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Anger at BNP seats must be turned into activism

Posted on 8 June 2009 | 2:06pm

There is a tendency for everyone in politics, both politicians and commentators, to make single sweeping judgements based upon what ultimately are a myriad complicated reasons that swing votes one way or another.

So for Labour politicians doing the media rounds last night, getting hit hard by the expenses scandal became the most common attempt to explain the disastrous results. Meanwhile most of the commentators seemed keen to bring everything back to the question of Gordon Brown’s leadership, and how MPs would react to results that were even worse than expected.

Amid a night of bad moments, watching the racist BNP win representation in the European Parliament delivered the worst. But I was struck by something BBC political editor Nick Robinson spotted early on in the evening, namely that despite the BNP winning two seats, the numbers voting for them actually fell. In other words, it was votes which would normally be expected to go to the mainstream parties, but which never materialised, which saw the fascists over the line.

Of course those who say it was a day of shame for Britain, and for Labour, that the BNP won these seats, are right. But in addition to going out and trying to win back those who switched from Labour to BNP, Labour also has to find out in detail why those who stayed away did so, and whether they can be engaged sufficiently, and persuaded once more of Labour’s values and purpose, to come out to vote for the Westminster Parliament.

We will all have our theories about the record low turnout, and the politician on the results programme, or the commentator given thirty seconds to sum up, have to boil everything down to simple definitive propositions.

But it was interesting that when, scratching around for a ray of hope in the local elections I blogged on Labour’s by-election win in Lambeth a couple of days ago, quite a few messages came in from other local parties who had similarly bucked the trend, and similarly said they believed they did so as a result of sustained local engagement.

The Lib Dems have always had the reputation as being the best at pavement politics, but Labour are going to have to match and better them.

The party nationally is not going to have the kind of funds that have been available in previous general elections. Local campaigning, and in particular engaging with those stayaway voters, is going to be crucial to Labour having any chance of avoiding another dreadful result whenever the general election comes.

As MPs head to the meeting of the PLP tonight, all of the focus media-wise will be on the Prime Minister. But in every area where ground has been badly lost, MPs all have to look to themselves and their roles as figures of leadership in local campaigns. It is not just about the leader. It is not just about expenses. It is about getting hold of the raw data on who switched, who stayed away, and systematically working your way through a lot of shoe leather and a lot of knocked doors.

I also wonder whether the main parties do not now have to reconsider the policy of never engaging in direct debate with the BNP. The lesson of their brief flirtations with local power is that when they are subjected to real political debate, decision making, and providing solutions rather than slogans, they fade quickly.

Out in Kentish Town this morning, I ran into someone who said she was ‘angry and ashamed’ that we now lived in a country which defeated Hitler but had two fascists taking public money to present a ghastly face of Britain to Europe and the world.

She also admitted that she hadn’t voted because she was so angry about MPs’ expenses. There is a lot of anger out there at the moment. Labour has to turn some of it into activism.

  • jan Davies

    Now is not the time for inaction I agree but what can people like me – confused and bemused labour supporters actually do to make a difference and get the conversation turned to real issues and really question the scary alternatives?

  • Noel Guilford

    We do not do enough, as parents and in schools, to educate our children how important it is vote in every election and that people died (yes – died!) so we have the freedom to live in a democracy and vote.

    Not voting is a vote for extremists and racists.

  • Em

    Agree with you on all points. The problem is how to win back apathetic voters. Actually getting people to go out and vote won’t be easy in this climate. I’m still a GB supporter but Labour must find a way to give a whiff of renewal for the general elections campaign. I don’t actually have ideas on how to go about this… Activists have to work their little butts off at the local level it’s true but GB needs to have a metaphorical 40 days in the desert, SOMETHING to bring a sense of newness at the top.

  • Brian Hughes

    Given that neither of the main parties nor the Lib Dems ran real campaigns and that, just as the Telegraph hoped, the expenses scandal has given non voters the perfect excuse to stay at home, is it any wonder than apathy won the day?

    You’re quite right about the role of local activists but, as the PLP turns ever more in on itself, who is going to inspire them to get out and get the votes?

  • CPW

    As a chap who visits the BNP heartland of Burnley every other week, one might have thought you would have some answers as to why the fascists won last night. But of course you don’t – and you don’t because as per most New Labour types you take no interest in the Burnley proles, the working classes or their lowly ilk.

    If you want to know why the BNP succeed in places like this, look at yourself. The sooner New Labour fucks the sooner will the BNP too. Your choice, pal.

  • Terry Evans

    I really like this blog. I really believe that the BNP has no chance at a general election, but that’s relying on all mainstream parties fully engaging. This campaign was lackluster in the extreme and apathy has won. The sooner the party can unite and start taking the fight back to our opponents the better.

