Wednesday, 18 March 2009

How to defeat the BNP

Turnout: 2002 - 26.5%; 2004 - 35.8%; 2006 - 45.0%; 2008 - 37.0%

The 2008 district elections saw local BNP leader Pat Richardson perform an unglamorous chicken run move from Fairmead to Broadway ward, apparently in an effort to stay on the council. Fairmead was lost by the BNP to the Loughton Residents Association, its main challenger and the town's largest political group. Broadway ward, which was created in 2002, has never been contestedby the LRA. As a result, the BNP has managed to build up a solid base of support. But despite Richardson's escape to Broadway, the BNP's vote fell 12.7% to 469 votes from its peak in 2006. This gives us a few clues as to the BNP's rise and fall in Loughton and how to defeat it.

Apathy and Labour's collapse not to blame

Unlike other areas of the country, the BNP's share of the vote in Broadway is not necessarily encouraged by a low turn-out. While the rise of the BNP in Broadway has been blamed on the collapse of the Labour party after the Iraq War, the statistics reveal a more complex situation. In terms of its share of the vote, the BNP had 33.6% in 2004 with turn-out up 9.3 percentage points, 39.3% in 2006 with turn-out up 9.2 percentage points and 40.0% in 2008 with turn-out down 8.0 percentage points. The BNP is able to mobilise people who don't normally vote and its vote has helped increase turn-out. When turn-out fell in 2008, so did the BNP vote in terms of actual vote, although it did manage to secure a 0.7 percentage point increase in its share of the vote.

Meanwhile, the trend in the Labour vote has actually followed the trend in the BNP vote, with the Labour vote increasing by around the same amount as the BNP in 2006 and falling by around the same amount in 2008. The only party to buck this trend is the Conservative party, which was the only party to raise both its number and share of votes in 2008. The Liberal Democrat vote has fared the worst in the ward, fading away almost to nothing. Its vote has fallen by 70% since its peak in 2004 to just 47 votes in 2008, when it came fifth behind the Greens. The gap between the BNP and its nearest rival, Labour, in 2008 was 123 votes, which is less than the 131 combined votes for the LibDems and the Greens. If the Green and LibDem candidates did not stand, 94% of their supporters would have had to have voted Labour to have denied the BNP the seat. However, in a tighter election, the split in the non-BNP vote could make all the difference.

Examining BNP defeats

Click on graphs to enlarge

It is fair to say that politics is not normal in Loughton and this is why a ward-by-ward analysis of the BNP's electoral fortunes has to be carried out. The effort to defeat the BNP in Broadway cannot be compared to the efforts in Oldham, a town that has a quite different history, political landscape and demography. Best examples of anti-BNP activism can be found from recent electoral history in Loughton itself, notably its rout in the Alderton and Fairmead wards which also form the loosely defined Debden area of Loughton.

In 2002, Loughton's Alderton and Fairmead wards were two horse races between Labour and the Conservatives, with Labour always confident of a win. The tide turned in 2004, when both parties were forced into third and fourth place as two new and unconventional political forces entered the election: the far-right British National Party and the doggedly independent and consensus-seeking Loughton Residents Association. The former played on fears and hatred, with deceitful propaganda about the town's imminent influx of African refugees and violent Muslim students at the local FE college - claims that were never backed by facts, but reinforced the rumours being spread locally. The latter group, the residents association, could not have been more different. Seeking to deal with actual local problems, the LRA based its fight on planning issues, refuse collection, environmental concerns and all the other issues that local councils actually have responsibility for.

Both the BNP and the LRA oversaw the collapse of the Tory-Labour duopoly and the efforts of the Liberal Democrats made little impact on the subsequent election results, other than to split the non-BNP vote (this was evident in the 2007 Alderton by-election when the Liberal Democrats increased their share of the vote to the detriment of the LRA).

Both new entrants to local electoral politics were able to increase turn-out, bringing people to the polls who would not otherwise vote in local elections. At the same time, they skimmed votes off the main parties. The theory is that the BNP took most of the Labour defectors, while the LRA took the Tory defectors. However, the reality is probably far more complex (nota bene: the Constituency Labour party, along with its electoral support, collapsed as a direct result of the Iraq War, which began in 2003 and led to popular local Labour councillor and PPC Stephen Murray quitting the party to sit as an independent).

The BNP was triumphant in the 2004 and 2006 district elections, winning both seats in the Alderton and Fairmead wards. However, their majority in Fairmead was always highly marginal, a situation that prompted Richardson's decision to dump the ward and run to Broadway. Her fears were well-founded as the BNP was routed by the LRA in May 2008 following a strong campaign on local issues that would not interest outsiders. The BNP also lost a seat in Alderton by a large margin, having retained it in a by-election by a handful of votes a few months before hand.

