New research into how people voted in local government by-elections in autmumn 2003 shatters some of the myths about who votes for the BNP.
The British National Party (BNP) has fifteen councillors. Though not a large number in itself, it demonstrates that in certain parts of England, significant sections of the population are willing to vote for a far-right party. And when voters go to the polls this June to elect local, regional and European representatives, it is possible that the BNP will gain their first member of the European parliament or their first representative on the Greater London Assembly.
Who is voting for the BNP and what is motivating them? Till now, answering these questions has been largely guesswork. But a new study, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and conducted by the Searchlight Educational Trust and Vision 21, sheds new light on the matter. The research, which was based on exit polls of 539 voters and focus groups, was carried out during local government elections in autumn 2003 in Burnley, Oldham and Calderdale – three areas where the BNP had potential or actual electoral success. The three wards studied were Mixenden in Calderdale, Lanehead in Burnley and Failsworth East in Oldham. All are around 95 per cent White areas. A BNP councillor was elected in Mixenden in January 2003 and another in Lanehead in May 2003.
Accepted wisdom questioned
The study indicates that BNP voters are not, as often supposed, disgruntled, elderly people who are uncertain about a changing world. And, the rise of the BNP cannot be attributed to traditional Labour supporters, having grown frustrated with the current direction of their party. The evidence also suggests that those who vote for the BNP are not just being tactical but really do support the party’s views. And the theory of BNP success resting on low turnouts does not hold water.
The most startling revelation of the report, entitled 539 voters’ views: a voting behaviour study in three northern towns, is that, in the areas studied, the younger one is the more likely one is to vote BNP. Around one in three of 18-25 year-olds said that they voted for the BNP. 46 per cent said they had voted for the BNP on a previous occasion. While the Labour Party had strong support among older age groups, hardly anyone in the 18-25 category voted Labour. In this age group, large numbers of young men have been attracted to the BNP’s message – making it the only party whose support is predominantly male.
The report suggests that other parties are failing to engage with this group of young men. In local elections, the research indicates that the main concerns of most voters, irrespective of geographical area or political allegiance, are local ‘quality of life’ issues: tackling anti-social behaviour, creating a cleaner environment, addressing low-level crime and providing more facilities for young people. Only three per cent of all voters thought that addressing asylum and immigration should be a councillor’s first priority.
But focus groups also suggested that many voters are ill-informed about immigration and asylum matters. An opportunity exists for other political parties to explain more clearly to residents that resources are being allocated on the basis of economic need rather than ethnicity and to counter the notion that asylum seekers are receiving an ‘unfair advantage’.
Only about ten per cent of BNP voters said their vote was tactical. These people wanted to protest against the Labour government or the local council. But roughly half of all BNP voters said that the party represented their views closely, a higher proportion than for any other party.
More than a third of BNP voters might consider voting Conservative if that party had a stronger presence in the town and a quarter of BNP voters are ex-Labour voters. The study, though, offers no information about the class background of today’s BNP supporters.
But, at least in the wards studied, the real basis for the BNP’s support was in a section of younger people who do not normally vote. The effect of the BNP standing in a local election was to bring out these people to support the BNP. (And another section of young people came out to vote, tactically, against the BNP.)
The bad news for those opposed to the BNP is that support for the party is not based on apathy and general disgruntlement but positive endorsement for their policies among a core of young men. The good news is that hardly anyone thinks asylum and immigration are key issues in local government elections.