Kate’s not a very nice woman and neither is her boss. She spends her working hours raising money for an organisation that is ruled by fear. Kate knows that her boss is not to be messed with — his friends, associates and colleagues are “serious” people. So when she opens the mail one morning to find a picture of her boss holding a shotgun, Kate knows it will not be a good day.
Kate is not cooking the books for a bunch of gangsters. This is not the opening of a pulp fiction novel. Kate is a fascist and the story of her difficult morning is just one scene from the unfolding saga of the British National Party.
“Kate” is Kate Hunt and her boss is Jim Dowson. The pair ran the BNP’s Belfast-based call centre where, for a commission, they handled membership and fundraising. That is until Dowson’s calling card arrived one morning. Hunt and Dowson’s falling out is one part of a now far-reaching story unfolding on the yourbnp.com website. It includes the resignation of BNP website editor Simon Bennett who subsequently disabled the party’s internet operations on election eve; the pre-election fiasco over Mark Collett’s alleged threats to kill Griffin and Dowson; Collett’s subsequent arrest.
These sharp internal tensions together with the BNP’s unmitigated drubbing at the general election are all very entertaining. Power struggles are not a new experience for the BNP — Griffin has weathered similar crises before. His recent announcement that he will step down from his position in 2013 may or may not appease his opponents. Either way we should look at the likely organisational ramifications of the BNP defeat.
Griffin: “keep steady”
Almost immediately after the election Nick Griffin issued an internal party memo which noted the electoral defeats and promised great things in the near future. Does Griffin have a point?
Claim 1 from Griffin: “the fact remains that this was the best general election result in the history of British nationalism”.
Fact: The total number of votes cast for the BNP in general elections since 1983 have shown an on-average increase. In 1983 they polled 14,261 votes; 563 in 1987; 7,631 in 1992; 35,832 in 1997; 47,129 in 2001; 192,746 in 2005 and 563,743 this time around. Clear evidence for a growth in support? Empirically yes, however...
In 1983, the BNP stood just 54 candidates which equates to about 270 votes per candidate. In 1997, they stood 54 candidates again and won 35,832 votes – about 660 votes per candidate. So, an improvement. But Nick Griffin only joined the BNP in 1995 after a long period in the National Front and a similar time on the margins of pseudo-intellectual fascism. He became the leader in 1998 after deposing long-time leader John Tyndall. So the only votes that have a bearing on Griffin’s record as leader fall between 2001 and 2010.
Here we see steady increases again: between 2001 and 2005 a four-fold increase and between 2005 and 2010 a three-fold increase. Impressive? A closer look, however, shows a stagnation of sorts. In 2001 the BNP stood 33 candidates who took on average about 1400 votes each. In 2005, they stood 117 candidates who took on average 1647 votes each. In 2010, the figures were 339 candidates with on average 1663 votes. So despite an impressive increase in the number of candidates, the average number of votes won by each of them is about the same.
If we extrapolate these figures and assume that the BNP can stand a candidate in each constituency next time round with each candidate getting about 1600 votes, they can expect to win one million votes close to the figure won at the Euro elections in 2009 where the BNP contested every seat. This is just about 3% of the total vote.
So the picture is a contradictory one: massive increases in overall votes on the one hand but no major victory. Massive increases but stagnation in average votes per candidate.
The most significant fact about the results this time around and the electoral trend is the number of candidates. The fact that fascists were able to field 339 candidates as compared to around 100 all-told from the far left (who polled considerably fewer votes per candidate) is a sign of comparative strength. That the BNP has the organisational strength to stand and fund campaigns in 339 constituencies is worrying. But again, the reality is more complex.
Looked at one way, the 339 figure is worrying if for nothing else than the sheer numbers. Looked at another way — and with the benefit of local information — it’s clear that the BNP did not run real campaigns in all but a handful of constituencies. According to anti-fascists in Stoke — number two on the BNP’s target list — the BNP gave up campaigning well in advance of polling day, pouring all their resources into Griffin’s Barking campaign. So they’re big enough to find the candidates and the deposit money but they are not big enough to organise around these efforts.
The “best general election result” for the BNP so far but there are no signs of a huge increase in support. What I think the statistics show is that whilst the growth of the BNP is an incontestable fact in general, the numbers of people who “support” the party has been the same for some period of time. Of those who support the BNP, the “active” element has increased by a numerically tiny but in political terms significant proportion, thus allowing for the constrained organisational growth.
Griffin claim 2: “our frankly shocking wipe-out from Barking and Dagenham council is, when we look at the facts, not some terrible indictment of our councillors or leadership, but simply the result of a paradigm shift in the quality of Labour’s election-winning machine.”
Fact: Griffin’s claim about the quality of his leadership or the work of his councillors is neither here-nor-there: I think we can assume that they are, indeed, morons. That all those BNP councillors up for election lost their seats is probably not connected to the amateur hour idiocy of those people in Barking and elsewhere: if only voters reacted to political idiots of all stripes in such a decisive way. But Griffin does have a point about the Labour campaign.
