Today’s best news is about losses, not gains
For a number of years now, local government has been stalked by a haunting spectre. It has threatened to start banging on the door of Westminster politics, and has made gains in European elections.
The BNP have been attempting to make significant in-roads into British politics for a number of years now, superseding the National Front’s success in the 1970s and attempting to put a more parochial English spin on their virulent nationalist, fascist and racist views.
Last year saw the BNP make a net loss of 11 seats. This year they have already lost all 12 of the seats they were defending. They are desperately hoping they will not lose their one London Assembly place, which many have predicted they will. So the question is, why has their vote collapsed so monumentally over the past two years?
There are a whole host of reasons why parties go into electoral meltdown. The Liberal Democrat experience at the moment is a direct consequence of their decision to form a coalition with an austerity government. But the inexorable rise and rapid fall of the British National Party is a more complicated issue.
Its initial rise was inextricably linked to that of New Labour. As successful as the party was in government, it left many of its traditional supporters to the mercy of opportunists. White working-class voters who did not feel included in the rise of New Labour – and often felt it had left them behind – began to lurch to the right. If we want to have a grown-up conversation about where the party went wrong, this must surely be a case in point.
We all know the narrative of the rise of the BNP. Playing on a rise in immigration, the party used scare tactics and fear-mongering to pick up seats in traditional Labour heartlands. With councillors in areas like Barking and Dagenham, Rotherham, Epping Forest and Burnley, there was clear evidence that the BNP were picking up votes in deindustrialised white working class areas.
The coalition government has changed the parameters of the debate. The Tory-led government’s austerity agenda has shown that the real enemy of voters in these areas are the Conservatives. Ed Miliband has successfully shown that the Labour party can be a serious opposition, with the massive gains up and down the country a testament to the direction in which he is taking fellow members.
But this is about more than a change in government. The fantastic campaigns by organisations such as Hope Not Hate and Searchlight have thrown a light on the fascist and racist beliefs of those within the BNP, which although known to some, were buried somewhat by clever local campaigning tactics. Hope Not Hate have mounted several successful awareness drives in these BNP council seats to expose the lies, obfuscation and virulent racism that pervades the party.
The work of local MP Margaret Hodge in Barking, along with the campaign efforts of Hope Not Hate and Searchlight, and some big names such as the ‘Bard of Barking’ Billy Bragg have all helped to decimate their vote.
The BNP have been a stain on our politics for too long. A broad coalition of political parties, MPs, pressure groups and ordinary people have helped in the long struggle to rid our local politics of virulent racism.
We now have the chance to say goodbye to Nick Griffin and the BNP for good. But this does not mean we should allow ourselves to become complacent. The rise of the EDL is still a cause for concern. The Guardian has revealed that the EDL will announce on Saturday that they will be contesting seats in alliance with the British Freedom Party. Similarly, the rise of the English Democrats in local elections this year is to some extent filling a vacuum with a friendlier face than the BNP could ever muster.
For the moment, we can revel in what we have achieved. Fascism will never be accepted in our politics. This does not mean that we ban these parties, stop them from talking or curtail any freedom of speech. It means that we tackle their views head on and expose them for the ignorant bigots they are. We use the democratic process and local campaigning to destroy their vote. Now we’ve done it once, we know we can do it again, whenever and wherever we need to.
Tom Sadler is a history and politics student at Goldsmiths College, University of London.