18 May 2009

BNP threat at the polls is looking hollow

Bob Bailey, canvassing in Dagenham, could not quite hide his real opinions

Richard Barnbrook, the BNP's London leader, is on a doorstep in Hornchurch, in earnest conversation with a housewife, trying to ignore the fact that his trousers have just started playing patriotic music.

As the faint strains of “Jerusalem” waft northwards from his mobile, the others in the group — the voter, a BNP aide and two Evening Standard journalists — start looking at each other, struggling not to laugh, but the leader presses on. He's at least a minute into his spiel before he mentions his party.

Mr Barnbrook need not have been so shy. In Westland Avenue, at least, the BNP appears to have built its green and promised land. It's owner-occupied Thirties houses down here, not the party's stereotypical council-estate heartland.

But though this voter, Valerie Perkins, is smiling at him, she's also going to vote for him. “We can't take any more,” she said.

“They're wiping out our history, apologising for being British.” At the next house, Toni Rose said: “It's the only party to vote for because it's British.” Why is it British? “Nothing I'd like to voice.” And so on down the street.

Earlier in the day and a little to the west, in Barking, we'd been at a rather more downbeat launch for the local forces of anti-racism. The Hope not Hate campaign had an open-topped bus, half-a-dozen supporters in yellow T-shirts, a couple of dozen other workers, Dagenham Labour MP Jon Cruddas, and people from the main political parties.

But the main political parties are in bad odour right now. The atmosphere was subdued, and Mr Cruddas looked disengaged and tired.

After Sam Tarry, the local organiser, had given the troops a short pep talk, he asked Mr Cruddas if he had anything to add. The MP said he didn't, apart from the fact that this part of east London was “the frontline against the BNP”.

The story from the “BNP frontline” might, then, seem set to follow the script already written for it by much of the media and political class — like Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, who warns that after the expenses meltdown those on the far Right are a “bigger threat than they've ever been before”.

Two and a half weeks before the country goes to the polls for the European Parliament, new analysis for the Standard of recent council by-elections by LSE expert Tony Travers shows that the far Right has indeed been notching up some significant performances.

In January, in a ward in Bexley, they almost doubled their vote, to 26 per cent; in February, in a Lewisham ward, they went from nothing to 10.5 per cent.

Outside the capital, the BNP are scoring percentages in the thirties and forties in wards where they did not even stand before.

“What it shows is that even from a standing start, they can make a substantial jump,” said Mr Travers.

“It is evidence that the BNP have been significantly more active than in the past, that they are trying to build up their presence and that even before the expenses scandal there was a growing alienation they could tap into.”

But the reality might be more encouraging. Slightly suspicious of the BNP operation in Westland Avenue — we seemed only to go to houses where someone from Mr Barnbrook's canvassing party had already made contact — I asked if we could try a different road, with the leader going first.

So on we went to Bowden Drive, and though the properties were the same, we had literally and metaphorically turned a corner.

Mr Barnbrook did find one BNP voter — but everyone else was politely, implacably against. “No,” they'd simply say, or “You're too extreme.”

Or: “I don't agree with your views, I think you hide under this stuff [about taking on establishment politicians].” Barnbrook: “If you think this is anything to do with race or colour ... ” Voter: “It is, though.”

The backlash against the big parties is undeniable — nobody would admit to voting for them — but it doesn't seem to be benefiting the far Right as much as you might think. And these sentiments appear to be shared elsewhere.

A national opinion poll yesterday had the BNP on four per cent, only one per cent above where they were at this stage in the 2004 European elections.

In a poll on Friday, significantly one where the UK Independence Party scored very high, the BNP was on just three per cent.

In the London Assembly vote of 2004, which happened on the same day as the last Euro-election, a strong showing by Ukip denied the BNP a seat. Last year, Ukip's collapse delivered the BNP's first Assembly seat to Mr Barnbrook.

“What's happened now is that the sheer scale of the meltdown in the political world has changed the dynamics,” said Mr Travers. “I believe that paradoxically the BNP may have been damaged because it's created a bandwagon of people who aren't prepared to go to the BNP but are prepared to go to Ukip.

“There is a lot of voting traffic between the BNP and Ukip and if it becomes clear to BNP voters that the way to chastise the political class is to vote Ukip, we could see them go to Ukip.”

The BNP's traditional saving grace — its lack of discipline — seems to be helping, too. Nick Griffin, the party's national leader, has torpedoed months of attempts to airbrush the party's racism by announcing that black people cannot be fully British.

BNP ads proclaiming “British jobs for British workers” turn out to have been photographed with American models.

In east London, Bob Bailey, a former Royal Marine, the BNP's London organiser and its top candidate in the London Euro-elections, talks a good game about the need to “professionalise the party, win over a more affluent voter”.

But then we're speaking about Mr Cruddas, the MP, and he suddenly says: “People know what he's like. You go to his parliamentary surgery, and it's full of Nigerians. I've served in conflict zones, and I can see we're sliding down the slippery slope to Lagos ... In 40 years' time, white British people will be extinguished like the American Indians.”

Mr Bailey's predecessor as London organiser, Nick Eriksen, was sacked last year after the Standard revealed that he had written a blog about how women enjoyed being raped.

Mr Bailey hasn't done anything quite that stupid, but the Standard can reveal that within the past few weeks he has been massmailing implicitly threatening emails to anti-racism campaigners.

One message says: “Put yourself in my shoes. I have your email addresses and more. Is it not time to repent for your sinful ways and turn your back on doing the dirty work of the state?”

One of the people who received the emails said: “It was pretty frightening — he's in a very senior position and is effectively saying we know where you live'.” Mr Bailey said last night: “I'm not denying I sent it but I can't remember.”

It appears clear, too, that as well as a potential shortage of votes the BNP is suffering from an actual shortage of funds.

In the party's “London Bulletin” last month, Mr Bailey writes: “We have raised enough money for 3.5 million A5 leaflets ... unfortunately, we fell short of raising enough funds for an A4 leaflet.”

And if Ukip, embarrassing statements and missing leaflets are not enough on their own, the BNP faces one last, perhaps deadliest, enemy: the European electoral system.

It is proportional — but unlike most other EU countries, which elect their MEPs in a single national constituency, Britain elects them by region.

Most of the BNP's strongest regions, such as Yorkshire and the east and west Midlands, only elect five or six MEPs each. You need about a sixth of the vote in each region for a seat — roughly double the BNP's 2004 figure.

London elects eight MEPs, putting the bar at about eight to 10 per cent. But multi-racial London, outside a few pockets like Barking, is not the best area for the far Right.

Even Mr Barnbrook concedes that a BNP win in the capital is “unlikely”. The BNP's real hopes are fixed on the North-West, which has both eight Euro-seats and a somewhat bigger racist vote.

Even there, however, it may not be big enough. Dan Hodges, spokesman for anti-racism organisation Searchlight, said: “Last week was supposed to be the big one for the BNP, with the campaign launch, the party political broadcast and the rest. But they ended no higher in the polls than they were before. Their campaign looks like it's in serious trouble.”

The truth is that an election which many feared could be the BNP's coming of age might turn out to mark the beginning of its end.

As Mr Travers says: “In the past six months we have seen the collapse of the financial system, followed by the collapse of the political class. If the BNP can't make it now, they probably never will.”

London Evening Standard

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