Support for far-right parties such as the British National Party (BNP) is still smaller in the UK than in other parts of Europe. But, having won a seat on the London Assembly in 2008, the party has strong hopes of winning seats in the European parliament in June 2009.
While this is a national concern, political extremism of this kind is highly localised, rooted in local issues, and demands attention at that level.
The BNP has gone through something of a reinvention in recent years by focusing on local politics and has seen an ongoing growth in support as a result. Fundamental to this development has been grassroots activities.
The BNP has become increasingly active at neighbourhood level, contesting local elections on a wide range of bread-and-butter issues, offering themselves as the solution to the unemptied bin or antisocial behaviour.
In this respect, Hazel Blears was absolutely right when she said new media was “no substitute for knocking on doors or setting up a stall in the town centre”.
The party has tried to tap into dissatisfaction with the increasingly metropolitan political establishment (in particular, a sense of having been ‘let down’ by Labour and ignored by David Cameron’s Conservatives), fears ofglobalisation and Euro-scepticism.
The BNP no longer appeals so nakedly to race as a factor in winning support. Instead, it takes genuine unease or disgruntlement with local affairs and turns it into votes.
The stereotypical image of BNP supporters and promoters as hoodlums is no longer readily applicable.
Many BNP voters do not start off being racist and their first engagement with the party is not over race, or even immigration. It may move on to that, but we need to be careful that when we condemn the party, we do not automatically condemn their voters.
Despite this overhaul, the BNP’s message of racial intolerance remains dominated by immigration and general anti-foreigner and anti-Muslim vitriol, with perhaps a subtle change in emphasis from colour to culture. The recent attempt to deny that many minority communities could ever become British shows how little the party has reallychanged.
Local authorities have an important role in putting the situation into perspective for its communities. They need to anticipate unease and correct misinformation. The real danger in the situation is if the work of the BNP is allowed to unsettle and disrupt lives, and change the attitudes of any member of an ethnic minority population to this country.
The potential for the BNP to win seats is very real.
The Institute for Community Cohesion has made a study of voting patterns for the far- ight parties, finding that in the 2008 local elections, one in 30 UK voters chose the BNP, making it the fourth largest national party. A more proportional voting system would have seen it win 140 seats.
So the elections on 4 June 2009 could be a watershed.
The BNP could be looking at a perfect storm — record low overall turnout, disgust with mainstream parties, economic unease and elections to the unpopular European parliament.
Nick Johnson, Director of policy, Institute of Community Cohesion, Coventry University