Support for the BNP isn’t just about mainstream disaffection, their campaigns are working

BNP talking to voters. Image by Matthew Barrett.

BNP talking to voters. Image by Matthew Barrett.

This post originally appeared on British Politics and Policy at LSE.

Among academics who study elections and political parties, most accept that the way a party campaigns can have important effects on its overall performance. As scholars such as Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie have argued (and shown), amidst the decline of partisanship, the increased volatility and hesitancy of voters, and the professionalization of parties, campaigns at election time can assume a vital role in getting voters out of armchairs, and into voting.

But for various reasons, this research on campaigning effects has not diffused into the study of parties on the radical and extremist fringe. Instead, citizens who support the likes of Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen or Nick Griffin are often presented as passive beings, who suddenly switch allegiance from the mainstream to the margins in response to concerns over competing in a global economy, immigration or the performance of mainstream elites. While these wider trends are seen as important ‘push’ factors, few investigate how, come election day, campaigns run by radical right parties seek to ‘pull’ voters into the polling booth, and indeed whether these campaigns actually make a difference to their electoral performance. Sure, those who study the radical right routinely stress the importance of agency, giving a nod to the important role of ideologyleadershiporganization and activists. But when we really put the literature under the microscope, how much detailed research on party campaigns is there?

Clearly, some will trace this gap to the difficulties of gathering reliable data on what Charlot described as the ‘secret garden’ of party life. For those who study the extremes, the pillars of party campaigns that are routinely explored in research on mainstream parties – such as membership, rates of activism, spending data and the targeting of seats – remain very much in the shadows. But in my own experience, through detailed and often painstaking analysis of documents, interviews and data submitted to official bodies, it is possible to paint an accurate picture of what these parties ‘do’ at the neighbourhood level.

In an article published by the European Political Science Review (and which is currently free to download), we drew on these and other data to examine the effects of the 2010 general election campaign by the British National Party (BNP). Seeking to enter Westminster, the BNP devoted significant effort to the contest, fielding over 330 candidates and adopting a targeted campaign (which you can read about here). But to what effect?

To explore this question we drew on a range of data from the British Election Study, which probes party-voter contact, and a war-chest of data on BNP finances, membership and local electoral support for the BNP and Labour (thanks to Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher). Aside from testing some broader theoretical models, we also wanted to see whether academics such as Cas Mudde were right in arguing that ‘local implantation’ is important to explaining how radical right parties -like all types of parties- rally support.

What did we find? Using Tobit regression analysis (see the paper for full info), we first of all confirmed what we previously found with Robert Ford. In its quest for an elusive breakthrough, in 2010 the BNP performed strongest in working-class areas, which depend more heavily on the (stagnating) manufacturing sector, where average levels of education are low and there are large Muslim communities. No real surprises.

But beyond these standard measures, and more to the point, we also found that support for the BNP was significantly higher in areas where the party had actually campaigned. Even after we took account of prior support for the BNP, where the party campaigned more intensely, where it had more members and where it had established a track record of local electoral success, the party reaped greater electoral dividends. While earlier focus groups indicated that the BNP’s embrace of community politics had been important to its electoral growth, even suggesting that in some local wards voters experienced more face-to-face contact with BNP activists than with those from the main parties, our results provide broader evidence that the strategy was having positive electoral effects.

We also found evidence in support of the ‘Labour disaffection’ argument, which posits that the limited rise of the BNP owed much to disillusionment within the Labour heartlands. This was perhaps best reflected in the detailed qualitative study by Stuart Wilks-Heeg who pointed to the way in which, in areas where the BNP initially emerged, party competition at the grassroots was either stagnant, or virtually non-existent. Consistent with this picture, in 2010 the BNP polled strongest in areas where Labour had controlled local politics since the early 1970s. But on the other hand, and given recent debate over the rise of the UK Independence Party, it is interesting to note that where support for UKIP was strong, the BNP struggled to make headway.

Turning to the individual level, there is no question that the BNP (again) rallied voters who were chiefly concerned about immigration. Those who ranked immigration as the most important issue facing the country were five times more likely to support the BNP, than other parties. These voters were also less trusting of politicians and less likely to express support for European integration. But importantly, and even after we control for these attitudes and the campaigns of other parties, we found that the BNP campaign still mattered. Citizens who had been exposed to the BNP campaign were still significantly more likely to vote for the party.

In conclusion, our initial motivation to undertake the study stemmed less from an interest with the BNP than to examine whether wider findings on campaigning effects also apply to parties at the extremes. Like other types of parties, our findings suggest that when extreme right activists build local support, nurture their memberships and target resources, they can positively impact on their overall result. This throws doubt on the claim made by some that what these parties do at the grassroots is largely irrelevant for explaining their electoral performance.

