Why has the BNP collapsed? Tim Wigmore visits Stoke-on-Trent to investigate the reasons for the BNP’s decline – and wonders whether Ukip stand to benefit.
Nick Griffin arrives to lay flowers close to the scene where Drummer Lee Rigby was killed, on May 24, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
“The BNP were toss pots,” observes a grizzled former steel worker in the pub. “They were a load of thugs.” I am in The Last Orders, a dingy, male-dominated enclave in Stoke-on-Trent. The British flag hanging out of the windows is the only nod to the pub’s recent history as a stronghold for the British National Party.
Nick Griffin once hailed Stoke-on-Trent as the BNP’s “jewel in the crown”. Things are very different now. Mr Griffin’s financial affairs – he was declared bankrupt in January – embody his party’s fate. In 2011, the BNP’s councillors were wiped out in Stoke; and in the two most recent council by-elections in the city, the party hasn’t even mustered three per cent of the vote. Nationwide, in the 2012 local elections, the BNP’s total vote share collapsed from 240,000 in the corresponding elections in 2008 to just 26,000. From a peak of 58 councillors in 2009 it now has only two left; the two MEPs the BNP had after the last European elections will become none this week. Where did it all go wrong?
If one characteristic defined BNP voters, it was their depth of desperation about the state of modern Britain: 80 per cent of its supporters were dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy in Britain according to a survey in 2011.
The collapse of three main industries – steel works, potteries and mines – made Stoke-on-Trent especially susceptible to the BNP. By 2008, the city had nine BNP councillors, won through classic electoral tactics: playing on people’s fears but, much more importantly, a hyper-local emphasis. “The councillors knew what they had to do,” a Labour source says. “They didn’t win just by being racist.” In the city where Oswald Mosley had galvanised supporters in the 1930s (and his wife had been elected as an MP in 1929 under the banner of the Labour Party), British fascism was stirring again.
In areas where the Conservatives were loathed and to vote for any party other than Labour was to break with orthodoxy, despondent voters had nowhere else to turn: for a period in the late 1990s, Labour controlled every council seat. But against this backdrop, the party was being attacked for abandoning its working-class base on issues like housing, jobs and immigration. Stoke-on-Trent, with its combination of high unemployment; a climate of fear and uncertainty after deindustrialisation; and dysfunctional local politics, was a particularly unfortunate seat to be filled by Labour’s last Old Etonian MP, Mark Fisher.
Labour’s “complacency” created a political space for the BNP, according to Mick Harold, the chairman of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent branch. “There’s been no investment for years and years. I don’t think the BNP picked up support for any other reason.” Mohamed Pervez, the Labour leader of Stoke-on-Trent city council, acknowledges that “The party recognised the need for change” – tacit acceptance that Labour’s failings in the late 1990s, when at one point it controlled every council seat, helped to facilitate the BNP’s surge. Abi Brown, the leader of the Conservative Group on Stoke council, says that they benefited from a political “vacuum” as parties “started to lose the connection between ourselves and our electorate.” Its success “gave the mainstream political parties like my own a reality check that we needed to do more to win seats than a few leaflets at election time.”
Belatedly, the BNP were confronted head on. Hope not Hate, a pressure group that combats racism and fascism, employed two full-time people to work in Stoke-on-Trent before the 2010 general election and enlisted community, local and trade union groups to fight the BNP, with some volunteers working from 6am to 11pm. Hope not Hate had an even larger presence in Barking, where they had 400 people volunteering every day before the last general election in the seat in which the BNP once had 12 councillors. Sanchia Alasia, a Labour councillor in Barking, explains: “reconnection started by developing local action teams in each ward, that would knock on doors each week, to find out the issues that residents were concerned about and take these issues up for resolution with the council.”
But, as important as their efforts were, there may be a more mundane reason for the BNP’s collapse. “Our greatest asset was Nick Griffin,” admits Matthew Collins, an organiser at Hope not Hate.
Far-Right parties must choose between one of two broad strategies. Court respectability, as the Front National has sought to do in France, or seek solace in “purity”. Historically, the BNP preferred the latter. That changed when Nick Griffin became chairman of the party in 1999, and ramped up the focus on winning elections.
But a significant rump of BNP members invariably retained doubts about the strategy. And the party’s attempts to build on its early successes were decimated by the actions of prominent BNP members. A candidate was jailed in 2007 for stockpiling explosives; an organiser brawled with Asian youths in the streets in 2010; in the same year, the head of publicity, and a parliamentary candidate, was arrested for allegedly threatening to kill Nick Griffin a few weeks before the general election. It was a similar tale in Stoke, where Michael Coleman, a former councillor and a parliamentary candidate in 2010, received a suspended jail sentence for using racist language online 18 months ago.
The leader didn’t help, driving the party’s descent into inward-looking factionalism. Mr Griffin’s dictatorial management of the BNP and a poor performance on Question Time in 2009 eroded his popularity. A disastrous electoral showing in Barking in 2010 made things worse: despite throwing resources at the seat, Mr Griffin recorded a lower percentage of the vote than the BNP candidate in 2005. He only just held on, by nine votes, against a challenge for the party leadership by Andrew Brons, then the other BNP MEP, in 2011.
