"It’s tempting to write the BNP off...but...one of Griffin's saving graces will be the distinct lack of leadership calibre among potential would-be-successors..."
Aside from a bigoted woman in Rochdale and the rise of Nick Clegg, one of the stories of the 2010 campaign was the prospect of a breakthrough by the BNP. This was especially true in outer-east London, where all eyes focused on the ‘Battle of Barking’ between Labour incumbent Margaret Hodge and BNP leader Nick Griffin. Eyes also focused on local elections, where the BNP looked poised to take control of Barking and Dagenham council.
As I predicted in an earlier blog, the performance was a disappointing one. When all votes had been counted Griffin was pushed into third while his party lost every one of their seats on the local council. The BNP went from being tipped to take over the borough to being kicked out in one night. Their activists went from anticipating control over a £200 million budget to being, in the words of Griffin, “heartbroken”. What happened?
Before answering the question a reframing exercise is needed. Despite media claims which have followed the election, the core BNP vote did not collapse. The party more than doubled their number of votes, saved more than 60 deposits and their average vote in seats contested stood at around 3.8 per cent, down only 0.5 per cent on the result in 2005 despite standing more than three times as many candidates. The party also polled well in several seats where there was little or no campaigning on the ground. Even in Barking, Griffin attracted more BNP voters than in 2005 and, in fact, received more votes than any BNP candidate in the party’s history.
These votes, however, were swamped by a resurgent Labour vote and a boost of 11 per cent in turnout. This turnout enabled Hodge to increase her majority in a contest which saw almost 100 Labour MPs lose their seats. The mobilization of the Labour and anti-fascist votes owed much to the activities of the Hope Not Hate campaigners in and around Barking.
Reflecting the changing nature of anti-fascist opposition, these campaigners even recruited the help of an Obama strategist and employed innovative techniques to mobilize the anti-BNP vote. The campaign was also geared around Margaret Hodge, who took the campaign and Griffin’s challenge incredibly seriously and personally. In the face of this approach, the BNP’s pavement politics didn’t have a chance.
Yet there were internal problems too. In the weeks leading up to polling day, a court had ruled that the party’s membership policy remained discriminatory, a leading activist allegedly threatened to kill Griffin and the party became engaged in what many activists saw as an unnecessary dispute with Marmite (an early version of the BNP broadcast had featured a Marmite logo and, unsurprisingly, Marmite took legal action). Nor did footage of a BNP organizer brawling in the street with Asian youths improve prospects.
These factors combined to stifle the breakthrough. After returning from the count in Barking, Griffin perhaps took his mind back to 1979. The parallels between the performance of the BNP in 2010 and the National Front (NF) in ’79 are striking. Like the NF, Griffin ignored calls for a more targeted approach and went ‘all out’ by fielding 338 candidates, the largest number in the history of the extreme right. And like the NF, when this strategy failed to deliver the party descended into their favourite pastime: infighting.
This infighting has since escalated to the point of rival activists setting up their own website to call for far-ranging changes inside the party. Some of these activists are very influential and respected voices. The changes they propose are organizational rather than ideological: greater financial competence and transparency are the main ones.
But they also provide a striking insight into the political incompetence which has been at work inside the BNP. For instance, some claim that over the past year the BNP has distributed in the region of 30 million leaflets which feature a mobile phone number that was no longer in use.
This infighting will head in one of two directions. Either the activists coalescing under the banner of greater professionalism and financial transparency will exit and establish their own organization. Or, Griffin will hang on and be forced to make significant internal changes to acquiesce their concerns, most likely by opening up party accounts or distancing himself from a businessman in Belfast who has grown increasingly influential within the party.
It’s tempting to write the BNP off. But I said this week in The Guardian, one of Griffin’s saving graces will be the distinct lack of leadership calibre among potential would-be-successors. Some have too much baggage; others have sat in a council chamber but flounder in the face of media scrutiny. Griffin might have handled Question Time badly, but he’s easily the best of a bad bunch. He’s also keenly aware of the mistakes made in the 1970s, and his leadership is based on a party constitution which makes it virtually impossible for him to be removed. Success or significant internal reform will need to be delivered, and delivered promptly if the party is to endure in their current form.