But also, in Britain the BNP’s 2010 campaign was framed as a failure, which owed much to Nick Griffin’s failure to cause an upset in the outer-east London seat of Barking. In itself, this result prompted a grassroots rebellion inside the party, prompting many experienced organizers to abandon the BNP for rival parties, or leave politics altogether. Yet in objective reality, at the last general election the extreme right actually more than doubled its number of voters (to over 564,000), increased its share of the national vote (to 1.9%), increased its share of the vote in seats that were contested in 2005 (again, by 1.9%), and met the 5% hurdle in over 70 seats (as compared to only seven in 2001). Moreover, despite the party’s more recent electoral collapse, our findings suggest that the party’s embrace of pavement politics, and its decision to invest in the grassroots base, appeared to be working.

Matthew Goodwin

What if Gordon Brown had called an election in 2007?

It is now more than four years since Gordon Brown decided not to have an election in late-2007. No election in post-war history has come so close to being called, only then not to happen.  Having allowed speculation about a possible contest to get out of hand, Brown baulked at the final hurdle, once shown the results of Labour’s opinion polling in marginal constituencies.

All modern-day Prime Ministers face constant media speculation about the timing of a so-called ‘snap’ election. But Brown could have killed it off, or at least dampened it down at any time. Not doing so was deeply damaging, both to him and to his party.  Labour was never again able to sell him as a ‘father of the nation’ figure. Instead it faced growing accusations that he was a calculating yet indecisive politician. As one of Brown’s closest aides put it shortly afterwards: ‘We’ve handed strength and competence away. We’ve not just lost it, we’ve given it away’. Few politicians have trashed their own brand in such a comprehensive way. Asked why things had gone so wrong, one Brown aide later answered bluntly: ‘Irresponsibility, inexperience, over-exuberance, immaturity.’ He added: ‘Not every person who is responsible is guilty of all four.’

Brown was then forced also to publicly rule out 2008 as well. A Parliament he had planned would only last three years went on to run the full five. Labour would almost never again lead in an opinion poll, and things would never look as electorally promising for the party as they did in late-2007. Given what eventually happened at the 2010 election even the 20-seat majority predicted by Labour’s private opinion polling now looks like a wasted opportunity. A conventional wisdom has already grown up around the idea that not calling the election in 2007 was one of Gordon Brown’s biggest mistakes.

That, at least, is the scenario examined in a chapter I contributed to a recent volume of political hypotheticals, edited by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale.  My conclusion, though, is less certain than the conventional wisdom.  No Labour victory, even with a small majority, can be assumed in 2007. For one thing, while Labour’s own internal polling was pointing to a small majority, the Conservative private polling was pointing to a hung parliament. Indeed, one private Conservative poll of 120 target seats, distributed only to a very small group at the highest levels of the leadership just before the election was abandoned, predicted the Conservatives would gain almost 90 seats (around 70 from Labour, 20 from the Liberal Democrats). This was not sufficient for a Conservative victory but it would have made them the largest single party, and produced a result very similar to that which would eventually result in Labour losing office in 2010. If that poll was accurate, then Brown’s decision not to call the election may not be as misguided as many now suppose.

The only saving grace for Brown might have been that in any coalition negotiations he would have been dealing with his long-standing friend Ming Campbell who then led the Liberal Democrats, and would have been more amenable to any deal with Labour than Nick Clegg was to turn out to be in 2010; but it would still have been very difficult for a Prime Minister who had thrown away a majority of more than 60 on an entirely needless election to remain in power, whoever he was negotiating with.

Even if we assume that the Conservatives’ polling was wrong, and that Labour’s polls were the more accurate, given the volatility in the electorate, who knew what change a three-week campaign could produce? A YouGov poll, conducted on 5–6 October for The Sunday Times showed a Tory lead of 3 per cent; the same polling organisation had a week earlier revealed an 11 per cent lead at the end of the Labour conference. A swing of 7 per cent in a week suggested an extremely uncertain electorate, and one which could have swung any way in an election campaign. The campaign of 2007 would have been very different from that of 2010 – no TV debates, for one thing – but the Gordon Brown of 2010 was hardly an effective election campaigner; he would have been better in 2007, but may still have struggled. The truth is that no one knows what would have happened in an election that never took place.

A more interesting hypothetical is to ask what would have happened if Gordon Brown had stuck with his original plan for a poll in 2008.  As soon as stories about an early election began to circulate in the media, he could have realised the potential damage were they to get out of control, and put a stop to them; he would have needed to say nothing publicly, merely tell his advisers to let it be known that there would be no election in 2007. With none of the hype surrounding a forthcoming election, and behind in the polls, David Cameron may have had a difficult 2007 Conservative conference. Labour could then have used the planned combined Comprehensive Spending Review and Pre-Budget Report to build on their lead in the polls. Perhaps Brown’s poll lead would have remained high entering 2008, providing the launch pad for a Labour victory in early 2008. An election in an alternative 2008, in which Brown did not make such a hash of 2007, might well have proved better for the party than a rushed election in 2007.