  • Hamish Thompson

    I think Labour ought to add consideration of compulsory voting to the melting pot of electoral reform. The system worked well in Australia where I grew up. The penalty for not voting wasn’t terribly high, but it was sufficient incentive to catalyse strong turnouts. Voting is a privilege and a responsibility. The outcome this weekend shows how inexcusable stay-on-the-sofa passivity is. Look at the consequences. We pay through our taxes for all elected politicians. The exercise of holding a pencil over a ballot sheet is an important and clarifying experience. All of us should at least turn up and weigh the consequences of our decisions, even if some of us choose to spoil our papers.

  • gary Enefer

    Well done to Sadiq Khan,MP for Tooting who has been promoted. His late father drove buses in Wandsworth for 25 yrs.

    If the PLP does not derail things then Gordon Brown and his team can get back to core values and the economy-neither which the Conservatives have any idea.

  • Caroline Hett

    I too was heartened by Nick Robinson’s observation that the actual numbers voting for the fascist and totally sickening BNP fell. Nick Robinson also said those voting BNP were more motivated to turn out to vote. If we can’t make voting compulsory, I’d like to see a system whereby a failure to vote means the unused votes are distributed evenly between the three main parties. It’s ridiculous if voter apathy is allowed to result in our good country being represented by nuts and sluts in a legislature.

    btw I am 45 and haven’t been visited by a political canvasser since the 80s.

  • Jonathan

    Good post, Alastair!

    Quite right re BNP. Refusing to engage with them only adds to their ability to claim to be the iconoclast outsiders. Let them say their piece, expose it for the nonsense it is and a large part of their appeal will disappear.

  • Michael

    It is ironic that two progressive causes – PR and the EU – have ushered in the BNP. It is a good job your angry and ashamed person wasn’t French – they were occupied by the Nazis yet still voted for Le Pen quite regularly. The BNP only got in because the Labour vote collapsed – and don’t forget that only a week ago the British people voted for Diversity (both literally and metaphorically). I believe the British people at large are too moderate and tolerant to let this get out of hand – last night was an aberration.

  • Pete B

    I largely agree with you on this.

    There are two reasons why the BNP candidates were elected. First, a staggering number of people turned out to vote for them. Second, a great many people did not vote. Both of these factors need to be rigorously researched to find out why they occurred.

    It would, of course, be naive to assume that these circumstances were each the effect of a single cause. People will most likely have voted for the BNP for reasons ranging from outright racism through to social exclusion and the desire to rebel against the political establishment. Equally, in the case of those who did not vote, their reasons will have spanned everything from apathy through to the desire make a statement against mainstream politics.

    This suggests that there is unlikely to be a single fix to the problem of the BNP. Yes, mainstream party activism will likely play a positive role in re-engaging people with mainstream politics – but it is unlikely to act as a ‘cure’ for social exclusion and racist tendencies. These require more sophisticated policies from all levels of government.

    Gordon Brown’s top priority needs to be tackling social exclusion and the resentment which flows from it. An unacceptably large minority of people in Britain suffer from entrenched disadvantages which span numerous generations. This is likely to make them resentful of others who they perceive to have been arbitrarily afforded greater advantages in life than themselves and thus predispose them to the hateful messages of the BNP. Were these people to feel empowered and in control of the way they live their lives, it would seem improbable that they would endorse the BNP.

    This demands daring and sophisticated policies. It demands that even more money is spent on education in deprived areas and, where parents aren’t in a position to articulate concerns themselves, it demands independent advocates for children who, as parents do in affluent areas, put pressures on schools to perform as well as they can. It demands needle exchange programmes, drug treatment programmes and proper consideration about legalising drugs. Furthermore, it demands building a public transport network which can get people reliably from deprived areas to the places where good jobs exist. It demands more pro-active policing and it demands a justice system with less of an emphasis on retribution and more of an emphasis on rehabilitation. It also requires enhanced mental health care. Finally, it needs the gap between the pay of the highest and lowest earners to be narrowed.

  • Em

    @Hamish: I agree with you. I wish compulsory voting wasn’t necessary but people don’t realise that democracy is not a spectator sports. They want democratic freedoms but allow themselves to be far too passive.

  • kate

    Thanks for this blog. I absolutely agree with every point and having reviewed some of the results in Scotland on a constituency basis it is clear that local activism is vital in getting the Labour vote out. I also take heart from our three impressive local by-election wins in Glasgow,North Lanarkshire and East Dunbartonshire. Local activists used a lot of shoe leather over the campaigns, door-knocking and speaking to Labour supporters who were glad to see an effort being made and who rewarded us by bucking the trend and going out in force to elect our candidates. In two seats we made gains from the SNP and held the third with a respectable majority. Our voters are still there – waiting for us to engage with them and give them a reason to come out for us. If we make the effort so will they! K

  • Peter

    I feel terribly sad and frustrated by our country. Quite how in excess of 20,000 Lancastrians can vote for a party which would be more at home in the Third Reich practcally on the 65th anniversary of D-day defies belief.
    While I agree that electoral reform and the constitution need serious consideration, Gordon and NL aren’t the ones to do it. They’ve had 12 years to do it and not shown any inclination until now when they’re in extremis! The Cons won’t do it cos a vote for them is a vote for the status quo and in 10 years some other pratt will be charging us for cleaning his moat.
    Only the Lib Dems have the history to present this as something they have always believed in and they won’t win the next election! Wot a MESS!!!!!

