What happened to the BNP?

The British political arena has long been an inhospitable place for minor parties. While UKIP is the latest to turn heads, from one election to the next history is littered with failed contenders. Back in the 1980s, it was noted how one of the more significant attempts to challenge the main parties, by the Social Democratic Party, was akin to an experimental plane: it began by soaring into the sky, glided for a while but then crash-landed into a muddy field.

While UKIP’s leader has already crashed into a field, the question of how long the party can soar through the electoral skies is up for debate. But what is certain is that its prospects look good. Never before has the British political landscape offered so much to a party that is hostile toward the main parties and immigration. But this raises another, intriguing question: with UKIP on the rise, and surrounded by a favourable climate, what happened to ‘the other’ right-wing insurgent?

Though founded only one year after the SDP in 1982, it was not until twenty years later when the British National Party attempted its own assault on the system. While never soaring, a series of impressive performances meant that the BNP did turn heads. Its number of votes at general elections climbed from only 7,000 in 1992, to over half a million in 2010. Along the way, voters gave the extreme right party over 60 local councillors, one seat on the Greater London Assembly and two seats in the European Parliament. By 2009, almost one million citizens were willing to vote for a party with a known history of violence, anti-Semitism and crude racism.

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But, by 2012, it was all so different. The total number of BNP votes at local elections slumped, from more than 240,000 to under 26,000. The party’s average share of the vote in local seats tumbled, from 18 per cent to only 8 per cent. And in London, the 2012 mayoral contest saw the BNP attract fewer first preference votes than in 2000, and finish in seventh place. Further analysis of the numbers can be found in my latest article (which is free to download). Suffice to say that they confirmed the BNP’s meltdown and added to what was already a serious internal revolt against its leader, Nick Griffin. With not a single councillor in London, and only three nationwide, electorally the BNP was finished. How did this happen?

Some might argue that the BNP’s collapse owed much to wider changes that have taken place in British politics since 2010. As concern over the economy soared, levels of public concern over immigration began to fall: while 46% of the electorate once ranked immigration as one of the most pressing issues facing Britain, by 2012 this had dwindled to 20%. This also coincided with the rise of the Conservatives, who have long been more trusted on immigration.

But an approach that focuses on the wider environment is also misleading. As the more recent fortunes of UKIP underscore, there remain ample opportunities for a party that targets anti-immigrantanti-establishment and anti-Europe politics. These are also mirrored in the results of our surveys with the Extremis Project, reported in the article. And as Tory strategists will know, their historic advantage on immigration is far from what once was. Last year, 26% of voters thought Cameron and co. were the best party to handle immigration and 18% backed Labour. But at the same time, 39% said ‘none of them’ or did not know.

Seen from another perspective, the demise of the BNP owes less to changes in the wider arena than factors that are internal to the party and, specifically, reputations. This builds on the argument that there is potential for radical right insurgents in most (if not all) Western states, and that what matters most are the characteristics of the parties that are attempting to convert potential into actual support. For instance, if this really was about economic insecurity and fiscal austerity, then surely parties like the BNP would be in the electoral fast-lane in every state that has undergone the transition to a global economy, and was then hit by the crisis? But they are not. Instead, the radical right in Austria is polling 21-23% amidst one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. And amidst economic chaos and a collapse of political trust in Greece, Golden Dawn is ‘only’ attracting one out of every ten voter.

The varying fortunes of these parties have been shaped strongly by the legacies on which they build. The argument here is one of path dependency, that ultimately the electoral destiny of a party is intimately wrapped up in, and determined by, its own history. It draws on work by academics like Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, David Art and Sarah de Lange, who show how the origins of radical right parties can profoundly impact on their evolution and performance. Those that are rooted in more legitimate traditions (say, of Euroscepticism) enjoy allies in media and politics, attract credible activists and steer clear of the damaging effects of stigma by enjoying what Ivarsflaten describes as ‘reputational shields’. These bring three important benefits to a party, which I discuss in the article. But those that are rooted in toxic traditions struggle to attract experienced activists, lack media and political allies and an image of credibility. As a result they are simply unable to shield themselves from accusations that they are beyond the pale.

The critical importance of reputational shields is underscored by the demise of the BNP, and it could be argued the current success of UKIP. Despite a wider perfect storm and a relatively competent strategy, the BNP’s ambitions were checked from the outset by a highly toxic legacy of ‘racial nationalism’. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the BNP’s own choices strengthened associations in the minds of voters between the party, violence and extremism. By the time they became interested in elections, the party had fallen heavily dependent on a small cadre of inexperienced, extreme and tainted right-wing extremists. Few grasped the nature of the opportunities that lay before them, and few had the experience that was required for a professional vote-seeking strategy. The BNP’s attempt at ‘modernization’ failed, largely because from where the party emerged, it had nowhere to go.

The party’s toxicity was reflected in its bases of support. As we showed herehere and here, the BNP failed to emulate its more successful counterparts on the continent by reaching into more middle-class, younger and better educated segments of society. Instead, they fell dependent on a small rump of older, angry white men, who had extremely low levels of education, were deeply pessimistic about their prospects and concerned primarily about the effects of immigration. This base was sufficient to turn heads, but incapable of delivering a wider breakthrough.

Today, the BNP is faced with a growing number of rivals, most of whom are united by their focus on non-electoral strategies and share a legacy that is toxic and ill-suited to modern politics. Yet other contenders on the right lack these constraints and are now reaping the benefits of a reputational shield. Anchored by its history, the BNP can only look on…

Matthew Goodwin

Download the full academic paper via Parliamentary Affairs: Forever a False Dawn: Explaining the Electoral Collapse of the British National Party.

