>> Leadership enforce strict discipline to make party appear respectable
>> Local tensions exploited for votes
The BNP put up 116 candidates in the general election in May 2005 and won 4.3% of the vote across the seats they contested. The party polled 16.9% in Barking, its main target and its highest share of the vote anywhere in the country. It obtained more than 5% of the vote in 33 of the seats it contested.
Currently, the BNP holds 20 seats on councils: Bradford City MDC (3); Broxbourne BC (1); Burnley BC (6); Calderdale MBC (3); Epping Forest DC (3); Kirklees Metropolitan Council (1); Sandwell MBC (1); Stoke-on-Trent City Council (2). The party has proved itself capable of winning places on councils with more than half the votes cast in local wards, and is placed to contest seats where a 5% swing on past
performances could see them win. In May 2004, it missed a place on the Greater London Assembly only because of spoilt ballots. The main aim in the general election was to prepare the way for a targeted campaign for the 2006 local elections in the London 'doughnut' - the ring of outer London boroughs, such as Barking & Dagenham, Havering and Hounslow - and parts of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands.
The BNP is no longer the 'marginal' far-right presence of conventional academic and political thinking. The party has over the last seven years grown into a national phenomenon, significant and widespread across several English regions. Its appeal is no longer restricted to a few localities such as the East End of London or parts of Yorkshire. It is increasingly a sophisticated party with developing electoral strategies, a nose for opportunities and a fund-raising website that stands comparison with those of any other political party.
It would be a mistake to regard the BNP as 'mainstream' in national or regional terms. However, the party is capable of achieving a mainstream presence in localities across England - towns are often known as 'a BNP town'. The trouble is that wherever it has such a presence, it pollutes political life, divides communities and spreads prejudice. It openly seeks to encourage and exploit anti-Muslim feeling and there are signs the party gains electoral support in areas with Muslim communities of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin.
The party's electoral breakthrough derives from the 1999 decision of leader Nick Griffin, to give the party a respectable image and to rid it of the 'careless extremism' (as he saw it) and violence that had made it virtually unelectable. He also proclaimed the BNP would become 'the focus... of the neglected and oppressed white working class'. Followers now claim that it is 'more Labour than Labour' - and it is in Labour's traditional heartlands that the BNP has made most inroads.
Professors Helen Margetts and Peter John and I have been conducting research into the BNP for two years, framing and analysing opinion polls, conducting focus groups and exit polls, and compiling and
analysing aggregated council and ward level data from a sample of 116 wards in 28 areas to give us a grasp of the socio-demographic origins of support for the party. This month we will publish a report, The British National Party: the roots of its appeal, that pulls together all the evidence.
The most striking finding from opinion polls suggests that up to one in four voters - between 18 and 24% of the electorate - are prepared to consider voting BNP. At the same time, opinion poll and focus group evidence also shows the BNP is far and away the most unpopular party in British politics. Even in areas where it wins seats, we find in focus groups that the BNP is disliked and distrusted as a racist and deceitful party and voting for it is regarded as an aberrant or embarrassing act.
This distaste is reflected in remarks from focus groups: 'If we actually let those jokers in, we'd be in a worse state than we are now'; 'If you say BNP to me, I think National Front'; 'It's just how close they can get to the British nerve as possible without being racist'.
Second, we discovered mainly from the reports of undercover journalists that behind the strict discipline Mr Griffin has imposed to maintain a respectable image, lurk some at least active BNP members who express racist, anti-Semitic views and Nazi sympathies, who boast of their violence and who may be convicted criminals. At one party, members exchanged 'Sieg heil' salutes to cries of 'Auschwitz' and sang neo-Nazi songs.
Third, the research shows the importance of location above all else. We found great variation in the levels of support at council level, rather than regional or ward level - and the variations in the BNP's successes seem to confirm the research. This suggests it is at this level of government that attitudes towards the far-right are being formed and shaped - and where the BNP is most effective. The party is ready to ruthlessly exploit and 'racialise' local resentments and fears and to propagate myths that gain widespread currency. Thus in Barking & Dagenham LBC, the party fastened on the shortage of council homes and high prices for private houses with false tales of Africans being given£50,000 grants to move into the borough under secret 'Africans for Essex' policies. In Burnley, it was 'preferential treatment' for Asian areas. In Keighley, it was a vicious spin on the grooming of young white girls for sex. In Oldham, it was fear of crime and disorder.
Our work suggests a most significant aspect is that the BNP is more likely to do well in areas where largely skilled and semi-skilled white working class communities feel they and their neighbourhoods are being neglected or the wider area is being 'taken over'. For many such communities it seems immigration and asylum have become symbols for the frustrations and fears of life (see box).
Councils could do much more, in co-operation with racial equality and multi-cultural agencies, voluntary and stake-holder groups, to boost community cohesion in their areas. As a Commission for Racial Equality information pack states, strong council leadership and effective communication strategies are 'crucial'. Councils need to counter the 'myths' and misunderstandings about their policies at officer as well as council level, at least by explaining the realities of their policies and correcting misleading interpretations.
Officers rightly feel inhibited about acting in 'party political' ways, but ensuring their authority's policies command local trust is part of their overall responsibilities. Moreover, the BNP has frequently prospered on the back of myths in ways which seriously damage community relations - relations that councils are under a duty to promote.
Communities fear immigrant takeover
Discussions in two focus groups in London before the 2005 general election revealed how the presence of immigrants and asylum seekers locally became the focus for a wide range of discontents and fears about the shortage of affordable housing, pressures on schools, constraints on the NHS, the decline of the neighbourhood, and so on. In particular, participants felt that asylum seekers took away state resources that would otherwise be spent on the NHS, education and other services.
For the working-class people experiencing rapid and unpredictable changes, ethnic minorities thus became a symbol for their frustrations and feelings of powerlessness and neglect. The tone of discussions veered between expressions of sympathy for oppressed people abroad and respect for 'hard-working' local minorities to heated outbursts from some members for whom the visible presence of asylum seekers and immigrants created alarm and anger. They complained that they had 'taken over' the area with their different culture and languages:
'In Ilford, the ethnic minority is the indigenous people now it is frightening when you think that whole wads of your country are being taken up by an entirely different culture It's schools and everything. I don't dislike these kids, but I do think I never had a choice about who came into the country.'
There was discussion about the visibility of ethnic minority people in East Ham, Dagenham, Birmingham ('they've got loads') and Bradford ('look at the trouble they've had up there'). A woman remarked: 'I shouldn't say it but it's not our country any more. The Asians have become the new Jews, haven't they, really.' The older group especially blamed immigrants and asylum seekers for the degeneration of their neighbourhoods and falling community standards.
All the same, those who expressed their fears most vehemently were at pains to stress that they were not racist and felt resentful that if they expressed their concerns they were liable to be accused of being racist.
Professor Stuart Weir Director of democratic audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex. The report mentioned will be available from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust from 25 April.