The BNP, the Left and the need for reform

Following on from my rant yesterday, tenuously connecting the foundation of the Euston Manifesto with Charles Clarke pissing over every civil liberty within reach, here’s another example of how the left is just obsessed with itself:

Leaving aside the question of just how well the BNP might do in next week’s local elections, I’ve got little time for the consensus that seems to have emerged that the BNP’s alleged rise is due to Labour ignoring its traditional working class base, moving to the centre and being too friendly to rich people.

Except that this is only the consensus amongst the left, and Harry’s alternative formulation – that people just vote BNP because they’re racist – is equally over simplistic.

To be clear here, it is pretty undeniable that the vast majority of people who vote BNP do so because they accept the BNP’s scapegoating on racial and religious grounds as essentially correct. Harry is also spot on to point out that the failure of RESPECT and previously the Socialist Alliance to capitalise on the demise of Old Labour shows how the “Labour has abandoned the working class” theory is equally unsatisfactory. But if Harry’s argument is correct, we would be seeing a much bigger rise in the BNP vote across the country, and be facing a much greater threat.

There isn’t a big groundswell in support for racist policies. What we’re seeing is that in a few places people see voting BNP as the only way of having their voices heard. Yes, the fact is that their racist views (which are more widely held than we might like to think) mean that voting BNP is not as anathema to them as others, but wherever there is a vigourous political culture, the BNP do not gain a political foothold.

The real problem in these areas is that in electoral terms, they simply do not matter. Labour councillors can generally take people’s votes for granted there, but this creates a political vacuum that will either be filled by an established political party, or a fringe group, which is increasingly the BNP. In most places, it gets filled by an established political party and the result is political earthquakes such as Newcastle in 2004. But low levels of political participation means that the main parties can only focus on a limited number of places.

The real answer then is a revival of political culture. A big step forward would be electoral reform for local government, which would end one party rule; another would be a form of state funding of political parties that financially rewards mass participation and thus gives political parties an incentive to engage in the expensive business of recruitment and direct political engagement.

We have to be careful however because the wrong kind of reform in either case would do little to improve matters. Replace first past the post with a closed list system would inspire justified cynicism to breathtaking new levels. Introduce the sort of party funding that means the party’s national HQs get a big fat cheque every month for them to spend on their existing targeted and highly centralised campaigning (i.e what the Tories are currently proposing), and all you will do is seed resentment at the fact that taxpayer’s money has been lavished on ensuring the status quo.

I’m hopeful we will see progress on this over the next few months. I’m hopeful but as yet, I’m not at all confident.


  1. Quite right James. I also wonder if there is an element to this of Labour seeking to frighten its disaffected core support into turning out. If that is the case, talking up the BNP must rank as a pretty desperate measure.

  2. Joe Otten is correct.

    The Labour Party talked up the BNP once before – in Tower Hamlets, days before the BNP won the 1993 Milwall byelection. It was the wrong thing to do then and it is the wrong thing to do now. Clearly, Labour was hoping that the electorate would be scared into voting Labour to keep the BNP out, but the opposite is what happened. And there is now a serious risk of a repeat performance in Barking on 4th May.

    The BNP is marginally more effective than the National Front, because its candidates have been told to wear suits and the rhetoric has been made a little less strident. No, Nick Griffin is not a particularly appealling character, but compared to Tyndall and Webster he’s a pussy.

    Far-right parties have never been terribly successful in competing with left-wing parties for working-class votes. When they break through, it is because the established conservative parties have proved themselves ineffective – as in Germany, 1933.

    A lot of people agree with the BNP, but still won’t vote for them, partly because of the “wasted vote” argument, but also due to the lingering taint of Nazism.

    UKIP, on the other hand, is well poised to garner disillusioned conservative votes if the Tory Party makes a mess of it. It does have a problem in that it is perceived as a one-issue party, but if it broadened its appeal it could prove very effective, especially outside the metropolitan areas and among the lower middle-class (“Daily Mail” readers, if you like).

    “Respect” is most unlikely to win over substantial numbers of white working-class voters. Its electoral succes to date is due solely to its ability to attract Moslem support. A strange thing for a Marxist-Leninist Party (religion is the opiate of the people), but there never have been limits either to neo-Trotskyite opportunism or to George Galloway’s ego-trip.

  3. Of course, the rhetoric that Labour was the party of the working class was also false.
    It was more the party of organised labour unions, which leaves out vast numbers of the working class. Also there’s an assumption that all union members were labour voters, but I’m sure there’s always been a big difference between union leadership and union membership.

    Its pretty safe to say that it was the working classes which elected Tory governments in the 20th century.

    Of course, the far left and far right are pretty much the same thing.

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