As the Labour Party goes into meltdown and the end of Gordon Brown’s tenure at number 10 seems to be coming to its timely climax, the country go to the polls today to vote in European and local elections. When the results of the European elections are announced, much of the focus will be on Labour’s share of the vote and the impact this has on Brown’s demise. But what about the number of votes picked up by the BNP?
According to the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo), support for far right parties such as the British National Party (BNP) is smaller in the UK than in other parts of Europe. But following its success in winning a seat on the Greater London Assembly (GLA) last year, the party now has strong hopes of winning seats in Europe.
Aside from the woes of the Labour Party and the MPs expenses debacle that has tarnished all the major political parties, the BNP have some reason to have high expectations. In the 2008 local elections, one in 30 UK voters chose the BNP, making it the fourth largest party in the country. Labour candidates attracted an average of around 500 votes while BNP candidates attracted almost 400. If local elections were held on a proportional voting system, the BNP would have won around 140 seats.
Take for example Birmingham. Across all of its 40 wards in the same elections, the BNP averaged 7.52% of the vote. If Birmingham City Council had employed a system of proportional representation similar to the GLA, the results would have been enough to give Birmingham its first BNP councillor.
Unlike national and local elections, the European elections are held on the basis of a proportional voting system.
Politically, the European elections offer the BNP the opportunity to breakthrough that they desperately crave. If figures in circulation can be trusted, a single MEP could provide the party with as much as £250,000 a year in salaries, resources and office costs. A significant increase on the amount of funds they currently receive.
And the BNP only needs a slight improvement on its 2004 vote to achieve this. In the North West, where party leader Nick Griffin is standing, the BNP only needs to add 2% to its 2004 vote of 6.4% to be virtually guaranteed a seat. In Yorkshire and The Humber and the West Midlands the BNP needs only a slightly bigger increase to secure seats.
Unlike all of the major political parties, the BNP has seen an unprecedented growth in support in recent years. iCoCo suggests that this has come about on the back of a greater focus on grassroots activities, an increasingly active network of supporters willing to campaign at neighbourhood level, and the contesting of local elections on a wide range of “bread and butter” issues. In all of these instances, they campaign for those people that feel that their voices are no longer heard.
It is interesting that Hazel Blears should state in her resignation letter that “most of all I want to help the Labour Party to reconnect with the British people, to remind them that our values are their values, that their hopes and dreams are ours too” because most of the surge in support for the BNP appears to be coming from those that feel they have been let down or even forgotten about by Labour. Maybe the words of Hazel Blears will ring even louder in the ears of the Labour elite once the results of the European elections have been announced.
The BNP is also no longer the openly racist entity that it used to be. Nowadays it succeeds by taking genuine unease and disillusionment and turning it into votes. Yes, an underlying message of intolerance remains, especially in relation to immigration and Islam, but the people voting for them are not necessarily doing so because that is their main concern. Suggesting that all the BNP’s supporters are racist or Islamophobes therefore is counter-productive and completely unfounded. No, the voters are turning to the BNP because they see them as an alternative to what’s already out there. And more importantly, one they believe is an increasingly credible alternative.
This year’s European elections could therefore be a watershed. Similarly, they may not. But with expected low voter turnout, disillusionment with the mainstream parties growing, economic instability affecting the people that are already the most excluded, the meltdown of the Labour Party, the unpopularity of dead man walking Gordon Brown, the arrogance of the MPs accused in the expenses scandal, and an undoubtedly unpopular European parliament, the landscape is ripe for them to do well.
It would therefore be crass to say don’t vote for the BNP. But I hope you don’t.
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.