Saturday, 6 June 2009

Mixed results for BNP in Epping Forest

The BNP had mixed results in Epping Forest, with a notable westward shift in the party's vote that was encouraged in large part over anxiety it exploited over the proposed development of permanent Gypsy settlements.

However, there was no spectacular breakthrough and the BNP did not come close to winning a county seat in the district, despite an upturn in its vote in Waltham Abbey and North Weald where it came second. In fact, the BNP's Loughton strongholds now look distinctly vulnerable with its vote in Loughton Central down sharply over its performance in 2008, when it lost two seats it was defending in the county division.

The party's performance in the Chigwell and Loughton Broadway division, which includes its Broadway stronghold, saw a small increase in the BNP's share of the vote over 2008 district results. This must have been a disappointment to candidate Eddy Butler, who serves as the BNP's national organiser and is its lead candidate for the East of England constituency in the European Parliament elections.

Meanwhile, Sue Clapp, BNP councillor for Loughton Broadway, recorded a predictably dismal performance in Saffron Walden, where she had been exiled after being considered too much of a liability to run in Epping Forest district. Clapp trailed the Labour party in last place with 5.1% of the vote; the seat was won by the incumbent Conservative councillor.

Nevertheless, the BNP has held its level of support. But it has not achieved a major breakthrough and did not win a county seat in what is supposed to be its stronghold in Essex. The party also did not come anywhere near winning the Waltham Abbey Honey Lane district council seat in spite of previous electoral success in the ward.

Overall, the elections were characterised by a collapse in support for the Labour party and continued Conservative dominance in five of seven seats in the district; the Loughton Residents Association consolidated its strong lead in Loughton Central and the Liberal Democrats regained control of Epping and Theydon Bois.

The Conservative vote was hit by the scandal surrounding MP Eleanor Laing's expenses, which led to an average 10 percentage point drop over 2008. The Liberal Democrats also concentrated their resources into two target wards, one that they won and the other - Buckhurst Hill and Loughton South - they secured a small increase in their vote in the swing away from the Conservatives. The BNP had to share the protest vote against the mainstream parties with the Greens, UKIP, the English Democrats and the LRA. But only the Greens were able to improve their vote significantly in all seven county divisions, suggesting that the BNP does not have the monopoly on the backlash against the mainstream locally.

Epping Forest BNP Watch gives its assessment of the electoral performance of the BNP in Epping Forest.

Loughton Central was easily defended by the town's current mayor, the LRA's Chris Pond, with a staggering 55% of the vote. At the same time, former LRA councillor Mitch Cohen failed to reverse the Conservatives' continuing decline in vote share, which dipped below 20% for the first time. The Conservatives' poor performance was a surprise to many who regarded Cohen as a popular local councillor. The BNP's vote in Loughton Central also fell sharply, with its vote now at the lowest level for four years. BNP candidate Rod Law presided over a massive 40%+ decline in the party's vote share. The BNP had always regarded Loughton born and raised Rod Law as a popular local, but he fared far worse than relative newcomers such as Eddy Butler and Julian Leppert. In part this is due to Law's poor image, having a bad reputation for being aggressive and openly racist. But the LRA's ability to demonstrate that it can get things done, while the BNP merely complains from the sidelines, has helped fuel its support at the BNP's expense. The situation does not bode well for the BNP's hopes of defending its marginal Alderton and Fairmead wards - two of the four wards that form the Loughton Central county division - in the 2010 district council elections. Based on the county results and the likelihood that the district elections will be held concurrently with a general election, the odds are stacked against the BNP and we predict it will lose these wards.

The BNP managed to hold up its vote share in the Chigwell and Loughton Broadway ward, but one notable surprise was an overall swing from Conservative to Labour when compared to the combined 2008 district council ward results for the division. It is likely that voters are generally more positive about the Conservatives at a district level than at a county level, although the controversy caused by the redevelopment of the Broadway shopping centre may have had a negative impact on the Conservative vote in the Loughton Broadway part of the division.

Labour came an unexpected second in the ward, with the BNP edging just ahead of the Liberal Democrats to secure third place, up from fourth in 2005. Labour managed to go from fourth place in 2008 to second, thereby bucking the county and national trend. Nevertheless, the BNP improved its position from 2008, with its share of the vote up by 1.7 percentage points, a 16% increase in vote share. While Butler is not free of controversy, as we have noted before he is a highly astute politician and this is why he is able to bolster the BNP vote while Rod Law sheds votes.

As we predicted, the BNP came second place in Waltham Abbey as the Liberal Democrat vote plummeted. With group leader Pat Richardson put forward as their candidate, the BNP has significantly strengthened its position in Waltham Abbey, which could be a secondary or alternative power base for the party outside its three Debden wards in Loughton: Fairmead, Alderton and Broadway. With the party in retreat in Debden, Waltham Abbey represents its best chance of shoring up its position in the district council.

However, while it has improved its position over the county division, the by-election in the Waltham Abbey Honey Lane district council ward showed no major progress for the party. We had been expecting a tighter race, but the Conservatives achieved twice the vote the BNP managed, despite the extremist party's second place. The Liberal Democrats ran a lacklustre campaign and lost votes, which the BNP capitalised on. Yet, the BNP was unable to repeat the performance of the 2007 by-election, when it came a very close second when Conservative voters stayed at home. It also only secured a four percentage point increase in its vote over 2008 results for the district wards in the division. Having come second, the BNP still remains a threat in Waltham Abbey and the results suggest it may have more support in the Waltham Abbey Paternoster ward

The BNP did not make any headway in Buckhurst Hill and Loughton South division or the Epping and Theydon Bois divisions, where the Liberal Democrats ran a strong campaign. In the former, the BNP have little presence with the vote at little more than 5%, while in the latter the BNP vote share fell. In Ongar and Rural division, Councillor Peter Turpin did poorly and worse than we expected with 8.5% of the vote. However, North Weald was a breakthrough for the BNP in the district, with former London mayoral candidate coming second on the back of public anger over travellers' sites that the BNP felt able to capitalise on. Consequently, the losses and stagnation in some divisions was outweighed by gains in others. Overall, the BNP held its own with 10% of the vote district-wide.

European elections

If repeated across the East of England at the European elections, the BNP has an outside chance of winning a seat in the East of England. The BNP itself has predicted that it will not make the threshold for a seat in the Euro constituency, although its own number-crunching suggests up to four seats nationwide: East Midlands, West Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside and North West England. But despite a good showing in urban areas of Essex and Hertfordshire, where its vote varied between 5-15%, the rural counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire are likely to see the protest vote swing to the Greens and UKIP.

The Green party fared exceptionally well in these counties where it stood. While the BNP won just one seat in the entire region in Hertfordshire, the Greens managed to notch up 11 seats and UKIP won two seats, despite being primarily focused on Europe rather than local issues. But it is unclear whether the Greens did enough to win a seat and head of a challenge from the BNP. No doubt people voted differently in the local and European elections and it is impossible to make any educated guess in a close-fought campaign by minor parties for the seventh seat in the East of England. We will know for certain when the results are announced tomorrow.

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