Matthew Taylor, Guardian, May 13
Senior politicians from the three main parties have held a series of private meetings amid growing anxiety about the threat posed by the far-right British National party in next month’s local and European elections.
The Guardian has learned that the latest session, which involved members of the shadow cabinet and former senior ministers, centred on new research which shows that the extreme organisation is successfully portraying itself among some voters as a mainstream democratic, political organisation.
The BNP is putting up a full slate of candidates in June’s European elections, and is expected to field about 450 others in the local elections — double the number it put up last year. The scale of the party’s latest electoral push was shown yesterday when it announced it would field 101 candidates in Yorkshire alone in next month’s local elections.
The study, by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, revealed that the party was widely perceived as the organisation most actively involved all year round in local political issues, and the group that most supporters believed “would make a difference”.
It also found that a quarter of people who voted for the BNP had supported the Labour party in previous elections.
The Rowntree Charitable Trust’s findings underline widespread, cross-party concern that the far-right group is no longer one which appeals solely to racists and fascists, despite the fact that its core beliefs remain unchanged.
Researchers interviewed 539 people in exit polls in byelections in Burnley, Oldham and Calderdale, where the BNP stood last autumn. They also conducted a series of focus groups in the same areas. Voters were asked how confident they were that the party they had voted for would make a difference.
While 33% of BNP supporters said they were “very confident”, only 30% of Labour supporters, 31% of Liberal Democrats and 6% of Tories felt this way about their parties.
Voters were also asked how strongly they felt towards their chosen party. Among BNP supporters, 53% said the party “represents my views very closely”, compared with 46% of Labour supporters, 45% of Liberal Democrats and 29% of Conservatives.
The study also showed that the BNP was perceived as the most active on the ground, with voters saying that its candidates were more likely to engage in door to door canvassing and leafleting, rather than the telephone polling which was more popular with the other parties. However, the research did offer some hope to the mainstream parties. It found that the far-right’s presence could re-energise activists from other parties and mobilise a large anti-fascist vote if it was tackled head on.
The findings of the study prompted a day-long seminar in West Yorkshire earlier this year, which followed a similar meeting last summer. At the meetings, senior Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat politicians discussed strategies to combat the threat of the BNP, while speakers from various anti-racist organisations and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust urged them to mount vigorous local campaigns to expose the true nature of the BNP and its members.
At least one member of Michael Howard’s shadow cabinet was there, and papers were passed to the Tory leader’s office. Weeks later Mr Howard launched his scathing attack on the BNP in Burnley, where he denounced the party as “a bunch of thugs dressed up as a political party”.
According to senior sources within the Labour party, the research has also helped to galvanise Labour’s leadership behind a more robust policy.
“This confirms what activists on the ground have known for some time,” a senior party figure told the Guardian. “Left to their own devices, the extremists and racists within the British National party are quite capable of generating their own distorted and dangerous publicity.
“The most effective way to combat the far-right is not to ignore them and hope they will go away, but to expose the real anti-democratic, racist agenda behind the veneer of respectability that they try to put across.”
Kevin Barron, chairman of the Yorkshire group of Labour MPs, said: “They play on people’s fears and create [the] fears that fascist parties have done over the years in Europe, and they are no different.”
However, the study also revealed that the BNP’s vote was potentially the “weakest”, with more of its supporters saying that they had considered voting for another party, and many claiming that they had only voted for the BNP to register a protest against the Labour government or Labour-run council.
Opponents of the BNP insist that the study does have a positive message. The Labour MP for Ashton under Lyne, David Heyes, who orchestrated the party’s successful campaign to defeat the far-right’s candidate in the Failsworth local byelection in Oldham last November, said: “What was widely predicted to be their ‘big breakthrough’ turned into a rout, and that was achieved by [Labour] being the party that represented the electorate on the doorstep and taking on their lies in a robust way.”
In the Failsworth byelection, the turnout increased by 26%, with Labour winning with 2,045 votes. Despite the BNP’s widely predicted success, the party polled just 539 votes.
The campaign is now held up as a model within the Labour party on how to defeat the BNP.
John Tyndall, Spearhead Online, May
According to an opinion poll published in The Mail on Sunday on April 4th, 80 per cent of those questioned on their attitudes towards the Blair Government believe that the Government is too soft on immigration. Only four per cent think its policies are too tough, 10 per cent think they are about right and six per cent don’t know.
And that’s not all. As many as 16 per cent say that they would consider voting BNP — only ‘consider’, mind you, but we may conclude that quite a good many more would in fact ‘consider’ doing the same thing but would be reluctant to confess this to an opinion pollster.
This poll shows just how dramatically public opinion in Britain has hardened on the subject of immigration in just a few years — probably only since the turn of the century. Public opinion has hardened because of what the public have seen. Their experience on the streets with immigrants and their descendants is far more of a factor in determining their attitudes than pious sermons from politicians and journalists about the joys of ‘diversity’. And as public opinion has moved, at least parts of the press — led by the tabloids — have had to move with it. At the end of the day, newspapers do not print what they think is ‘right’; they print what they think is good for business. In this, newspaper-owners have to balance the two often conflicting pressures of circulation needs and the demands of their advertisers. The latter tend to favour editorial policies that are ‘liberal’ and globalist, while the man and woman in the street, who determine circulation, lean more and more towards policies that are ‘right-wing’ and nationalist.
An increasingly nationalist-minded reading public creates an increasing market for papers that take what at least appears to be a nationalist line on immigration and Europe. This generates an even stronger nationalist consensus, as members of the public read reports and articles in newspapers — the tabloids at least — which reinforce their own opinions.
What all this means, in the simplest terms, is that we are winning. The popular tide is flowing in our favour. The opportunities for us were never greater. May we be sure to grasp them with open arms!