  • Wyrdtimes

    I shall repost what I wrote on comment is free this morning – as Mr Campbell exhibits the same head in the sand tendency as Sunny Hundal.

    As usual complete and utter failure to recognise why so many people voted for the BNP.

    It’s the sheer scale of immigration that’s the problem. And the fact that public services are groaning under the pressure.

    Last week Frank Field unearthed some shocking immigration statistics. You won’t have read them in the guardian or heard them on the BBC.

    2.1 million immigrants* settled in England (yes England) between 1991 and 2007. And that of course doesn’t touch on the amount of illegal immigrants – possibly a similar number? Anyone’s guess.

    Asylum – time to make it start at the first safe country rather than half the way round the world in England.

    Skill shortages – train the people already here. There are plenty of unskilled unemployed people about – lets train them.

    Illegal immigrants – should be deported not rewarded with citizenship.

    I suppose that makes me a racist** round here – but really its not about race it’s about volume. It’s about lots and lots of people in a small country. England is full*** and life will be better for everyone already here if we stop cramming more people in.

    * doesn’t included Scottish, Welsh or Irish immigrants into England.
    ** A word so misused by the left that it no-longer has any meaning.
    *** now officially the most densely populated country in Europe.

  • woolfie

    I think it’s really interesting that Labour is now in a political and electoral battle with the far left BNP while the main battle ground of politics is between the Tories and UKIP

  • Colin Morley

    Hang on Alastair – “in addition to going out and trying to win back those who switched from Labour to BNP, Labour also has to …” Labour doesn’t seriously want to win back the votes of these mindless racist morons – If it can’t survive by its own decent policies then it doesn’t deserve to. I agree that the reasons for the BNPs gains are manifold, but every single vote for this pile of dog**** is one the Labour party neither wants nor needs – EVER!!

  • tony flaig

    A day of shame for Britain yes indeed, even more so for Labour, since its, Labour’s failure to address the concerns that the public hold over unplanned mass migration.

    Still at your place in the food chain, I doubt you’re even remotely aware of the hardship caused to working people by your negligent attitude to migration.

    Try looking in the mirror and you might just have a clue as to who is responsible for the BNP getting elected.

    You need to forget, the we know best attitude, and just think how ordinary working people view, the ruthless exploitation of East European actively encouraged by Labour.

    Also take a look at Gordon Brown, arrogant with no people skills. Being Prime Minister is more important than the good of the people or the Labour Party to Gordon Brown.

    If you don’t kick him out, you will have earned your place in the wilderness, and the countries poorest will be paying the price. THANKS FOR NOTHING

  • Norman

    “Something Nick Robinson spotted”

    Good one Alastair!

  • Thomas Rossetti

    I agree with every word Tony Flaig has written. The success of the BNP is entirely down to Labour and its refusal to listen to people’s concerns about mass, unplanned immigration.

    For the good of the country, I really think we need a general election.

  • John Warrington

    The attitude of the lady in Kentish Town says it all. A no vote is a wasted vote and that come home to roost last night. It’s all very well being angry about the expenses scandal, but not every MP, MEP, or councellor is tarnished with the same brush. Those caught up in that scandal will be dealt with one way or another. But in the meantime, politics must continue. One thing I will say, despite the fact that BNP fell over the line, they and UKIP accumulated a lot of votes whatever you look at it. That must tell those in mainstream politics that there is a large, unhappy group out there and their concerns must be listened too.

  • Jane A

    I have two views about what’s next.

    (1) How did we get here. It’s good to know there is raw data and science which can illuminate who voted, who shifted, who didn’t bother, and that there is some follow up to address why what happened in local and EU elections did. We need to understand – on top of gut feel – what precisely went wrong. And I don’t mean that in a witch hunt/blame culture way. I mean understanding the facts.

    But (2), we then need to draw a line under both sets of elections – those people are in now, for better or worse -and set a course going forward, rather than indulge in weeks of hand-wringing and lamentation dwelling on the what-ifs.

    Learn about it, learn from it, and positively set a direction for the Party for the next 12 months

  • Chris Simkins

    I have just been watching the new BNP MEP being interviewed on the local and national news. I am shocked at the weak responses that are being offered by journalists and MPs (Margaret Hodge specifically) to the arguments being put forward.

