Friday, 20 February 2009

Arise the BNP

John Hemming, as ever, appraises us of the results of last night's by-elections. Congratulations are due to the Duwayne Brooks, Jennie Clutten and the Lewisham team for winning a double handed by-election to hold two seats in Downham. For those who don't know, the Lewisham Party has been going from strength to strength in recent years (in fact, since I stepped down as Chair, although that cannot be the reason of course) and would be a good bet to take over control in next year's London council elections.

But the real message from the results must be the success of the BNP. In Lewisham they got 10% of the vote from a standing start. We lost 10% and the other parties traded marginally. Easy to suggest that this is 10% transferring direct from Lib Dem to BNP and of course that isn't always the case, but there will have been a large chunk who did just that.

In NW Leicestershire, the BNP came third with 28% from a standing start. The Lib Dem came 4th losing 19% of the previous vote. Without being on the ground, it is impossible to say what the causes were but I would suspect that we didn't run a hugely active campaign there.

And in Sevenoaks the BNP came from nothing to win with 42% of the vote as Dale notes. This was gained from UKIP and Labour as the Tories held steady and no Lib Dem stood this time or last.

So why are the BNP winning so many votes (if not more than the occasional seat)? In my opinion they are certainly picking up the 'against all' votes that may previously have come to the Lib Dems or Greens. These tend to be people who feel it is their duty to vote but are so hacked off with the Government and whoever is running their local council that they are not going to vote for any of the 'established' parties. They may deliberately vote for an outside party to give them a kick up the backside. In the past this was usually the Lib Dems. Now it isn't. Why? Clearly a thesis could be written here, but fundamentally we have stopped being against things and are all too often part of the establishment. This is understandable if we hold power - but it is still possible to campaign in favour of changes even if we sit behind the biggest desks at the town hall. And we can and must campaign against the Government - even in Council polls.

What is less understandable is where we are in opposition but still act as apologists for the administration. Let's face it - why should anyone vote for us if we fail to offer a real alternative.

The BNP are also learning (to a small degree) about campaigning. Whatever us political hacks think about them and their policies, the image they portray to voters is as a group sticking up for them - not racists, but on the side of local families. There's not a lot of depth to that message, but then not many people (including not many of their voters) want to see the BNP running anything. They just want change and they see the BNP as a way of delivering that.

So how to approach the BNP?

There is the Labour version which basically says you should march and demonstrate against the very prospect of the BNP standing in your area. Don't engage them and certainly don't debate them. Just get people to vote 'against the BNP'. In my opinion this is a stupid way of proceeding - particularly for Lib Dems. I hate the BNP but they are a legal party who have the right to express their opinions. If we debate with them then we will show them up to be vacuous fools. If we don't then, at a stroke, we dismiss all those who vote or consider voting for them as not worthy of our time either.

And the Labour line tends to obscure the regular election campaigning so that the only choice to the BNP becomes the established party - and that usually ain't us.

In his interview with Dale for Total Politics, Dave the Bin Man has his own take saying that the BNP are an excrescence. Once again, saying that a party is shit implies that anyone who considers voting for them is shit too. Thank you very much for your adult politics Mr Cameron. I think this is Cameron trying to avoid any Labour smear of him being soft on 'the racist/facist BNP'. So he feels the need to deride them in his opening breath.

But having got that over with, Cameron at least recognises that the best way to beat the BNP is to campaign against them. He says:

"the way to defeat it is to campaign actively on the ground. Pavement politics.
People turn to extreme parties if they think they have been forgotten by the
mainstream parties. That doesn't mean running towards issues they are
campaigning on, it means running towards the people that they are talking to and
showing you are listening to their concerns, taking up their issues and working
for them. You have to show that no part of the country, no part of your
constituency, no ward, that no housing estate is forgotten. That's the key
thing. Eric Pickles is an expert on this and has helped teach me this lesson"

In many cases the Lib Dems could do well to heed Cameron's advice (except the bit about Eric Pickles, obviously)


Dan Houghton said...

Hi Alex

Probably worth pointing out that the last time the BNP put up candidates in Downham was 2002, when they polled nearly 600 votes. For them to have fallen back so far (under 300 votes this time) is a guide to just how much Downham has changed since they last stood (there is now a sizeable BME community both on the Estate and the private dwellings). And also the fact that we have worked the ward hard, and kept on top of the casework!


Norfolk Blogger said...

Lewisham was not really a standing start for the BNP. In previous London elections Downham had been a major BNP target, indeed I seem to recall emergency e-mails back in 2002 urging Lib Dem phone canvassing and knckoing up in order to prevent a BNP victory.

Matthew Huntbach said...

Downham was once one of the BNP's best chances in London, but as Dan says, it's no longer the all-white council estate ward it used to be. One can see a pattern where the BNP have been forced out of inner London, are getting forced out of suburban London to the outermost fringes, and, as shown in the Sevenoaks DC by-election are probably now going to find their best prospects in those obscure council estates no-one knows about in what everyone thinks of as overwhelmingly Tory small town England. These places are the hidden secret of south-east England, no-one knows about them, no-one cares about them. Remember that 13-year old dad story - where does he live? A council estate in Eastbourne. You didn't know Eastbourne had a big very deprived council estate - thought it was all retired wealthy Tory types? Point proved.

The fact is that in places like Downham, people do mix so much with those of other races in their work, and often home life, that it does put them off voting BNP. The typical job of a Downham resident is perhaps some low level role in one of the big London hospitals. You work in that role, the people alongside you are non-white, you get to know them as friends, you don't vote BNP.

You have to go further out to find people who really don't mix at all with those of other races. Also, in Downham and south-east London in general, the ethnic minorities are more likely African and Afro-Caribbean, and in general that leads to easier mixing, there aren't the religious and cultural barriers there are where the ethnic minorities are mainly Muslim.

One thing we LibDems have to realise is that not everyone is a liberal. Part of the reason we aren't able to pick up all the protest vote we might have had in the past is that we have established a stronger liberal image. The protest vote might have been easier when people thought of us as just some vague "centre party". People in poor deprived council estates tend not to be very liberal in opinion. I know it's something I came to hear a lot of in Downham "we like what you do locally, but we don't like what your party stands for nationally". See - it means they know what we stand for nationally - and that's probably a good thing in the long run, we're known to be a liberal party.