Very few people predicted the relatively high turnout at the last election. Fewer still could have predicted the outcome. A substantially smaller number – perhaps just a handful — can have anticipated Margaret Hodge’s increased majority in Barking. Hodge, the epitome of New Labour, actually managed to increase her overall majority in a constituency where the street politics has been overwhelmingly dominated by the BNP.
In 2005, Hodge won Barking with 13,826 votes amounting to 47.8% of the vote on a 50.1% turnout. In 2010, she won with 24,628 votes, 54.3% on a 61.4% turnout. Only one factor can explain this increased voter turnout and the increased proportion of the vote: the Labour vote was mobilised in Barking to a far greater degree than the overall increased turnout nation wide.
This was done by running high profile anti-BNP initiatives, leafleting sessions, meetings and the like. The work was conducted by both the Socialist Workers Party dominated “Unite Against Fascism” and by Searchlight magazine’s “Hope Not Hate” campaign. Good work was done, right? Yes and no.
The good: if there was ever a case for positively campaigning for a Blairite scum-bag, Hodge versus Griffin in Barking is it. In and of itself, distributing material aimed at boosting the Labour vote — whether or not it specifically targeted the BNP — was a positive thing to do. By what system of logic could you argue otherwise?
The bad. First, the actual politics promoted by both UAF and HnH in Barking as elsewhere is a crass amalgam of the “don’t vote Nazi” and “everything would be lovely if only the fascists didn’t exist” approach to anti-fascism. To invest the energies and finances of working class organisations — socialist activists who provide the bulk of the foot-soldiers for these campaigns and the trade unions who provide most of the money — in such efforts is to abandon any faith whatsoever in working class politics. It is to assume that we cannot explain our own politics to working class voters — who, after all, comprise the overwhelming majority in Barking. It is also to ignore the realities of working class life that are only too clear to the vast majority in Barking. It makes no political sense unless the people you’re worried about offending are the new Tory prime minister (a listed supporter of UAF) or unrepresentative layers in the trade union and Labour bureaucracies.
Unfortunately the overwhelming defeat of Griffin at the polls will reinforce the idea that the UAF mode of anti-fascism works. We should all note that the extra hundreds of activists mobilised against Griffin had a positive impact. But we should also note that the impact was to increase the Labour vote, not to substantially reduce BNP support.
In 1997, the BNP won 2.7% of the vote in Barking on a 48.2% turnout; in 2001 they won 6.4% on a 45.5% turnout; in 2005 they won 16.9% on a 50.1% turnout and this time they won 14.8% of the vote on a 61.4% turnout. A dip in support in terms of the percentage of the overall vote. But between 2005 and 2010 the BNP managed to persuade around 1700 more people to vote for them. The extra hundreds of activists and thousands upon thousands of pounds of trade union money did not reduce the fascists’ numerical support.
If those standing as candidates to the left of Labour had managed to increase their support by 1700 votes, wouldn’t we all take note. Let’s not kid ourselves here.
We cannot pretend that the pleasantly disastrous results in Barking and Stoke spell the end for BNP representation on local councils. They were beaten by overall higher turnouts, probably resulting from the council elections being held on the same day as the general election. The BNP never won council seats on a high turnout but on low turnouts, especially during by-elections. There will be many more such elections and many more low turnouts in the time to come. To stop the BNP winning seats, we need locally based structures that can run working-class campaigns against the BNP and undercut their support – with or without an influx of campaigners from elsewhere.
Griffin claim 3: “we have just seen the last first-past-the-post major election contest in British history” and on a PR system “last week’s showing would give us twelve MPs”.
Fact: 29,653,638 votes were cast in the 2010 general election. Of those more than half a million (563,743) were cast for the British National Party. The BNP share of the national vote was 1.9%. If we translate that into a proportion of the 650 Members of Parliament elected this time around, in theory the BNP would have 12.35 seats. Griffin’s Oxbridge education clearly wasn’t a complete waste of time because he managed to round that down to 12 whole seats.
Whilst Griffin can use a calculator and round numbers as well as I can, he’s playing fast-and-loose with reality. If the Conservative-Liberal government introduced a pure proportional representation system then the BNP would indeed have secured twelve seats. But neither the Con-Libs nor anyone else is considering such a system.
Under any PR system that is introduced only some seats would be allocated on a proportional basis and those that are will be allocated on a complex system of ranking and percentages. The figure of twelve seats is a lie.
However, any new PR system would give increased representation to smaller parties. Under any such system, the BNP with its current levels of support could win seats. If they manage to increase the number of constituencies contested in time for the next election, they will win even more seats. So Griffin’s overall message to the party — “keep steady” — has some logical merit. The BNP did not do as well as Griffin promised but it is far from crushed.
The BNP’s aim then, as far as Griffin is concerned, is to keep on keeping on. If the BNP was a “normal” political organisation, one capable of reading the political weather vane and unhindered by competing agendas, it would continue to grow, put down roots, build the organisation and wait things out.
