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The BNP gets a pasting but that does not mean the far-right threat is finished

Progress Online by Nick Lowles and Ruth Smeeth | Thursday, 10 May 2012 | Click here for original article

This month’s local election results saw another major reversal in the fortunes of the British National party. In 2010 the BNP were wiped out in Barking and Dagenham. Last year was the turn of Stoke-on-Trent. This year it was Burnley’s.

The demise of the BNP is nowhere sweeter than in Burnley, where a decade ago the party gained three seats and experienced its first real taste of electoral success. A year later the BNP became the official opposition on the council, which proved to be a stepping stone to success in the 2009 European parliament elections.

This year the party lost each of the nine seats (three of which were contested by BNP ‘independents’ who had only recently quit the party) it was defending nationally, failed to make any gains, and saw its share of the vote drop by as much as half in some areas. In London, the BNP failed to hold its seat on the London assembly and the share of the vote won by its mayoral candidate fell by over half to 1.3 per cent since the 2008 election.

Our collective success in this year’s London and local government elections has left the BNP with only three councillors and two MEPs. This is down from their peak in 2009 of two MEPs, a member of the London assembly and 57 councillors. Other previous BNP strongholds, like Calderdale, Rotherham, Amber Valley, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Three Rivers and Epping Forest, are also now BNP-free zones.

These results were an incredible achievement for all of those dedicated community activists who have been the unsung heroes of the fight against the British far-right for over a decade. Over 750,000 HOPE not hate newspapers, leaflets and letters were distributed across the country in this election cycle alone.

We have seen first-hand the damage that the BNP has done to communities from Barking and Dagenham to Stoke-on-Trent. But the biggest worry is what happens next. Have we permanently undermined the politics of the far-right in the UK or have we only defeated the BNP?

Our view is that, while we may have beaten the BNP at the ballot box (and we must not forget the European elections in 2014), the conditions which gave rise to the party in the first place have not gone away and, if anything, are growing and will continue to grow as the economy struggles and the cuts in spending and services bite.

We could be witnessing the end of the BNP itself. It is laden with debt and riven with internal divisions and pessimism. However, new threats are likely to emerge. The strong UK Independence party vote shows how the rightwing, anti-European Union party can attract a disillusioned Conservative vote in much the same way that the BNP benefited from a Labour government. Perhaps this will give them the momentum to move into the vacuum left by the collapse of the BNP.

We are also likely to see a more militant and violent far-right threat in the shape of the British Freedom party. A splinter group of the BNP, the BFP is likely to greatly increase its profile and activities after the decision by the leader of the English Defence League, Stephen Lennon, to become its deputy leader.

For all its numerous faults, in its three-year history the EDL has managed to engage in communities and with different groups in a way that the BNP was never able to do. The EDL has supporters from black and ethnic minority communities (limited, but there all the same) and is firmly part of the growing international Counter-Jihad movement which is poisoning the public discourse with anti-Muslim messages.

Lennon has the potential to be a real anti-politician. He is articulate and vocalises genuine fears that exist on estates up and down the country. While we know him to be Islamophobic and violent, his broader appeal could be incredibly difficult to challenge, especially as respect for the mainstream political parties declines.

We are acutely aware that defeating the hate-mongers of today requires more than simply fire-fighting. We currently deal with problems once they appear rather than attempting to stop them occurring in the first place. We are expanding our work to meet this challenge, but the reality is that this must be a community-wide response, based within, and not imposed upon, local areas.

This is all the more important given the current economic environment which shows no signs of likely improvement in the immediate future. As our Fear and Hope report, published last year, graphically highlighted there is a clear connection between economic insecurity and pessimism and suspicion and hatred of outsiders. There will be a far-right revival over the next few years, both at the ballot box and on the street. Our campaign and the wider political establishment need to be ready to meet this renewed threat.

Community resilience and ongoing vigilance must be at the heart of political campaigning going forward. If the BNP really is dead then we must use this time to work within vulnerable communities across the country to make sure that there is not a political vacuum and that people’s fears and aspirations are both listened to and acted upon. We cannot afford to let an organisation like the British Freedom party, or indeed UKIP, fill the vacuum.

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