“What are you going to do about all these Pakistanis Mrs Cryer?” Mrs Cryer, Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley and Ilkley in West Yorkshire, looked puzzled at the polite little Irishwoman asking this strange question. “Well I don’t know what you mean”, she replied. “Oh, they’re getting away with all sorts of things you know. They don’t approve of travelling on public transport, so the government gives them money in order to pay for a car, so they can take their families out”. Faint alarm bells ring. “Who told you that?”. Clearly embarrassed as she realised that Mrs Cryer knew exactly who had told her, the Irishwoman stuttered. “Oh, um, I think it was on the television last night”. “No, I don’t think it was,” said Mrs Cryer. “Do you know who I think it was? I think it was the BNP canvassers who were out last night.”
On Thursday 7th June, two British National Party candidates were elected to the European Parliament. The results, upon their announcement the following Sunday night, were met with a massive national outcry, media coverage, and the egging of Nick Griffin, the BNP party leader during a press conference outside Parliament. The major parties were united in their condemnation. The national media, which days earlier had still been preaching the evils of British MPs, the money-grabbing good-for-nothing expenses cheats wasting the taxpayer’s hard earned cash on duck houses and chandeliers made out of platinum (probably), were equally dismayed with the outcome. However for all the horror understandably expressed that an essentially racist party should be allowed representation in Europe, the fact remains that in order for this to have come about, someone, somewhere must have voted for them. The pertinent question therefore, is why.
I spoke to Ken Booth, North-East regional organiser of the BNP, a BNP member currently in his second year at York University, and Labour MP Ann Cryer (above), in whose constituency Nick Griffin is the BNP candidate. She offered her diagnosis of the situation. “I think people stayed at home because they were disenchanted about MPs. The Telegraph led the charge, and the others followed suit, trying to criminalise every MP that there is. The reports [on expenses] never said ‘some MPs’, they said ‘MPs’, so people think all 648 of us were at it. I think that that was the main problem for the European elections”.
This disenchantment with the status quo is crucial for the BNP. A glance at the YouGov poll taken in concordance with the European elections offers some key insights as to who backed them, and why. Nationally, professional workers outnumber manual by 20 per cent to 18 per cent. Among BNP voters the proportion is 11 per cent professional to 36 per cent manual workers. 61 per cent of BNP voters are male. A third read the Sun or Daily Star, compared with just a fifth of the country at large, and only 6 per cent read the upmarket Guardian, Times, Telegraph etc. The average BNP voter’s wage is slightly below the national average. They are, essentially, what once formed the backbone of traditional Labour support.
BNP voters are dissatisfied. Only 19 per cent believe that “My family will have the opportunities to prosper in the years ahead”, as opposed to 59 per cent of Labour and 42 per cent of Conservative voters. 70 per cent believe that white people face unfair discrimination nowadays; the national figure is 40 per cent. In a statement rather uncannily similar to the BNP’s official statement as outlined on their website, Greg, a BNP member currently attending York University said: “Many voters, predominantly white, working class, are absolutely fed up with current career politicians and the failure of their policy, particularly on jobs and immigration. That’s why they’ve turned to us, people willing to listen to their grievances and act on their behalf”.
Disturbingly however BNP voters, although not always in agreement with the BNP’s more obviously sectarian and intolerant beliefs, appear to either be ignorant of them, or willing to overlook them. Less than half take the BNP view that non-white citizens are less British than white citizens, and only half believe that immigration is one of the most pressing issues facing themselves and their families. This suggests that it is the disillusionment with the major parties which has proved so pivotal to the BNP in recent years. As Ann Cryer pointed out to me “Their vote didn’t increase at the last European elections, it was just that a lot of our people stayed at home
The papers were saying we’re all greedy, we’re all criminals, we’re not worth a vote. That’s why the BNP got seats they should never have got.”
Cryer is impassioned in her reproach, “I mean Norman Tebitt? What the hell was he about, going on the radio a few days before the elections saying don’t vote for the major parties, vote for the minority parties. I mean he afterwards said he didn’t mean the BNP, but you could’ve fooled me!”
