to power. However this cannot be ruled out, as was shown last year when a massive arsenal of explosives was seized at the Lancashire home of Robert Cottage, who had previously stood on three occasions as a council candidate for the BNP and been defeated each time.
Elsewhere on the far-right, the National Front has definitely lost the electoral contest with the BNP, getting miserable votes in most direct contests. But other far-right candidates in some areas scored reasonably well in comparison with the BNP. The England First Party, for instance, set up by ex-Burnley BNP organiser Steve Smith after he was expelled for differences with Nick Griffin, got within 100 votes of BNP candidates in Burnley. It has had no major breakthroughs, but this level of votes may be high enough to encourage a few dissatisfied BNP members that leaving the BNP is not the pathway to oblivion they might have feared.
Whichever path it chooses, it is clear that the far-right in Britain will continue to do its best to stir up racism and division and push the political debate even further to the right.