Hector Wells, CNN News, Apr. 27
LONDON, England (CNN) — Public unease with immigration and a proportional representation voting system have presented the far-right British National Party (BNP) with a chance of winning seats in the European elections in June.
Kate Taylor of anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, which is conducting a Stop The BNP campaign, concedes there is a “big risk” of them making significant gains.
By analyzing results from the 1999 elections, Searchlight estimates that the BNP could gain an MEP in the north-west region by polling as little as nine percent of the vote.
A YouGov survey published in the Mail on Sunday newspaper in early April found that 16 percent of the British public would consider voting for the BNP.
BNP spokesman Phil Edwards says elected members to Brussels would explore the possibility of joining other, far-right MEPs from across Europe to form a voting bloc.
The party is campaigning on an anti-immigration, pro-white platform in all the UK regions, and see themselves as the only viable alternative to the mainstream parties, who Phil Edwards says are “traitors to Britain.”
The party has attempted to reform itself by creating a more media-friendly image and insists it is not racist.
But Taylor believes the changes are superficial: “On the surface level they’ve got rid of a lot of the street element, but there’s still the same old people in charge.”
The makeover has seen the party ditch its policy of compulsory repatriation for non-whites and rid itself of many other links with the past — including the former leader John Tyndall, who was expelled.
In a speech in Burnley, where the BNP has seven councilors, Conservative leader Michael Howard took the opportunity to remind voters of the criminal history of the party’s top brass.
“In 1998, Griffin (Nick, party leader) was found guilty of distributing material likely to incite racial hatred, for which he received a two-year suspended jail sentence,” he said.
“He is not alone in his Party in having criminal convictions. Tony Lecomber, the Director of Group Development, has convictions under the Explosives Act. He was also imprisoned for wounding a Jewish teacher whom he beat up on the day of the BNP’s annual conference in 1990,” he added.
In spite of these stubborn, historical stains, observers say the BNP can win votes if they remain focused on their main campaign issue.
The UK has been the top recipient of asylum claims within the European Union since 2000, and in spite of a worldwide fall in levels, had more claims (61,050) in 2003 than any other industrialized country.
Stories of bogus claimants and passport fraud in Britain’s press have made the Labour government extremely wary, and vulnerable — immigration minister Beverley Hughes resigned after becoming entangled in a Romanian visa scandal.
Tony Blair ordered government auditors to check asylum figures in the wake of Hughes’ resignation, but observers say he faces an uphill struggle to convince voters of his determination to deal with the problem.
Eighty percent of respondents in the newspaper survey said the government were not hard enough on immigration and asylum-seekers.
Against this background it’s easy to see how the BNP’s policies might appeal to a section of the population. Phil Edwards says the party “will give a voice to the public who are concerned with uncontrolled immigration.”
The BNP’s only previous successes have been at local level where they have 17 councilors, but they have been unable to break through on a national or European level.
Far-right parties in continental Europe have had greater success. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National party, reached the second round of the French presidential election in 2002.
In Austria, the FPO (formerly headed by Joerg Haider) is a member of the government coalition, as are the National Alliance and Northern League in Italy. Vlaams Blok of Belgium and Front National have MEPs in Brussels.
The hysteria surrounding the immigration debate and historically low voter turn-outs could work in the BNP’s favor, but Kate Taylor says “they don’t have that level of social acceptability” and hopes traditional British values of tolerance and social conservatism will hold.
“Culturally Britain has far less extremist views when it comes to voting.”
The election is on 10 June.