And the BNP are aware of this effect too. This is apparent as I talk to Ken Booth, North East regional organiser of the BNP and a candidate in the North East. He is sickeningly jubilant over the circumstances which have led to the BNP’s European presence: “Our playing field isn’t level, that’s enough for some people to vote. They want to vote for the underdog, even if they don’t necessarily agree with all the policies” It doesn’t seem to matter therefore whether or not the BNP actually reflect people’s interests, so long as the outcome is in line with the party’s aims. When I tell him that I’m a student he replies “How are the student population taking the election results then? Not well!” and laughs.
Incidences such as the egging of Nick Griffin can be equally helpful for the BNP. As Booth puts it “All those useless Communist indoctrination types, we find them very useful! We don’t need to campaign, thankfully the anti-fascists publicise us!” Ann Cryer offers a rather more coherent insight: “I avoid Griffin. I don’t think, like some groups, that you have to say stuff to them, to engage in battle with them, you’re simply playing into their hands by doing that. Throwing eggs at Griffin is just playing into their hands, you’ve got to be absolutely mad doing things like that. It gave him prime-time television; I mean that’s the last thing we want.”
The greatest danger when the BNP get this kind of coverage (free of charge) is that they can then play on popular ignorance. The example Ann Cryer gave me about free cars is one way; just “spreading lies, door to door”. However, Ken Booth claims that sometimes even this ‘canvassing’ is not necessary. “There was a local council election in Newcastle where the BNP candidate didn’t put any literature out at all. But a local anti-fascist group was campaigning, and our candidate beat the Tories with 340 votes. They don’t even know who the BNP candidate is, they just tick the box”
Booth dodges between various arguments, one minute crowing over the naivety which has apparently led to the ‘accidental’ success (relatively) of some candidates, to championing the democratic process. Of protesters, he says “They’ll have to keep the protest up for 5 years because that’s how long European seats last. They don’t acknowledge democracy, no-one held a gun to people’s heads and said ‘vote BNP’.” Then he oscillates back to the unfairness of the BNP’s situation: “This guy Tony Dowling said “We need to confront them.” That sounds like a physical threat to me”.
On the national media, he cannot seem to make up his mind. On the one hand he is keen to emphasise the obstacles which it has created for the BNP “Some media reports the BNP like any other party. Others, the Sun, the Mirror, say ridiculous things, that we’re Nazis, fascists. We’ve done it the hard way, not relying on national media”. On the other he boasts that this very censorship is good for the BNP because “They’re just alienating their readership, people will boycott them and subscribe to ‘Voice of Freedom [the BNP publication]. Perhaps he is unaware that his party are in fact more likely to be Sun readers than non-party members. I ask him whether readership of the Voice of Freedom has actually increased. It has not, but he says proudly “Our readership’s about 200,000, but we’re not in debt like the nationals”.
It is not true that the BNP “are not campaigning”. Their campaign methods are integral to the spread of their influence, as Greg argues: “The BNP campaign in a way that the two major political parties completely ignore. That is, knocking on people’s doors, listening to them and persuading them why you should vote for them. A simple and yet effective way to engage with people and convince them the BNP has the right policies for the future of Great Britain”.
“The status quo plays into the BNP’s hands. Nick Griffin doesn’t want change, integration. He wants polarisation apartheid”
Ann Cryer recognises the importance of this strategy. “His [Nick Griffin’s] strength is having people on the doorstep, spreading racist lies, because he can’t be criticised for that. The people on doorsteps aren’t going to challenge him, because they’re by and large apolitical. They’re not inclined to turn around and say ‘that’s absolute rubbish’” And appearances can be deceptive: “One or two nights I was in the same area and I thought they were Jehovah’s witnesses! They were terribly neat, very sort of respectable. It was only when I knocked on doors they’d knocked on or I saw their leaflets poking through the letterboxes that I realised it was them. They do put on a very good front “.
This “front” is not always successful. A third year politics student at York described her experience to me: “When I was at home I received a BNP leaflet through the post which had a Muslim woman who was wearing a burkah sticking two fingers up in the air, alongside a dirty hospital bed and it said something along the lines of “This is why we have MRSA in our hospitals”. It was a ridiculous accusation which made me furious. I actually ran down the road to give the leaflet back to them”.
It would obviously be overreaching surely to suppose that all BNP voters don’t know what they’re voting for, that they’ve been ‘fooled’ in some way. Some might even agree that legal immigrants should be encouraged to go “back to their land of ethnic origin”, as stated on the BNP website. However as the YouGov polls show, many may merely be disenchanted with current politics, and therefore choose to pay attention to the more savory of the BNP’s declared aims. Greg highlights: “The re-introduction of grammar schools, once a lifeline for children from poor households to break the stranglehold of an otherwise destined future for mediocrity”, as an example of BNP policy. Not everyone might agree, but this is certainly more digestible than another which Greg approves of: “The re-introduction of the death penalty.