Mr Griffin pleaded with his party that the “time for division and disruption is over”, but it didn’t listen. In October 2012, Mr Brons resigned, halving the BNP’s representation in the European Parliament at a stroke, claiming that Mr Griffin had described him as “vermin” and a “state agent” and had “destroyed the party of which he is still nominally head”. Fatally, he took a number of the party’s best organisers with him to launch the British Democratic Party. The BNP once monopolised the far-Right scene, but no longer: 149 other candidates from radical and extreme Right parties stood in the 2012 local elections. And Mr Griffin’s reaction to the militant English Defence League increasingly descended into paranoia: in 2012, he released a report claiming that it was run by “Zionist terrorists” who wanted to split the far-Right.
Ultimately the racism espoused by the far-Right was never more than a niche taste. Research showed that the BNP’s policies were far less popular when associated with the party. Its failure was rooted in not developing a “reputational shield” to foster an alternative legacy to crude racism. Across Europe, the parties that benefit most from anti-immigration feeling are not explicitly racist parties – “Bring No Pakis” is how a man in the pub refers to the BNP – but those that link immigration to a wider narrative, as Ukip has successfully done. 21st Century Britain has little time for bare-knuckle racism, and the far-Right was always fighting against the demographic tide: 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.
If the BNP has collapsed, a pivotal question is: where are all its voters going? They amount to serious electoral bounty: 940,000 votes and over six per cent in the last European elections. In Stoke’s three constituencies in the last general election, the BNP won over eight per cent of the vote. Nationwide, the party won two per cent – a total of 564,000 votes.
The caricature of BNP members as unemployed skinheads is not entirely accurate. In Stoke, as elsewhere, much of the BNP’s vote came from the skilled working-class. The BNP were appealing to people who “did have a bit to lose, were scared of losing it – and that combined with a more general sense of decline and a sense that mainstream politicians were no longer listening,” explains Daniel Trilling, the author of a 2012 book on the BNP.
Support came from three distinct blocks, according to Hope not Hate’s Matthew Collins, a former National Front and BNP member. First, the hardcore racists likely to support a far-Right party no matter what; second, those concerned that their ideal of Britishness is on the wane; and the biggest group, the disillusioned white working-class vote. Mr Collins believes that this “will probably have switched to Ukip”.
The BNP’s strongest support was among those in economically deprived Labour-supporting areas – and Ukip is openly courting such voters. “For the last three years, we’ve been telling those who vote for them out of frustration but don’t agree with their racist agenda to vote for us. No one has done more to damage the BNP than me, Nigel Farage recently wrote.
Mick Harold will challenge Tristram Hunt in Stoke-on-Trent Central in 2015. He complains that Mr Hunt was “parachuted into a safe seat” and that “every MP should live in their constituency and have some affinity with their constituency”, pointing out that Labour rejected more local candidates. Mr Harold attacks the Shadow Education Secretary as an elitist, accusing him of “not backing the fight to save the war memorial in Stoke city centre”.
Yet Ukip has failed to win any councillors in Stoke. It was independent candidates, now coalesced under the banner of the City Independents, who seized on the combination of Labour’s weakness and the BNP’s collapse, and today control 10 of the 44 council seats. “They talk the same language as us”, Mr Harold says. “If there were no City Independents we would have expected to have taken seats by now.” But he believes that they are “favourable to doing some sort of deal”, perhaps with Ukip standing in selected seats in return for not challenging the City Independents in their council seats. Mr Harold’s hope is that Ukip can unite the anti-Labour vote: “We’ve had three Labour MPs for as long as anyone can remember, and they’ve never given us anything.” Research by Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford in their new book “Revolt on the Right” suggests that the seeds of a Ukip surge are in Stoke: a combination of low turnout and the track record of the far-Right means that Stoke-on-Trent North ranks in their list of the ten seats most favourable to it. Tristram Hunt’s seat ranks a little lower down, but local factors, especially the feeling that Labour MPs are moving away from the party’s working-class roots, count in Ukip’s favour.
In old BNP heartlands, Ukip still faces fundamental obstacles. The economic desperation that contributed to the BNP’s rise is abating: a recent report suggests that Stoke has grown by 13.5 per cent since the Crash. With Labour in opposition, the party becomes a more natural recipient of protest votes, especially as it has inched rightwards on immigration. Stoke is disproportionately reliant on public sector jobs, making Ukip vulnerable to Labour depicting it as a threat to these; the party’s deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, admits that Labour linking Ukip to Thatcherism could be “very dangerous”. My cab driver observes: “They’re pissed off at the government for the bedroom tax and stuff so they’re going back to Labour.”
Yet, even if British fascism faces electoral collapse, its stench still lingers. “The EDL are very big here,” the cab driver remarks. “I think a lot of people are going to them.” The underlying conditions – despair, anger at immigration and contempt for politicians – that enabled the BNP’s success also remain. “The BNP tried to target people on benefits and stuff,” the cab driver says. Unsurprisingly, in 2010 the party’s best results were in the seats that had experienced the largest rise in unemployment since 2005.
Six years ago, two members of Ukip’s national executive committee supported a pact with the BNP, recognition that, while the parties have different messages, they appeal to very similar voters. The anger that led to the BNP’s rise still lingers today – even if the beneficiaries are different. Back in The Last Orders pub, the former steel worker has made his mind up: “Ukip. Nobody else to vote for is there?”