The British National Party is determined to contest more seats than any British extreme-right party ever before. With over 160 candidates declared for the general election at the time of writing, the BNP appears well on track to reach its target. The figure the BNP has to beat is the 303 candidates that the National Front (NF) fielded in the 1979 general election. However, their average vote of 1.5% was the end of the road for the NF, which had overreached itself and imploded. Out of the ruins was born the BNP, founded in 1982. Unfortunately there are few comparisons between today’s BNP challenge and that of the NF. The NF had never really been interested in contesting elections for their own sake, preferring a more violent path. It believed it could rise to power if it could “kick our way into the headlines” through demonstrations and marches in an attempt to “control” the streets. Nevertheless the NF did contest elections and occasionally achieved some notable results. In 1973 Martin Webster, the NF’s national activities organiser, polled 16% in a by-election in West Bromwich. This compares favourably with the 16% that Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, polled in Oldham West and Royton in the 2001 general election and the 17% that Richard Barnbrook won in 2005, the highest percentage achieved by the BNP at a general election to date.
However the NF was not geared organisationally towards contesting elections in the same sustained manner in which the BNP has focussed on cultivating wards and constituencies in recent years. The NF believed that its support, which was concentrated in the West Midlands and Greater London, would simply filter outwards but did little to facilitate such growth. NF support experienced two distinct spikes related to the influx of Asian immigrants in 1972 and 1976. BNP support in contrast, although similarly concentrated in pockets of the country, shows some sign that it is transcending the regionalisation of its core support base. Since emerging as an electoral threat in 2001-02, the BNP has fielded increasing numbers of candidates at local and general elections. It currently has 56 council seats, one member in the London Assembly and two MEPs. BNP support appears less volatile than that of the NF, which has given the BNP a measure of electoral stability that the NF never managed to achieve. There is another crucial factor, which invalidates any comparison with the 1979 general election. The BNP’s fortunes are still rising; the NF in 1979 was already in decline, which its appalling showing in the general election that year only helped accelerate. The party was in poor shape after being wracked by splits in the middle of the decade, which the temporary boost given to the NF by the arrival of the Malawi Asians in 1976 served to mask.
The party polled strongly in the 1976 local election and in the following year fielded more than 400 council election candidates across the country, achieving 235,000 votes. In the 1977 Greater London Council election the NF stood in all but one of the 92 seats and took 119,000 votes, over 5% of the total. In Hackney South the NF polled 19%. This was the peak of the NF’s electoral achievement. The BNP is simply not in the same position. Griffin is more realistic about his prospects and is standing for Parliament in Barking largely to boost his party’s attempt to win the main prize, namely control of Barking and Dagenham council. The BNP has implemented a “ladder strategy” – securing one tier of government before contesting the next – something that was beyond the resources and strategic imagination of the NF. However, it offers the BNP its most realistic chance of putting down enduring roots in Barking and Dagenham. In addition, the BNP is operating in a different political context. In the 1970s Margaret Thatcher led a resurgent right-wing Conservative Party that won support on the back of campaigning against immigration. There was also a strong left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, which acted as a pole of attraction for working-class militants.
These factors are not present today. David Cameron is desperate to divest the Conservative Party of its right-wing image but is widely disliked by the type of working-class Tories who flocked to Thatcher in 1979. The left is considerably weaker than in the past and less involved in the lives of working-class communities. The vacuum, on the left and the right, is now being occupied by the BNP. It has taken the BNP a long time to reach this position. After founding the BNP in 1982, John Tyndall perhaps unsurprisingly remained committed to the same failed strategy as he had followed while leader of the NF. The BNP would have to wait more than a decade for its first whiff of electoral success, with the election of a councillor in Tower Hamlets in a by-election. The party lost the seat in the council elections seven months later and it would be another decade before it began to focus on elections and grassroots campaigning. Unlike Tyndall, however, Griffin has belatedly learned many of the lessons of the past, making the BNP and the threat it poses in the forthcoming general election a very different proposition. Some argue that the BNP is overstretching itself by fielding so many candidates in the general election. However, the position of the BNP today cannot be compared with that of the NF in 1979.