Perhaps the key error, therefore, was not whether to have held the election or not, but to have allowed expectations to build up in such a way that not holding it was to prove so damaging.

Philip Cowley

I am a Muse

‘We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected we’re forced to govern in prose’. So said then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo in 1985.

As someone interested in political fiction of different kinds – films, novels, television dramas and plays – I have shied away from poetry. However, I know it’s out there. Spike Milligan for example wrote a poem in which Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock get a mention. More recently (and perhaps more seriously) one of Carol Ann Duffy’s first poems as Laureate was called ‘Politics’ and, according to the Guardian, was a ‘powerful, passionate commentary on the corrosiveness of politics on politicians and the ruinous effect on idealism’.

So, imagine my surprise and delight when I learnt that an interview I gave to Sarah Lyall of the New York Times during the 2010 general election campaign had inspired a poem about politics. Of the leaders’ debates I claimed viewers were likely to regard politicians performing on television in the same way they looked on protagonists in fictional dramas. ‘It’s not that they confuse them with TV characters’, I said, ‘but that they see them in the same framework. The leaders’ debates exaggerate that by encouraging voters to focus on the minutiae rather than the policy’.

Gershon Hepner a resident of Los Angeles, expatriate Brit and self-confessed ‘prolific poet’, some of whose work can be found here read those words and was inspired, thus:


When on TV the politician

perform, the sight of inhibitions

may harm them. They must all hang loose,

ending with the truth their truce,

declaring covert war on it,

a fact which they do not admit,

acting in their soap box dramas

as wooly as lost long-haired llamas.


Every line that they have quipped

follows a most careful script

protagonists will never write,

be they center, left or right,

since their narrative’s depiction,

though not factual, being fiction,

must ring more true than fiction does,

so that voters get a buzz.


Providing that they focus on

minutiae in their marathon

they hope to win in polling booths

before unslanted, sordid truths

emerge, which they can then explain

away on TV, that takes pain

away, because when people focus

on pundits, policy seems bogus.


On television all depends.

That’s where the fiction always ends,

glossed by the commentators who

will tell you what is false or true,

which fictions that you may to believe,

and ones from which to take your leave,

performing without inhibitions,

as if they, too, were politicians.

Steven Fielding

Elections: nothing new under the sun

Despite our politicians’ constant clamour for novelty and their wish to appear as pretty modern kind of guys, nothing is truly new in politics.

I am currently researching the history of party posters since the Liberal landslide of 1906 and my analysis of their role in the 2010 campaign has just been published in the latest account of the election, Political Communication in Britain.

During the last election, Labour did something that seemed very innovative. The party called out to the public for poster designs to help it better attack the Conservatives. Labour wanted to uncover an image as memorable as the Hope poster that had proved such a potent visual symbol for the Obama Presidential campaign by tapping into the talents of those amateur designers who had so successfully parodied Conservative posters through the website

The winner, Don’t let him take Britain back to the 1980s, was designed by Jacob Quagliozzi a 24 year old Labour activist from St Albans. It played on the popularity of the BBC television series Ashes to Ashes, presenting David Cameron as the throwback no-nonsense tough guy character Gene Hunt.

The Conservatives returned the compliment by immediately releasing their own version of the poster, with a new tagline, Fire up the Quattro. It’s time for change. Labour’s poster had sought to damage Cameron by associating him with the 1980s, and therefore Thatcherism, something from which he had spent most of his time as Conservative leader disassociating himself. But Labour had overlooked the fact that Hunt was an extremely popular character – and their poster had inadvertently done the impossible: it had made Cameron seem almost cool.

This was however not the first time Labour had asked members of the public to produce poster designs: it did it in 1908 and then again in 1921.

The poster that came second in 1921 had a better fate than the one that won in 2010. For, Greet the Dawn (featured at the top of this post) was so effective it was used in the 1923 and 1929 elections and has subsequently achieved an almost iconic status within the party.

The prize for coming was second was £7. 10s – not bad for 1921 – but you would have thought someone might have spotted the designer’s grammatical error, which survived both elections. Can you spot it?

Demonstrating the continued popularity of the imagery contained in Greet The Dawn, Labour’s 2010 election manifesto cover also used the rising sun to invest the party’s doomed campaign with some optimism.

However, despite appearances, the cover was actually inspired by a Lemon Jelly album cover. Even so, what the 2010 campaign showed is that despite the increasing use of the internet for campaigning (it’s now the place where ‘posters’ appear most frequently) within politics there is very little new under the sun.

Chris Burgess