So what does all this mean? First of all, as a card-carrying Northerner I feel duty bound to emphasise that this is not just a case of racist Northerners voting BNP while the rest of the country carries the torch of tolerance. Let's remember that there's a BNP member of the London Assembly, as well as several local counicllors in Essex. The BNP may have only won seats in the North West and Yorkshire, but their figures weren't dramatically lower elsewhere – they got 132,094 votes (8 per cent) in the North West, but also 101,769 (4.4 per cent) in the South East and 86,420 (4.9 per cent) in London. So we're not dealing with an exclusively Northern problem.
It seems the BNP have made gains for three clear reasons. Two of them are linked – voter apathy leading to low turnout (33 per cent voted in the North West), and disillusion with mainstream parties leading to votes for minor parties. As many analysts are pointing out, many of the BNP's votes have come from traditional Labout supporters who are clearly disillusioned with that party in the wake of the expenses scandal and Gordon Brown's crumbling authority. Thirdly, proportional representation, as is used for the EU elections, makes it much more likely that small parties will gain seats (this is something those advocating PR for our national system, and I include myself in that, need to acknowledge). The BNP's number of votes in the North West and Yorkshire has not actually gone up since the last elections in 2004 (in the North West they're down by 3,765 votes), but a lower turnout means they required fewer votes to reach the percentage needed to win a seat. Just a few thousand extra voters turning out to vote for anyone other than the BNP would have prevented them from getting in.
As Sunny Hundal points out in his excellent Comment is Free piece on this subject, while waking up to two BNP MEPs is hard to stomach, there are reasons why we should not be overly disheartened. Hundal suggests that a shift in approach by those opposing the BNP would help to lower its support at future elections and expose the party for what it really is. I agree, and was particularly struck by this point:
"[BNP gains] may stop Labour ignoring its traditional working-class origins, now so comprehensively stomped over that they're migrating to other parties in droves. This is not an indictment of high immigration and multiculturalism, as no doubt some will call it, but of a centralised party ignoring local concerns."I've long found the general tone (and I must emphasise the word general here) of anti-BNP campaigning somewhat patronising towards those it is targetted at. The approach of the main parties, which Hundal dubs "anti-BNP gesture politics", usually amounts to little more than "don't be stupid and vote for them, they're stupid and racist". This is not enough – it is the responsibility of those parties (usually Labour) to make a convincing case for why people should not vote BNP. This involves both actively dismantling the myths propogated by the BNP, and selling their own policies to an increasingly sceptical electorate. As Hundal says, this has to involve a focus on local concerns. BNP success tends to occur in areas where both a white majority and a large non-white, usually Muslim, minority are living alongside (but separate from) one another in challenging socio-economic circumstances – Burnley, which is often considered to be the BNP's North West stronghold, is a prime example of this.
It seems to me that there are parallels between how we should approach Islamic extremism in these areas and how we might go about approaching far-right extremism. For our current cover story I looked into how local people had responded to the government's Preventing Violent Extremism policy in by hometown of Blackburn (10 minutes down the road from Burnley). In my piece, I conclude that the key to preventing extremism seems to lie not in constantly addressing the issue of Islamic extremism head-on, but rather in addressing the more pressing (some might say more real) concerns of Muslims living in multicultural former mill towns like Blackburn and Burnley – high unemployment, low incomes, poor education, poor health, poor housing, and so on, and also the issue of integration between the different communities. If those issues are addressed, then it follows that young Muslims would be less likely to be disillusioned and turn to extremism. Perhaps the same could be said for those who have voted BNP, who in many cases experience the same socio-economic difficulties as their Muslim neighbours. If mainstream parties could make the case, at a local level, for how they would address those difficulties, and address them when in power, then they too would be less likely to turn to extremism, this time of the far-right variety.
One other excellent point I'd like to pick up on is that made by blogger Sarah Ditum, which Hundal reiterates in his CiF piece. Our right-leaning tabloid press will probably now condemn the election of two BNP MEPs, but aren't they the same papers that constantly remind their readers of the threat posed by immigrants and asylum seekers?
And finally, perhaps we can take heart from the BNP's previous performances in elected office. Staying in Blackburn, allow me to tell you what happened the one and only time a BNP councillor was elected there. Robin Evans was elected to the Mill Hill ward back in 2002, but he didn't last all that long. First it was revealed that, after standing on a platform of family values, he had walked out on his wife and 10-year-old child to set up home with a 21-year-old colleague. Then, he eventually left the BNP to become an independent "national socialist" after denouncing his fellow BNP members as "drug dealers and football hooligans". It was also reported that Evans had some trouble following council business, saying of the budget: “This is all mumbo jumbo. I don’t understand a word of it.”
As this list shows, BNP members have consistently proven themselves unfit for elected office. Let's hope that, in their five years in the European Parliament, Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons prove this yet again.