Contesting a large number of seats will give the BNP legitimacy, a free mail shot to millions of voters and television airtime. With many of its candidates likely to save their deposits, the BNP will see the money paid out as a good political investment. The defeat of the British National Party in the court case brought by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) over the party’s racist constitution has, claims the BNP, galvanised its members to action. In truth the capitulation of Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, to the EHRC, which forced him to comply with the Equality Bill now completing its passage through Parliament, has incensed a large swathe of BNP activists who have no desire whatsoever to associate with people from ethnic minorities in their party branch meetings, now that the BNP can no longer use skin colour as a membership criterion. The vultures are circling and none more so than the National Front (NF), which is trying to take advantage of the discontent in the BNP by pitching itself as a genuine racist alternative. With its hardline ideological stance, one of which is killing people for being gay, the NF is well placed to benefit from discontent in the BNP over the theoretical prospect of minority members, which many see as the start of the “sickly spiral of moderation” that Griffin once so vehemently denounced.
Following a “palace coup” against the ossified leadership of Tom Holmes, the top dog in the NF is Ian Edward, a former BNP member from west London, who was elected chairman after Holmes’s enforced resignation in January 2010. Others in the NF leadership are the Leeds-based fascist Eddy Morrison, who at one time or another has been a member of every far-right party you can name and probably a few that you can’t; Tom Linden, the former Harrogate BNP organiser, who has proved moderately adept at getting the NF into the media; Nick Walsh, the former BNP Hull organiser, and the NF veterans Steve Rowland and Andrew Cripps. The BNP is furious with even the limited inroads that the NF is making into its support. Lee Barnes, the head of the BNP’s legal department, at one point praised the NF as “heroes” for opposing the fictitious Islam4UK march through Wootton Bassett, which failed to materialise after it was whipped up into a massive media storm. Barnes now argues on his blog that NF is part of a massive state-orchestrated conspiracy against the BNP and that it is run (depending on his mood) either by “drunks” or by “Searchlight”. Griffin is said to be livid because the NF has succeeded in enticing some BNP branches to defect, including those in Daventry and Hull. The NF has also won over some individual BNP activists. Foremost among them is Chris Jackson, the BNP’s former North West regional organiser, who challenged Griffin for the party leadership in 2007. Jackson, who has been appointed North West NF organiser, is standing as an NF candidate in Rochdale in the general election. He is joined by the former Rochdale BNP organiser Kevin Bryan and Mike Easter, another veteran BNP member, who ran the BNP “Reform Group” against Griffin’s leadership in 2007, an act of “treachery” that prompted his expulsion from the party. It is not just the threat from the NF to its activist base that worries the BNP. The NF could also pose an electoral threat if it manages to get its act together. During the 2008 London Assembly elections the NF put forward five candidates in the constituency section of the poll. Their results were good enough to represent a threat to the BNP if the two parties were to go head to head.
Their votes were undoubtedly boosted by the absence of BNP candidates against them. Only in City and East, where the NF polled its lowest vote, was there a BNP candidate who polled 18,020 votes (9.82%). Despite easily outpolling the NF, the BNP certainly does not welcome a challenge for the racist vote. The NF has announced that it intends to field 25 candidates in the general election, although it remains to be seen whether the party has the funds and people to do so. Simon Darby, the BNP’s deputy leader, is known to be less than pleased that the NF has said it will stand against him in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Outside the BNP the rejuvenated NF has also absorbed much of the rest of the far-right fringe. Several members of the England First Party (EFP), including its leader Steven Smith, the former Burnley BNP leader, jumped ship to join the NF. The Democratic Nationalists, a BNP splinter group based primarily in Bradford, have also to all intents and purposes merged with the NF after Jim Lewthwaite, their leading light, joined the NF in December 2009. The NF even briefly gained a borough councillor. John Gamble was elected as a BNP councillor in Rotherham in 2008, defected to the EFP in 2009 and moved on to the NF in March 2010. However he lasted less than two weeks before the NF announced that its “party whip was removed” from him. The NF claims that its membership has recently “surged by 70%” but it continues to lack the organisational structure and internal unity to challenge the BNP effectively.
SEARCHLIGHT APRIL 2010 - DAVID WILLIAMS
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.