Stealing Votes or Re-Engaging Voters? UKIP and the Fragmentation of the Far Right

Pundits frequently discuss the rise of radical politics in the UK but one underexplored question is what accounts for the recent demise of two such parties and movements – the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). Why has this happended?

A recent report from Hope not Hate suggests that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is responsible for the demise of the British National Party (BNP), stating that UKIP ‘has steamrollered through their heartlands and stolen their voters’. At a glance, this explanation appears plausible. After all, UKIP and the BNP have been equated with each other by some, as this article from the Guardian demonstrates.

However, a closer look at the facts reveals a more complex electoral dynamic between the two parties. For instance, the 2010 General Election marked the highpoint of electoral support for the BNP, which only came in at 1.9 per cent of the vote. This is significantly less than the 12.6 per cent of the vote that UKIP harnessed in the 2015 election, underlining the fact that the defection of BNP supports cannot explain UKIP’s success.

The assertion that UKIP has ‘stolen’ the BNP’s votes becomes still less credible in light of the observation that, when UKIP and the BNP have competed with each other for seats, a UKIP win has by no means been guaranteed. As Ford and Goodwin observe in Revolt on the Right, when the two parties went head-to-head at the 2010 general election, UKIP finished behind the BNP in the majority of instances – even though UKIP’s overall voting share was nearly double that of the BNP.

All in all, the theory that the electoral demise of the BNP (or the success of UKIP) is due to a pool of voters changing their allegiances is too simplistic and not supported by the evidence. It also focuses on factors that are external to the party, which neglects the role that parties play in their electoral successes or failure. Rather than UKIP having ‘stolen’ its votes, it is rather more that the BNP failed in its quest for legitimacy due to its own strategic blunders.

The BNP was founded in 1982 by a former chairman of the neo-Nazi National Front, John Tyndall. Like the National Front, early BNP publications promoted biological racism and xenophobia, with one election manifesto stating that different races possessed inherently different aptitudes. Unsurprisingly, the BNP’s early message failed to resonate with mainstream attitudes in an increasingly diverse society, and it attracted less than one per cent of the vote in the 1983 general election.

When Nick Griffin assumed leadership of the BNP in 1999, he maintained that he would ‘modernise’ the BNP’s message. However, the neo-Nazi legacy of the party, in addition to a constitution that prohibited non-Whites from joining the party until 2009, served to place the party outside of the cultural norms of a liberal democracy.

By contrast, UKIP is an explicitly non-racist party. It has sought to appeal to a wider base, and has made much of the cultural diversity of some of its candidates. It rejects ethnic nationalism and has instead garnered grassroots supporters through opposing immigration, and through its consistent line on the UK abandoning its membership of the European Union. Its endurance to this principle, which has formed a central part of its policy platform since the Party’s founding in 1993, has leant UKIP credibility as the issue of the European Union has continued to rise up the political agenda and become an important issue for a much broader subset of the population.

Beyond its policy platform, however, much of UKIP’s success derives from its ability to appeal to what Ford and Goodwin refer to as the ‘left behind’ voter, who is older, white, working class and – until recently – increasingly disengaged from politics. It should not be assumed that these voters present a static variable in right wing electoral support. We also need to consider party leadership, and its strategic appeals. In these respects, rather than ‘stealing’ votes from the BNP, UKIP’s real achievement has been to coax the ‘left behind’ voter back to the ballot box.

The rise of UKIP also cannot be held responsible for the fragmentation of another right wing group, the English Defence League (EDL), whose demonstration numbers have been declining since 2011. The EDL had grown out of football hooliganism, at a time when effective policing had reduced opportunities for public violence, and had made a name for itself from its provocative, street-based demonstrations and scenes of urban disorder. However, as a new police strategy sought to minimise demonstration ‘flashpoints’ – which would enable EDL members to engage in violence or confront counter-demonstrators in a manner similar to football hooliganism – much of the ‘buzz’ of public demonstration was eliminated.

Without this forum, EDL membership began to rapidly slip away, indicating that much of its appeal lay in the platform it afforded members to be involved in physical challenges to public order. The opportunity for members to vote for UKIP, a political party that ostensibly represents their interests, is largely irrelevant in explaining the EDL’s decline. This  again reinforces the need to recognise the breadth of political interests and motivations in the far right when assessing its recent fragmentation.

Overall, it is important not to overstate the influence of UKIP in the decline of the BNP or the EDL; rather, their demise appears to be more related to their focus on views or actions that became increasingly out of step with social mores and civic responsibilities. Nonetheless, in examining how these three groups interact, overlap and are distinguished from one another, there is much to learning about both the past and future of the far-right in the UK: a segment of the political spectrum too often dismissed without acknowledgement of its diversity and complexity.

Elizabeth Morrow has recently completed a PhD in Politics, focusing on extremism and counter-terrorism, at King’s College London. Elizabeth can be contacted at:[email protected]