The LRA has shown that the BNP can be roundly beaten on the basis of strong, long-term local campaigning, but it also requires the consolidation of the non-BNP vote. The Alderton ward by-election of 2007, which saw the Liberal Democrats put up a strong fight only for the BNP to win by a small margin over the LRA, demonstrated the danger of splitting the BNP vote. The key to defeating the BNP is therefore a greater consolidation within the non-BNP vote - instead of fracturing it between four or five parties - and a strong campaign based on local issues, where the BNP has struggled to perform.

Grassroots politics: key to BNP's defeat

Loughton residents are coming round to the opinion that voting for the BNP in local elections has no effect on national policies in relation to immigration, while it lacks an agenda based on local needs. Few local people appear to identify with its underlying white supremacism and the BNP's main electoral message is predicated on protest voting rather than voting postively for a policy platform. Protest politics wanes as time goes on, particularly if protest parties are unable to have any impact on the status quo.

The LRA's strong track-record on working to improve the town in the long-term, and achieving tangible results, have enabled it to increase its profile. LRA councillors are also seen as non-partisan and having broad-based support within the community. They appeal to both the desire for pragmatism and the dislike of conventional party politics. This has made it more difficult for the others to attack them directly, since the LRA's pragmatic consensus-building and its lack of threat to seats outside Loughton make it relatively non-threatening to the three mainstream parties.

In Debden in general, the LRA has led the way in protecting green spaces from development by seeking to register them as village greens. It is fighting to save the closure of Debden Community Association's sports hall. It is actively seeking residents' opinions on residents parking. It participates in the "Debden Day" activities, runs the farmers market and is involved in the Broadway business partnership. Despite having not contested Broadway, the LRA is visibly doing more than the divisive BNP. And the micro-level issues that bother people on a day-to-day level is ultimately the territory where the BNP can be defeated, as demonstrated in Alderton and Fairmead.

2009 county election: mapping the political landscape

The key test of the BNP's fortunes in Broadway will come in the 2009 county council elections, when Broadway ward will be included with Conservative-voting Chigwell. It is inevitable that the Conservatives will win the Chigwell and Broadway seat. In the last county elections fought in 2005 (simultaneously with the general election), the percentage of the vote stood at 49.6% for the Conservatives, 20.5% for Labour, 17.8% for the Liberal Democrats, 8.2% for the BNP and 3.3% for the Greens. In terms of actual votes, the BNP achieved 623 votes, 180 votes up on the 2004 district election. This was a disappointing result for the BNP given that turn-out was 60.5% and the size of the electorate was 80% larger than Broadway on its own. It is therefore finding it hard to push beyond its dwindling stronghold in Loughton.

If the BNP fails to match its 2005 performance in 2009, it could mark the beginning of the end of the BNP's presence in Broadway. Bearing in mind the disaster in the 2007 Alderton by-election, the LibDems and Greens could also reconsider contesting Broadway in 2010, if they really want the BNP defeated. While Labour is able to count on a core vote of 300-400 and the Conservatives are seeing their vote increase to less than 100 behind Labour, neither Labour nor the Conservatives are likely to bow out of the election race.

Looking to 2010

There is still a sizeable 55-65% of the Broadway electorate that does not vote in local elections. The likelihood of a general election in 2010 - which will probably coincide with the district elections - could change the scenario, with a turn-out of up to 70%, bringing potentially an extra 500 Broadway voters to the polls; no district council election has been fought simultaneously with a general election in Broadway ward since it was created in 2002. It is likely that many of these extra voters will swing to the Conservative and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats, whose profile in the ward has diminished. The LRA, which has drawn support from across the party spectrum, is also poised to contest Broadway for the first time, having worked hard on the local issues that concern the ward's voters.

The 2010 district elections will maximise turn-out since they are likely to be held alongside the general election. However, it could also mean that some supporters of mainstream parties will rally behind their parties at a local level and it means that local politics can be eclipsed by national events. Yet, it is not a certainty that Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat general election voters will carry their allegiances to the local elections.

Voters can be fickle and unpredictable, and so they should be - local and national politics are very different. However, the defeat of the BNP in all three Debden wards in 2010 will leave Pat Richardson on her own, leaving Nick Griffin and his ilk with a lot of egg of their faces. And that would be worth seeing, whatever your political allegiance.

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