But the BNP is clearly not a “normal” bourgeois democratic party. Kate Hunt’s story proves as much. On the other hand the BNP leadership is not just a thuggish, dictatorial, gangsterised clique: they are ideological fascists. A great many of the foot-soldiers of the organisation have a long and well-documented history in the British fascist movement. To become a “voting member” of the BNP — one of those trusted to take part in what passes for democratic functioning within the party — you must complete a training course administered by Arthur Kemp, a former member of the rabidly pro-apartheid South African Conservative Party and writer for openly fascist groups in the USA. Jim Dowson, who now appears to control the party financial wing, is not just a nasty man with a shotgun but has a long history with Loyalist paramilitary organisations and rabid anti-abortion outfits. The record of Griffin himself is well documented.
The problem for Griffin and the BNP is that there are obvious tensions between the electoralist course that has brought the party so far and the natural political impulses of most fascists, many of whom have less at stake personally than the leadership.
BNP candidates are able to win on average around 1600 people over per constituency not on the basis of their maximum programme of “patriotic counter-revolution” but with a more minimum base-line nationalist programme. Their electoral campaigns and party building propaganda no longer includes flagrant racism or attempts to mobilise thuggish gangs. Rather, support is won on the basis of petty and simplistic “explanations” of the woes of society that echo and reinforce the racism, nationalism and xenophobia of mainstream right wing politics.
They do this not with high-profile stunts and provocations, they do this without the support of a single national news outlet and in spite of the well-deserved opprobrium rained upon them from left and right. The BNP builds by going to the door-step, entering communities and building from the grass roots.
Such work involves a huge amount of drudgery, especially for an organisation as small as the BNP. When the labour movement was able to do such work in the past, we had the allegiance and membership of hundreds of thousands of individuals. At best, the BNP has probably half a percent of this number.
When the political core of a group like the BNP is faced on the one hand with what objectively looks like a defeat and on the other the resurgence of right-wing, racist street politics in the form of the English Defence League, then questions will be asked.
Add to this the thuggish antics of Jim Dowson and Mark Collett, the rule change forcing the BNP to admit all-comers, the repeated fundraising drives and financial crises, legal challenges, membership leaks, expulsions, arrests and general organisational incompetence and Griffin has a problem.
Griffin desperately needs to solve his “party question” and he will not be able to wait for the next round of elections to sort things out.
The political test
The test for the BNP and those of us who oppose them will come in the short-term. The test will not be an election, general or otherwise. It will not involve increasing voter turnouts or going on the shill for a post-Blair Blairite. The test will be a fight defined by working class politics pure and simple.
The degree to which Nick Griffin and the BNP can build themselves on the back of the coming cuts in government spending and any governmental instability it produces will determine the future shape of fascist political organisation in this country.
The degree to which we can organise and mobilise the labour movement to a. do the basic job of defending itself, b. organise politically around our fight back without slumping into crass anti-Toryism or drawing syndicalist conclusions and c. direct well aimed and politically astute blows against the BNP in the process, will determine more than just Nick Griffin’s political fortunes.
The shape of things to come, however, is not just a two-way fight: BNP versus the anti-fascists. That the EDL is an attractive prospect for a layer of organised fascists is intimately connected to the very real threat posed by these street-racists. So far our side has done very little — criminally so — to either disrupt or terminate the EDL’s activities.
In some ways, the worst-case-scenario would be the mass defection and acceptance within the EDL of layers of ex-BNP. Such a scenario could see the EDL combining the racist demonstrations and mobilisations with grass-roots activity: the proliferation of local and openly active EDL organisation, more determined organisation building work, an even more aggressive turn towards ‘dealing with the enemy’. Such a scenario seems a remote possibility given what we know of the periphery of the EDL and their repeated denials of racism and fascism.
Just as problematic would be a repeat of what happened in the wake of the National Front’s electoral defeat and eventual fragmentation from 1979 onward. Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing policies meant that a great deal of the NF’s support — electoral and otherwise — was absorbed within the ranks of the Conservative party, leaving a violent hard-core behind.
With the apparent defeat and fragmentation of fascist organisation came a political downgrading of anti-fascist work in the list of socialists’ priorities: the SWP all but closed down the Anti Nazi League for example. Such a response to any fragmentation of the BNP would be an equally grave mistake.
The fascists of the 1980s, though smaller in number and organisationally incapable of running election campaigns, posed a real physical threat to minority groups and the organised left. We cannot tolerate a repeat performance.
Whether or not the BNP falls apart, whatever Griffin’s personal fortunes, regardless of whether fascists can start to openly organise around the EDL or whether they re-group in smaller independent units the fundamental necessity for a labour movement orientated, working class campaign against racism and fascism remains.
One million votes at the Euro elections and half a million at the general election indicate that with or without Nick Griffin and the British National Party there are substantial numbers of people, including a large layer of working class voters, who have been won to nationalist and racist politics. Such a layer of people are the soil from which reaction — in a fascist guise or not — can and will grow without active intervention from our movement.