Research and analysis on elections, public opinion and parties
Revolt on the Right
26 July 2011
What the BNP Leadership Result Means
Following a disastrous performance at the most recent set of local elections in May, the BNP continued its descent into infighting. Its vote collapsed. Members and activists began leaving the party. Enthusiasm for contesting elections and campaigning dwindled. And the party lost its claim to be the fastest growing party in British politics.
This discontent and a growing grassroots rebellion culminated in a challenge to the leadership of Nick Griffin. This was not the first leadership challenge, but it was the most significant. At the close of nominations on the 4th July, two candidates had put themselves forward as prospective leaders. Both have a rich lineage within extreme right politics, and both are members of the European Parliament: Andrew Brons and incumbent Nick Griffin. As the party describes, in the world of the BNP they are 'heavyweights'.
When all votes had been counted, it was revealed that Brons had only narrowly missed out on replacing Griffin by just nine votes (Griffin polled 1157 votes, while Brons polled 1148). To make the result even more disappointing for Brons, eleven ballots were spoiled.
Re-elected to lead the BNP for the next four years, and through important elections in London next year and then elections to the European Parliament, Griffin promptly declared: “The time for division and disruption is over; now is the time to heal. Now is the time to move on. Now is the time to get back to work. We have a Party to build and a Nation to save. Let us go forward together!”
But what are the implications of the result?
With Griffin at the helm, it is distinctly unlikely that the BNP will resurrect its electoral challenge by making gains at the London Assembly and then European elections. As I document in a new book, seen through the eyes of the vast majority of Britons, Griffin's BNP is damaged goods. They simply do not view the party as either a credible or legitimate alternative. The party's decade-long strategy of 'modernization' failed to broaden its appeal among women, young people and economically insecure sections of the middle classes. Instead, and like its 1970s predecessor, the party has fallen heavily dependent on a constituency of older working class men who are more likely than other voters in society to endorse the most strident forms of racism. Rather than reach out to the larger numbers of Britons who are sceptical over immigration but who distance themselves from this crude racial prejudice, the BNP depends heavily on a dwindling base of traditional racists.
This looks set to continue. Griffin's re-election is likely to entrench this negative perception of the BNP among voters. As revealed in the aftermath of Question Time, when only 4 per cent of voters said they would definitely consider supporting the BNP (this number, by the way, was lower than the per cent who said they would consider voting National Front in the 1970s), most voters remain distinctly unimpressed by Griffin. And as underscored by the negative portrayals of Griffin during the Alternative Vote (AV) campaign, the prospect of him undergoing a makeover are slim. He very much remains something of a 'hate figure' within wider society, and lacks the charisma for damage limitation. By contrast, one can't help but wonder what might have happened had Griffin stepped back into the shadows following his election to the European Parliament, and installed a more respectable and 'baggage-free' successor.
But then, perhaps Griffin never really wanted to connect with the electorate at large. Perhaps all he really wants is to sustain the racial nationalist tradition and keep alive his revolutionary ambitions, viewing the BNP as the most effective vehicle through which to do that. Perhaps electoral success and the replication of a far right breakthrough like those seen elsewhere in Europe just aren't high on his list of priorities. Either way, some things do appear certain. The BNP under Griffin will not disappear from British political life, but nor will it achieve a wider breakthrough at elections. Instead, it looks destined to occupy an awkward middle-ground: rambling through the margins and struggling for survival amidst an increasingly competitive right-wing scene.