The British National Party, with eight councillors, has become the main party of opposition on Burnley Council. And, in a significant number of wards in other towns in the North of England and in the West Midlands, the party has been able to win over a quarter of the votes cast in the recent local elections.
A decade ago, the election of a single British National Party councillor in the Isle of Dogs, East London, provoked shock, dismay and a determined campaign to reverse the result. At the following election, he was defeated. Today, the BNP holds sixteen council seats, having more than trebled its previous total of five in this week’s local council elections. Eleven new seats were won, two were successfully defended and three others were not up for election this May. A BNP splinter group, the Freedom Party, also gained a seat. In all, the BNP contested a record 221 seats (out of a total 22,000).
Burnley – the BNP’s epicentre
In Burnley, where a third of the council is elected each year, the BNP gained five new councillors bringing its total to eight. It claims that it is on course to win overall control of the council in 2004. Were that to happen, a party which aims to create an all-white Britain would then have real power in a city of 89,000 people, of which 7,300 are not white. The Labour Party currently has 24 seats, giving it a majority on the council. But, out of the thirteen Burnley seats in which the BNP stood this week, it was elected in six and came second in the other seven. Labour fielded sixteen candidates and got 8,784 votes; the BNP fielded thirteen candidates and got 8,545 votes. The BNP’s claim that it could take Burnley in coming years cannot, therefore, be casually dismissed.
Many believed that the BNP’s success over the last two years – before this week’s elections it had one councillor in Blackburn, one in Calderdale and three in Burnley – had been based on protest votes and that once these councillors’ records in office had been scrutinised, the party would lose seats. That seems not to be happening, despite publicity in Burnley revealing the low participation in council business of BNP elected representatives. The party has called this week for a place on Burnley council’s eight-member executive chamber but Labour, as the majority party, has the discretion to appoint its own councillors to all cabinet places.
Noticeably, it is not in the poorer areas of Burnley that the BNP is performing best. These stayed staunchly Labour or, where there was a large Asian anti-war protest vote, went to the Liberal Democrats. But it is in white, middle-class areas where the BNP is strongest. In these areas, there appears to be a significant number of former Tory voters who are unhappy about the Conservative Party’s embrace of ‘diversity’ and have been won over by the BNP’s new policy of ‘repatriation by consent’.
Speaking after the Burnley result, the BNP’s leader Nick Griffin said: ‘People voting for the BNP know exactly what they are getting. Our absolute ideal is an all-white Britain. We want to get as near to that as possible by consent. The Home Office has already made money available for people who want to leave the country, we would simply increase that. But if people are happy to abide by our ways we would be happy to let them stay as our permanent guests.’
Sandwell, Dudley and the Freedom Party
The other emerging electoral base for the far Right is in Sandwell, West Midlands. There, the BNP stood in five out of the 24 seats being contested and gained two seats on the Borough Council. David Watkins was elected in the Great Bridge ward and local organiser, John Salvage, in Princes End, where the BNP beat Labour despite a split in the far-Right vote with the Freedom Party, a BNP splinter group. The Freedom Party also stood in the Tipton Green ward with Steve Edwards taking 1,084 votes and coming second to Labour. Combining the votes for these two parties, the total far-Right vote in the Sandwell seats where candidates stood was 4,702 out of 14,080 votes cast (33%).
The Freedom Party was formed in December 2000 after former deputy leader of the BNP, Sharron Edwards, along with husband and West Midlands organiser, Steve, left the party. They had fallen out with Nick Griffin, after Michael Newland, then BNP treasurer, had accused the leader of financial impropriety. Steve Edwards had previously been a BNP candidate in the Tipton Green ward and, in May 2000, received 23% of the vote. After the Edwards’ split to form the Freedom Party, they sought to position themselves to win more middle-class voters. They have also been supported by the group connected to Right Now! magazine. The magazine hit the headlines in 2001 when it emerged that Iain Duncan Smith supporter, Andrew Hunter MP, was a patron of Right Now!. Smith sacked him from his campaign because of his belief in voluntary repatriation for Britain’s non-white population.