    There is a lot of ‘you’re just racist’ comments being thrown around, with no-one actually offering intelligent responses to the real concerns.

    Surely, if nothing else, it is possible to respond to some of the claims of the BNP by just pointing out that our economy would completely fold if any of their policies were pursued and as a result, many of the issues the BNP suggest they can solve would actually get a lot worse.

    I’m (very) guilty of not understanding the issues as well as I should, but we must be able to do better than this mustn’t we?

  • Rita

    In addition to those reasons we are also lacking the ‘vision thing’! I do NOT want to grow old under a tory government- the thought of what tory policies would do to vulnerable members of our society chills me.We need to activate and articulate. Rita 🙁

  • Goldfish

    It worries me that I am saying this, but maybe the election of two BNP MEPs isn’t the worst possible outcome.

    My (shameful) hope is that by giving them a high profile place at the table, the people they’ve hoodwinked into voting for them will get to see what they’re truly about. Let’s see them on Question Time, on Today and anywhere else that will have them.

    They’ll soon slip up and, importantly, people will see that they’re just one trick ponies. Here’s hoping!

  • Em

    Wyrdtimes – What about “indigenous” UK citizens who have been on the dole for generations? I never see you whine about them.

  • gary Enefer

    Dear Alastair

    I still feel not enough is being said about trail by media. This country is impossible to govern if the press can decide on every move the prime minister and his cabinet are allowed to make. Trouble is the media won’t allow people to see what’s happening and only allow us to remain cynical of the politicians when we should be cynical of the media. You did an amazing thing at the Hutton enquiry when you spoke up and asked the panel to ask the BBC for answers- I remember it to this day and it helped me win a personal legal case. I don’t know if you realised but this is daoist thinking.

    Gordon has survived tonight just but he badly needs you – the country needs you to help.

    best wishes


  • Alan Quinn

    To me, the tory press with their constant fixation with mass immigration have driven Mondeo Man to UKIP and the BNP not to the tories, they only gained 2% as Labour voters stayed in.
    Once again the media have driven the agenda not the politicians. How many stories have we read about the Poles returning home lately?

  • Tubbyhubby

    The election of the BNP is a consequence of a broken economy, poverty breeds contempt and scapegoats are sought to transfer that contempt onto. Nonew Labour has to address poverty in areas where racism is likely to thrive. GB had an opportunity to tackle British hostility of foreign workers with his British jobs for British workers pledge, he failed to keep his pledge. Britishworkers had to strike to protect their own interests. Thus creating a widespread idea that Nonew Labour don’t have British people interests at heart. Nonew Labour are only beginning to come to terms with immigration and the problems this brings to many people fighting for the few resources available. Nonew Labour fail to adequately fund for apprentices and training for British People as it is cheaper for them to import foreign skilled labour. European policies only serves to excarcerbate the problem. As for the PC wind up brigade they need to grow up. Banning traditional festivities nonsense

  • Dean Madden

    The BNP getting into power has given me the impetus to join Labour, and try to get involved in the activism you speak of. Hopefully there are more like me.

  • Wyrdtimes

    Em said “Wyrdtimes – What about “indigenous” UK citizens who have been on the dole for generations? I never see you whine about them.”

    “whine”? Tell me where I’m whining Em? I was merely suggesting what the problem is as I see it and some posible solutions. Judging by the recommendations on the Guardian website – a lot of other people agree with me.

    Just because you are incapable of producing a coherent counter view or argument doesn’t make my post a “whine.”

    As for “UK” subjects I would suggest that benefit be reduced over time for anyone claiming dole who is capable of work. A safety net is fine, but welfare should not be a lifestyle choice – it’s not fair on those who have to pick up the tab. That should apply to everyone regardless of origin.

  • Dorcas

    The expense row is only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that the BNP grows more attractive as the equally loony and dangerous wet liberal left continues to force people in social housing to live out its half-baked, simplistic creeds.

    The real nuisances to housing associations and councils are not those with profound addiction, mental health and social problems but those whose lives they make miserable.
    I was told, for example, that a neighbour who lived in stinking squalor was making a “lifestyle” choice I needed to learn to live with. Ditto junkies, rowdies and nasty kids. This is the Labour Party in power – enemy of those who want their children to grow up without meeting drunks and junkies every day in this wonderful socialist melting pot. Of course, the wet left tends to live in leafy suburbs or smart urban enclaves well away from the world they have created for others to live in.

    I have always voted Labour but never again. Your party must tackle the social injustices and isolation suffered by those struggling to lead ordinary, decent lives and reward them; it must accept that there is a British culture we want to preserve; that we are as intensely tribal as any ethnic minority, that we are not morally inferior simply because our faces are white. If the BNP is the only one listening, you who ignore the real sense of grievance are fuelling the move toward fascism.