Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Two years ago Democratic Audit and two of our partners, Helen Margetts and Peter John, provoked a storm when we suggested that the British National Party had a far larger potential electoral support than specialist political scientists believed. The conventional view was that far-right parties in the UK were an insignificant political force. We compounded their ire by getting a front-page article in the New Statesman and a great deal of media coverage (but see our report, The BNP- The Roots of its Appeal, for the full story up to then).
Now Stuart Wilks-Heeg, joint author of Whose Town is it Anyway?, has published a cogent article in Parliamentary Affairs, that builds on our analysis and takes the story up to the 2007 local elections where the BNP secured 300,000 votes for 754 candidates. There are currently 55 BNP councillors, spread across 22 local councils. While the BNP’s overall share of the vote was small, at around 1 to 2 per cent, geographical concentrations of their vote have enabled the far right to establish unprecedented levels of representation in local government.
Wilks-Heeg analyses electoral data research findings from Burnley to argue convincingly that the BNP’s breakthrough constitutes a stark warning about the “advanced state of decay of local representative government in England”. Conventional analysis still insists that there is no need to be alarmed by the BNP, arguing that it hasn’t a large enough membership to stand candidates across the country and that the support it gains is little more than a sporadic “protest vote”.
Moreover, there is still a tendency to write them off as a bunch of thugs.
In fact, as we argued and Wilks-Heeg demonstrates, the BNP is a very savvy political party that effectively employs electoral strategies modelled in part on Liberal Democrat pavement politics. They do not have large numbers of members, but they are very good at concentrating them in areas that they have identified as probably sympathetic. They then capitalise on local anger about real and perceived grievances and exploit popular anxieties about immigration and “multi-culturalism”.
Of course they fail as often as they succeed. They are also not the only beneficiaries of the decaying hold of the major parties. As Wilks-Heeg points out, there are twice as many sitting Green councillors in England as there are BNP councillors. But as some commentators have also warned, the growth of the BNP vote since 2001, while heavily concentrated in a number of specific localities, “is reminiscent of that in France in the mid-1980s”, when Le Pen’s Front National was on its way to national prominence.
To race through what is a sophisticated and nuanced account that deserves to be widely read in full, Wilks-Heeg argues that the BNP’s advance cannot be attributed as it often has been (by me, as with others) to the weakness of the Labour Party locally and its turn towards central campaigning aimed at marginals. He shows that it is the collective weakness of the mainstream parties at local level that leaves local democracy vulnerable to the BNP. In Burnley, his case study shows for example that local representative
democracy is sustained by a core group of activists who constitute just 0.1 per cent of the town’s population. A staggering thought.
And now a final jump. He ends with this among other conclusions:
. . . the BNP’s xenophobic localism can have a particularly powerful resonance where emerging political controversies magnify the relative impotence of local councils. Where resources are limited and councils lack the powers to address the underlying causes of poor housing or neighbourhood decline, debates over regeneration spending or social housing allocations almost inevitably descend into emotive controversies over rationing and eligibility.
The BNP may not be “one crisis away from power”, as Nick Griffin likes to boast. But with profound economic instability upon us, they may well be nearer to the hearts and minds of many more people in local areas across the country.