This week, Sharon Edwards won a seat on South Staffordshire District Council for the Freedom Party, beating the Conservatives into second place.
In Dudley, the BNP’s Simon Darby won Castle and Priory ward. The BNP stood in four wards, where it won 28% of the votes cast. Darby is the BNP’s information technology co-ordinator and a member of the party’s advisory council.
Another Midlands success for the far Right was in Stoke-on-Trent. BNP candidate Steven Batkin was elected councillor in the Longton North ward. In the city-wide mayoral elections last October, he had won 18% of the vote. This time, the BNP stood in five of the twenty wards where there was voting, with BNP candidates winning 27% of the votes cast in these wards. Labour is the strongest party on the city council but has no overall control.
Defeat in Sunderland and Oldham
In the North-East, a major target area for the BNP was Sunderland where boundary changes meant that all 25 wards were being contested. The party has been highly active in the area believing that hostility towards asylum seekers could be exploited. In August 2002, Iranian asylum seeker Peyman Bahmani was killed in a racist attack in the city. But in spite of standing candidates in all the city’s seats, the BNP gained no victories.
However, the party’s share of the vote – 13,652 votes out of 99,288 (14%) – has not decreased since last year’s elections, in spite of a dramatic increase in the turnout, from 22% last year, to 46% last week. This suggests that the BNP’s level of support has not necessarily relied on low turnouts, a conclusion supported by the turnout figures in Burnley. Nevertheless, the advance of the party in Sunderland will have suffered from the efforts of anti-BNP campaigners, which included sending every voter a letter, signed by local luminaries including athlete Steve Cram, denouncing the BNP.
Another failure for the BNP was in Oldham where no seats were won in spite of its standing ten candidates, including party leader Nick Griffin who stood in the Chadderton North ward. Although he lives in mid-Wales, he claimed to be a legitimate local candidate on the grounds that he rents a cricket field in the ward. The BNP managed to get 27% of the votes cast in the ten wards where it stood (7,835 votes out of 29,125). In the Alexandra ward, though, which includes the Fitton Hill estate, often thought of as a BNP stronghold, Labour councillor Mohammed Azam beat the BNP’s Anthony Wentworth.
In Calderdale, West Yorkshire, Richard Mullhall won the Illingworth ward with 896 votes, joining fellow-BNP member Adrian Marsden on the council. With two council members, the BNP is now entitled to an office in the town hall and an enhanced allowance.
Last Thursday’s elections also saw the BNP making its first inroads, in recent years, into the South of England. 496 votes in the Rosedale ward of Broxbourne Council, Hertfordshire, was enough to elect Ramon Johns.
But elsewhere in the South, the BNP had a negligible impact. It failed to profit significantly from local anti-asylum campaigns in Kent and, in the South West of England, an area where the BNP hoped to establish a foothold, it was unable to build up support in the face of strong anti-BNP activism. In Southampton, another BNP target, the party won 8% of the votes cast in the five out of sixteen seats which it contested.
At a press conference organised by anti-racist groups worried about the BNP results, Claude Moraes MEP warned that it was ‘realistic’ to say that there could now be BNP representation in the European parliament, helped by proportional representation. There is a danger, he said, that the BNP could win a North-West of England seat in the European elections next year if it can muster 7% of the vote. The Sunday Times revealed this week that Nick Griffin has had secret meetings with Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the French Front National, to discuss a joint strategy to fight next year’s elections for the European parliament.
Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said that the BNP’s election results were ‘very very depressing’. He congratulated the strong, united campaign that blocked the BNP’s efforts in Oldham and argued that the government’s policy of appeasing the far Right was dangerous and not working. ‘The lesson for the government’, he said of the elections, ‘is that the war against Iraq has alienated many Muslim voters and that appeasement has driven some people into the arms of the BNP. We need to expose the fascist nature of the BNP and say to people who feel their community has lost out, that we will give them an alternative.’ He also blamed the coverage of the asylum debate in the newspapers, saying that ‘the language used, by the Daily Mail and Evening Standard in particular, is a rerun of what was said about Jews in the 1930s’.