A false fascist fear
With local elections coming up, it seems that once again we are facing the spectre of a boom in the BNP vote. But you know what, as much as I dislike the buggers, it's really nothing to worry about. In fact, it could well be a good thing if the BNP do well on May 4th.
This time around they're putting up the most candidates they've ever managed - 356, out of 4,360 possible seats up for grabs, or just 8%. At last year's General Election they managed to attract around 0.7% of the national vote - a record for them - while at the 2004 European Elections, always an event to spark low turnout amongst almost all but the nationalist and eurosceptic extremes as no one else cares - they claimed 4.9% of the vote in England. During the same year, their annual accounts (.pdf from the Electoral Commission) claim an increase in membership from 5,737 to 7,916. (Which is around the number of readers this site attracted every week up until a few months back.) During 2004, despite their major European Elections push, they managed to raise just £228,000. Hardly stunning - and not even enough to buy yourself a knighthood, let alone a peerage...
So worst case scenario - assuming they attract almost double the number of voters they managed in the European Elections - we'd be left with a total of 380-odd BNP councillors (combined with the 20 or so they've got now). They'd finally be a bit of a force in local politics, rather than merely a scattered and isolated presence. You can understand how some people might find this worrying.
But no one need be concerned about the research suggesting that "25% of people have thought about voting for the far-right party". We're nine years into an increasingly unpopular, largely centrist government that's still facing no real opposition from its two main rivals, both of whom are also struggling for the centre ground.
It's only natural at this stage in the government's life cycle that people are pondering protest votes, and that the parties on the extreme political wings - be it the BNP, UKIP or Respect - are going to be the ones proportionately to benefit the most. If anything, a boom in support for the BNP would be a sign that our democracy's rather healthier than many have feared, and that people still care - even if they care primarily about not having a dark-skinned neighbour.
Yet the racial issue is not prime for many who are attracted to the BNP. You only need look at the harshness of Labour's approach to immigration over the last few years (backed up by the Tories' General Election "It's not racist to impose limits on immigration" campaign), with dawn raid deportations and the like, to see that the BNP's major policy of harsh immigration controls has been claimed quite effectively by the major parties.
It is instead the desire for a viable right-wing alternative to the rather ineffectual Tories or comically divided UKIP that is gaining the BNP support. Since the Tories collapsed in on themselves from the mid-90s onwards, and following nine years of constant leadership crises in a vain attempt to deal with Labour's lurch towards the right, the full-on right-wingers have had nowhere to turn. (And please note, my lefty chums, that "right-wing" and "racist" do not necessarily go hand in hand, as it would apear that many on the left appear to think...)
Meanwhile, the BNP have constantly been trying to shift the perception that they're a single-issue, largely racist party in an attempt to appeal - especially - to the working-class Tories who have abandoned their old party in the last decade. (The idea that the Conservatives are made up exclusively of ex-public school middle class middle-Englanders is a nice one for right-on centre-lefties with a vague memory of something called "the class struggle", but a complete myth.)
At the same time, BNP ventures into trade unionism and the former industrial heartlands of the midlands and north have been stirring up local resentments amongst former Labour voters who feel that their party, with its shift to the middle-ground and leadership by the Islingtonian cocktail party set, has likewise abandoned them.
But despite this encroachment onto the territory of the two major parties, the BNP are best left ignored. They are as tiny and insignificant as they are at heart unpleasant. For the Tories or Labour to do any more than dismiss them with a curt put-down - in much the way David Cameron recently brushed off UKIP - would be far more effort than they are worth.
To regain the votes of those who have been lulled to the extremes, it would be insane for Labour to shift back left or the Tories to venture back right. They know full well that they'll alienate more voters than they'd regain - and that despite the power of the likes of Respect, UKIP and the BNP to cause some localised upsets, the votes they attract are not significant enough in number to make any major difference. (A case can be made for UKIP having affected the last General Election, but only if you assume that every UKIP voter would otherwise have voted Tory - and even then only around 30 seats would have been affected, not enough to swing parliament back to the Conservatives.)
In dealing with the BNP, the three major parties should learn from the mistakes the Tories made with UKIP. By treating them as if they are a threat or an issue, big parties end up giving the smaller, fringe groups far more publicity than they could otherwise afford on their tiny budgets and with their tiny numbers of volunteers. When the Tories were battling UKIP for the small number of voters who actually care about the perceived negative impact of the EU, UKIP began to boom under the new oxygen of publicity. And it was this very success that has begun to cause that party's downfall.
Since UKIP actually gained some seats in the European Parliament, their support has fractured - with Kilroy-Silk's short-lived Veritas ego trip being only the most obvious example that the party's anti-EU supporters have been rather less than impressed with their performance since they managed to gain positions of influence, rather than their traditional shouting from the sidelines role. UKIP has achieved little to nothing in the European Parliament, and stories have continually emerged about their various MEPs' failures to attend votes that have, if you're being cynical, shown them just as happy to sit about the Brussels gravy-train as any of the "Europhile federalists" they spent so long attacking.
The same is true of the BNP. The few councillors they have managed to get elected have been at worst imbroiled in scandal and crises (from arrests for drug dealing to official accusations of negligence and misconduct), at best found to have poor voting and attendance records. With fewer than 8,000 members from which to select candidates, and with a core of activists who sprung out of the National Front and Combat 18 culture of thuggery, they have fewer still who are cabable of fulfilling the duties of an elected representative.
In other words, the best way to prove that a vote for the BNP is a wasted one is to sit back and wait for them to balls it up once they've gained a few more seats. With just twenty or so councillors, the cock-ups and corruption can be dismissed as an unfortunate abberation. With a hundred, it will be far harder to ignore, and voters who have been tempted by them will soon come to see their mistake. Equally, once they are elected councillors, the BNP's lackeys will be bound by innumerable bits of red tape and regulation, ensuring that the slightest breach can quickly lead to disciplinary action - along with all the local negative publicity that will cause for the party.
It is very easy to criticise parties when they're in power and have records you can point to - it is much harder to demonstrate a party's poor record if their lack of any political office means they simply don't have a record to attack.
At the same time, if a professional politician from one of the major parties starts lecturing already disillusioned voters on why a vote for the BNP is a stupid one, they are more likely to consolidate protest vote support for the far-right nutters than convince anyone to return to the mainstream fold. For once I find myself agreeing with Home Office minister Andy Burnham - "I am worried that if we give them too much coverage, it can back up the notion that they are a potent protest vote."
Letting people find out for themselves that the likes of the BNP are fringe loons is by far the most effective way of tackling them. It is for the same reason that their leader, Nick Griffin, should not have been taken to court for stirring up racial hatred - it merely gave them free publicity and made him look like the persecuted little man silent majority he so often claims to be speaking up for.
They should be allowed to spout their nonsense as much as they can - for the more they do, the more obvious it becomes that nonsense is all that it is. If the BNP can gain a few more council seats, it can only be good for the major parties who have so often mistaken them for a threat.
The BNP are regarded by those tempted to vote for them as potential saviours after years of political isolation. So were the Labour party after 18 years of Tory rule - and just look how they've turned out... I believe the phrase I'm looking for is "give them enough rope to hang themselves..."
More takes: Paul at Great Britain, Not Little England seems to agree with my take, while Chris at Qwghlm expands on some of the issues I've only briefly covered. At The Devil's Kitchen, the G-Gnome reckons the Tories should act and also tackles the "working class" problem, Sunny at Pickled Politics also looks at the issue (though irritatingly I don't seem to be able to access the site at the moment), and Pigdogfucker has the most succinct response. That'll learn me for staying prety much offline for four days - I missed a load of stuff and came in late again...