The author is grateful to Michael Thrasher and Colin Rallings at the University of Plymouth, Gareth Harris, Robert Ford and David Cutts for their collaboration on previous studies, and the anonymous reviewers whose comments strengthened the paper.

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

London Matters for the BNP, But Prospects Look Bleak

This post first appeared over at Dr Matt Goodwin’s personal blog.

For the British National Party and Nick Griffin, the forthcoming elections in London mark an opportunity to stage a comeback. Taking place against the backdrop of withering electoral fortunes, and a recurring bout of factionalism, the elections signal a chance to put the bad blood to one side and begin focusing on the not-too-distant campaign to save at least one of two seats in the European Parliament. They might not admit it, but the London elections mean a lot to the fledgling party.

As Griffin will be all too aware, signs of an electoral revival (whatever its magnitude) would provide him with ammunition to throw at internal dissenters (of which there are now many). For the party a successful campaign would help reignite morale among weary and pessimistic foot soldiers, and perhaps give voters the impression that the thirty year-old party is not quite yet a busted flush.

In a strange sort of way, the BNP has now come full circle. It was born in London, and it was in the capital where the party spent most of its youth attempting to achieve the elusive breakthrough. But today, the party finds itself putting all of its remaining chips on a region of the country that has since become one of its weakest, and which the party had largely abandoned as something of a lost cause. Following the election of Griffin as BNP Chairman in 1999, and the subsequent announcement that votes were the new priority, the party moved its quest for votes northward, toward areas such as West Yorkshire and Pennine Lancashire. As we showed in an academic study of the BNP electorate, whereas the 1970s National Front (NF) had been strongest in London (notably the inner East End), support for its successor did move decisively north in line with this strategy. At the same time, activists and organisers from the inner East End began to decamp to areas in the outer-east, such as Barking, Bexley, Broxbourne, Dagenham, Epping Forest and Loughton. Even Griffin confessed to me during one interview that inner London was practically ‘out of bounds’ for his activists, who could no longer leaflet safely in areas such as Tower Hamlets.

For these reasons, it is interesting that the BNP is now counting on London for its electoral resuscitation. At the coming elections, the party is delivering its usual message to foot soldiers. ‘The people are waking up at last!’, exclaims one e-mail to supporters. ‘Now is our time to lead!’ Donations from these weary supporters have, the party claims, funded half a million special edition newspapers, over 500,000 ‘I Love London leaflets’, the running costs of the BNP’s ‘truth truck’ that has been touring key areas, activist teams and other literature that is being used to promote the BNP Mayoral candidate, Carlos Cortiglia, and offer voters a more ‘positive’ combination of policies. The target, it explains, is to ‘hit a total of one million voters in our best London wards’.

So, exactly what would a BNP-run London look like? Increased powers for the GLA. The ending of the congestion charge. No more residential permits. Reduced taxation. More staff for the Underground (and free travel on it during weekends). Free bus and train passes for  pensioners. No runway at Heathrow. Zero-tolerance approaches to anti-social behaviour, gang culture and violent crime. Five-year sentences at a minimum for knife crime. No ‘politically correct interference’ in policing . Raised intellectual and physical requirements for police recruitment. Improved recycling facilities. Introduction of more solar panels; and more housing. Anyone notice anything? At least in its public outward-facing message, the BNP is clearly attempting to focus on more voter-friendly and positive themes. It is only halfway through its manifesto that the ‘I’ issue crops up (‘we’ll shut the door!’). 


Do voters seem attracted by the offerings? No, not really. As I demonstrated in a book last year, unlike the far more successful radical right brand on the continent, the BNP has consistently failed to attract a broad and stable coalition of supporters. Instead, it fell dependent on a dwindling base of older, working class men who lack formal educational qualifications – hardly the stuff of an enduring electoral base. And, according to the most recent YouGov poll on the Mayoral contest the BNP’s prospects have not improved. And that is despite a financial crisis, cuts to local services, continued public concern over immigration and enduring dissatisfaction with the main parties. 

According to YouGov, the BNP is currently polling around 1%, which is a drop of 4 points on its standing at the time of the last elections in 2008, and would mean no representation on the GLA. Moreover, unlike 2008 the BNP has found the wind taken out of its sails by a declining membership, competition from the EDL, lingering financial worries and a seemingly revitalised UKIP, the latter of which has even got some serious voices on the centre-right talking-up its electoral prospects. 

As Griffin is no doubt aware, failure would almost certainly fuel his grassroots rebels who argue he can no longer deliver success. This will mean that more activists may jump ship to rival groups like the English Democrats (even Griffin has been forced to remind supporters that the EDL is actually a proscribed party), the EDL or withdraw from political activism altogether. But one thing is clear: without signs of an electoral revival Griffin is captaining a sinking ship. If the BNP steps out of these elections without representation, which in my view is likely, then it may well continue to downplay its once-heavy focus on the ballot box strategy. Within the BNP (and indeed Griffin himself), there has always been a school of thought that has prioritised street-based confrontation over electoral campaigns. If the London campaign fails, it may be that we will begin to see more of this ‘direct action’ (think EDL-style demonstrations, albeit with significantly fewer followers). Bizarrely enough, this might happen just at the moment that the EDL begins to move toward elections.

Explaining support for the far-right

Yesterday, Dr Matt Goodwin gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on the Roots of Violent Radicalisation.

The invitation follows a series of research projects on why some citizens support far right extremists, and which were generously supported by grants from the Economic and Social Research Council, British Academy and Integrating Global Society funding stream at the University of Nottingham.

After the Committee, he elaborated on three of his core points in a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free.