Lessons from the BNP
So the post European election autopsy begins - and the two big stories are the collapse in the Labour vote, and the BNP winning two European Parliament seats. The latter is the more interesting of the two. And it is important to understand their electoral success, rather than just lament it.
There are two main explanations for why the BNP did well. The first is that the low turnout let them and other fringe parties in. It's true that a large part of the BNP's success was a direct consequence of the collapse in the Labour vote. The second is that a BNP vote was simply two fingers up to the Westminster establishment after the expenses scandal. But the BNP's total vote was less than in 2005. And even if the their popularity has clearly not rocketed, there was still a very large number of people of voted BNP - in some regions up to 20 per cent, or over 100,000 people. This is what needs to be understood.
I'll put forward three reasons - and a lesson for the mainstream goes with each. Firstly, like most far right parties, their trump card is emotions, not rationality. With dull uninspiring technocrats like Jacqui Smith trotting out politically correct, scripted lines, someone who comes out and speaks his mind - however intolerable - will find a place. Nick Griffin says things that are dangerous and controversial, which somehow makes him more sincere and authentic. It's the same story with radical Islamist groups. The lesson for the rest? Start appealing to people's emotions - drop the spin and be authentic. People can tell the difference.
Secondly, and related to the above, the BNP is willing (and able, as a minority party) to talk about controversial issues head on. The obvious button they push is probably the link between immigration and diminishing stocks of available council housing. This matters in people's lives, and there is no doubt that increasing immigration has caused an additional strain on already limited public housing. It insults people's intelligence to pretend otherwise - so why no sensible debate by the mainstream parties about what to do? And so it's left to the BNP to present themselves as a party that understands ordinary people's concerns. How ridiculous. The lesson for the rest? Have the courage the confront the issues that matter in people's day-to-day lives - that's what you were elected for.
Finally (and this is pure speculation), it sounds bizarre, perhaps some people may have voted BNP because they are fed up with identity politics of multiculturalism. One of the BNP's consistent lines is that "if we are racist, then so is the association of black police officers, the black training enterprise group, Watford Asian community care". The argument is that there are double standards here: these groups wouldn't permit white members, and white police officers wouldn't be allowed to set up an "association of white police officers"! How unfair! Of course this argument is tenuous, because these groups aren't national political parties, and they were set up to fight historical underrepresentation and so on. But you can see how the argument could stick. The lesson for the rest? We need to work together to forge a shared notion of the common good (sounds a bit Nick Cohen I know).
Our elected representatives are describing the BNP success as an aberration, a disgrace, an embarrassment. They should be trying to understand it - it's partly their fault.