Far-right drops its mask

By Matthew Goodwin, May 3, 2013
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The British National Party could once put up more than 400 candidates, and attract national media attention. As yesterday's local elections showed, today the BNP is very much a shadow of its former self, and can barely contest 100 seats.

While the party is retaining its focus on areas that have long been used to extreme right candidates - Essex, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Worcestershire - the numbers are down across the board, and an electoral revival appears distinctly unlikely.

For the first time since 2001, in the run-up to the election, anti-fascist campaigners were scribbling "no threat" alongside most BNP candidates.

Its electoral collapse has been both quick and dramatic. Since its peak in 2009, at European Parliament elections that saw the voting in of two BNP candidates and almost one million voters shifting behind Nick Griffin's party, the BNP has become engulfed by factionalism, unable to calm a grass-roots rebellion and establish basic financial discipline.

BNP seems set to return to ‘biological racism’

The loss of experienced local organisers, some of whom have switched allegiance to rival parties like the English Democrats, and a broader downturn of morale within the party have severely dented its electoral chances.

While the severity of this infighting has since subsided, and some large donations have bolstered the party's finances, prospects remain bleak. Much of this is of the party's own making as, in its attempt to retain a smaller hard-core of "true believers", it has returned to what many would regard as overt expressions of biological racism, for example praising Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement, thus further discouraging ordinary voters from endorsing the increasingly toxic brand.

One thing, however, remains clear. Despite the BNP's decline, the broader climate of British politics remains favourable for radical right-wing politics, with the UK Independence Party being the chief beneficiary of the changing political winds. Public concern over immigration is once again on the rise, with the latest Ipsos-MORI tracker telling us that 29 per cent of all voters identify this issue as one of the most important facing the country (a level not seen since summer 2011).

This number is also likely to increase further, as the Farage brand of populism seeks to intensify public concerns over looming migration from Bulgaria and Romania. In fact, as things stand today, British voters rate immigration as an issue that is more important than unemployment, and we remain more likely than many of our continental counterparts to voice anxieties about this. Add to this a stubbornly persistent economic crisis, which is sharpening perceptions of resources under threat, and a coalition government that has absorbed the natural party of protest, the Liberal Democrats, and it becomes clear that opportunities for radical right populists remain.

The BNP will not receive the dividends that these trends produce for right-wing parties. Indeed, perhaps the most striking development on the extreme right is the way in which it has responded to this climate, and the end of electioneering, by returning to the streets and abandoning its quest to flirt with mainstream voters.

Gone are the days when the far right sought to connect with voters through electoral modernisation. Instead, right-wing extremist groups - ranging from the BNP to the English Defence League and their various splinter movements - have become more disorganised, and much less predictable.

The old strategy of "march and grow" is very much back in fashion, as an increased number of small, fractious and openly confrontational groups seek to replace both the struggling BNP - and the EDL, which has also failed to protect itself from the extreme right's traditional Achilles heel: infighting.

Matthew Goodwin is co-founder of the Extremis Project

    Last updated: 8:45am, May 3 2013