During the 1979 election, Margaret Thatcher talked tough on immigration, crystallising many voters’ anxieties. The far-right National Front fielded more than 300 candidates, but the party’s expected breakthrough failed to arrive and it descended into bitter infighting. Fast-forward to 2010, when BNP leader Nick Griffin did less well than expected against Labour’s Margaret Hodge in Barking, and his party lost all 12 of its councillors on the local council. Already the BNP has fallen into factionalism, which some hope might mark the end of the far right’s recent successes. As historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1955 of third parties in America: it looks as if far right parties are like bees; once they sting, they die.
Yet the BNP actually did not perform that badly—especially for a small party that has long preferred local and European contests (under proportional representation) to costly general elections. It managed an almost three-fold increase in candidates (to 338), while its votes more than doubled to over half a million (about 2 per cent of the total). The party spent £400,000 in a campaign focusing mainly on Barking and Stoke, but its core voters still turned out in areas that saw next to no campaigning. Deposits were saved in more than 70 seats, compared with 34 in 2005.
More broadly, the BNP now operates in an environment growing more favourable to the far right, not less. Record levels of concern over immigration, a recession, persistent economic inequalities, distrust of politicians and the convergence of the three main parties in the centre will continue to provide fertile ground in future local and European polls—and this is even before public spending cuts bite.
Polls say most voters don’t like immigration, want less of it, and simply don’t believe government statistics are honest. But the far right no longer relies solely on this issue. Attitudes to Islam are now just as important. A 2009 YouGov poll suggested 44 per cent of voters agreed that “even in its milder forms Islam poses a danger to western civilisation,” while a recent British Social Attitudes survey showed barely a quarter held any positive views toward Muslims at all.
Research from the University of Manchester reveals that the BNP vote is strongly related to this issue, and the party performs strongest in areas where there are large Pakistani or Bangladeshi communities. This is not just about jobs and housing; the far right is becoming a vehicle for concerns about national identity. And because Muslims are already well settled in Britain, politicians trying to talk tough over immigration will miss the point.
In truth, the failure of the far right to make big gains in 2010 owed less to public disenchantment with their message, or to successful Labour mobilisation, and more to the movement itself. Never noted for unity, the political spectrum to the right of the Conservatives has now become especially cluttered. Today we have an organised far-right party (BNP), a growing far-right social movement (the English Defence League), an anti-immigrant (and increasingly Islamophobic) Ukip, and a host of smaller groups. They all broadly oppose Islam, and are hostile to immigration and the EU. So far, however, they have not coalesced around one entity.
The far right is reliably incompetent, too. BNP activists complain of leaflets undelivered before polling day, leaflets with incorrect phone numbers, and membership enquiries going unanswered. Others say Griffin’s extremist image is preventing the party from making inroads into the middle classes, as sister European parties have done. This charge has been sufficiently serious to force Griffin to announce his planned departure by the end of 2013.
But even when he goes, polls suggest the BNP is unlikely to be seen as a credible alternative to the major parties. It is a radicalised Ukip that remains the most obvious vehicle for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. Ukip rests on an uneasy coalition of affluent, disgruntled Tories voting in European elections to register their Eurosceptic views, and economically deprived working-class men who vote Ukip in both European and general elections, driven by anxiety over immigration, Islam and politics in general. This second group sees Ukip as a polite alternative to the BNP. That polite alternative, if it finds a charismatic leader, is well positioned to undercut the old far right—and mount a more serious electoral challenge in the years to come.