This would be a real deterrent to the gun and knife crime enthusiasts who would think twice of their actions if they knew the outcome would be the noose and not a few years in a comfortable room surrounded by an array of drugs, Sky TV, X-Box and a free gym.”
The BNP occasionally manage to conceal the dark underbelly of their thinking with claims and policies which tap into points of public disenchantment, be they true or not. One is the belief purportedly held by 56 per cent of the public as a whole that local councils “normally allow immigrant families to jump the queue in allocating council homes”- 87 per cent of BNP voters think this. Less than a fifth of the British public believe that Labour cares about their concerns. And so when a party appears to be concerned for their welfare, a people are prepared to listen, and a few are willing go further. The Independent reported that the BNP website not only attracts more visitors to its website than “any of the other major parties”, but these visitors spend more time “checking the BNP’s ideas out”, 6.3 minutes as opposed to 2.7 minutes on the Conservative website.
This is naturally deeply worrying for the other parties. Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham, is particularly vocal on the problems faced by his party, declaring on his website that it “is time that we are honest about the state of the party. We are currently not fit for purpose. Membership has halved, organiser jobs have been cut, the activist base is in steep decline and the finances are in trouble.” He is open about the fact that “In my own borough voters have turned to the racist BNP not because they are racist but out of fear and a sense of vulnerability and insecurity. Many are simply protesting against mainstream politics”.
And Ann Cryer is at pains to emphasise that for all the BNP take advantage of the difficulties faced by the country, they do not offer solutions. One issue which she has been deeply involved in is that of forced marriages, formerly a pressing concern in her own constituency. She relentlessly championed the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, which came into effect in September 2008, giving women the right to apply for an injunction in court and prevent a ceremony going ahead. Her campaigning was also a key element in the Government raising the minimum age for a marriage visa from 18 to 21. Her attitude is therefore totally at odds with that of the BNP:
“A BNP leaflet had a Muslim woman on it… It said something along the lines of ‘This is why we have MRSA in our hospitals’”
“The BNP don’t give a damn about forced marriages, they really don’t. I challenge Muslim fundamentalists about their behaviour towards women. The BNP don’t do that because they actually want the fundamentalists to continue to behave that way in the future. If fundamentalists continue to force girls into marriage and to say, wear the burkha, it’s playing into their hands, that’s what they want. So they don’t ever go into detail about how we can stop this behaviour, how we can defend women, they’re not interested in that. I am”.
There is an element of personal interest in this. “I have three grandchildren who are half Indian and another who is half African. If we get to polarisation between the white communities and the black or Asian communities, it’s long-term going to have an adverse effect on my grandchildren. That’s a very narrow point of view, but it goes much wider. So if I see problems occurring I try to address them. I try, systematically to address problems that I think are going to have an impact on the most disadvantaged and most vulnerable members of the community. No-one has been more vociferous in arguing against the BNP than I have because I have a greater interest in it than most, personally.”
The BNP’s increased publicity in recent weeks has led to a threat of an injunction from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. On Tuesday 23rd July the Commission sent the BNP a letter highlighting three counts under which they appear to be in breach of the Race Relations act. These relate to the BNP’s constitution and membership criteria, recruitment and employment policies, and the provision of services by elected officers to their constituents. This marks the beginning of possible legal action following the European Elections, however many are astonished that it has taken this long. Comments under the letter where it has been posted on the BNP Chronicle, a non-official party website, include “Let’s call them! Let them know our feelings”, and “We are all equal as long as we are not white”.
Unfortunately on a local level there are limits to what can be done by one MP. “The status quo plays into the BNP’s hands. Nick Griffin doesn’t want change, he doesn’t want integration. He wants polarisation apartheid, and in some parts of Keighley, that’s what we have. The white community and the Asian community are playing into the hands of the BNP by having this polarised position where never the twain shall meet. I’m afraid there’s very little communication between the two communities and I can’t change that. I mean I can do my best, and I have done my best for Asian women and successfully, but to change the hearts and minds so that you get the two communities coming together, that’s a tall order.”