What was your reaction when you heard that the BNP’s membership list had been published on the internet?
a) A sudden desire to see whether any fascists lived on your road? b) A certain gleefulness that such a vile party had come a cropper in this way? c) A little salivation at the prospect of BNP members losing their jobs? d) A mild concern over the data protection issues involved? e) Or maybe you thought ‘Aha, here’s a chance to have a bash at someone who used to be Mayor of London’?
If your answered mainly ‘e’, then you are Andrew Gilligan, and I claim my £5. The Animal’s favourite scribe has dedicated his Evening Standard column to pushing the centre-right’s usual line regarding the hard right: “oh look, aren’t they small and insignificant, if we generally downplay them and pander a bit to the prejudices of their supporters, they’ll go away.”
Gilligan headlines his article “Now we know what little threat the BNP poses” and bases his assumptions on the fact that the membership list shows a relatively small number of members in London generally, with unsurprisingly, very low numbers in the inner boroughs. But surely this was news to no-one – it was always assumed that the party’s membership was somewhere in the vicinity of the 12,000 on the list. What Gilligan misses in his analysis is the growing irrelevancy of membership numbers to electoral and cultural success: that the era of the mass party is for the most part gone. According to the most recent figures, Labour’s current membership stands at around 177,000, with Tory membership estimated at around 290,000 – yet such astonishingly low figures (out of a UK population of 60 million) do not prevent these two parties from having a permanent hegemony on power in Westminster government and between them setting the political culture of the nation. If we accept the ‘membership breeds success’ argument, then both these parties would have decreased in power and influence over recent decades as their memberships crumbled. And with the BNP having around 6.7% of the membership of the Labour Party, then a direct correlation between membership and electoral success would give it at least 23 seats in the House of Commons. Put like that, the party’s membership figures aren’t really to be sniffed at.
Of course, the truth is that there is no such correlation – the lack of a significant membership base will hold back a party a little, particularly when it is seeking to establish itself, but it doesn’t have any real effect on the ability of an established minor party, such as the BNP, from achieving electoral success – especially when the party’s name recognition makes it such a popular repository for ‘protest votes’. To bolster his thesis that the BNP is something that can be safely ignored, Mr Gilligan himself ignores the inconvenient truth that the party is achieving electoral success and establishing itself as an acceptable voice in the political ‘mainstream’. In his 1,037 word article ostensibly about the BNP in London, Mr Gilligan somehow omits to mention that the party has, since May, had a member of the London Assembly – about whom, as Tory Troll rightly points out, there appears to be something of a media conspiracy of silence. Nor does he find space to mention the very real possibility of a BNP MEP being elected for London next year, or the even higher chance of the party taking control of Barking & Dagenham Borough Council in 2010. Or that, outside London, Stoke-on-Trent Council is equally at threat of being run by fascists. Nor does he mention that last week the BNP gained a council seat in Boston, despite there being (according to the Guardian’s helpful map) between just 16 and 30 members in the entire Boston & Skegness constituency. I’ve been in constituency Labour parties with ten times that membership that couldn’t win a council by-election…
So I’m afraid that the argument that size is everything just doesn’t wash when it comes to extremist parties. Ignoring their electoral successes and hoping they’ll go away is wishful thinking at best and Weimarish naivety at worst. But then we should hardly be surprised to learn that Gilligan’s real interest in writing the article is not to attack the BNP, but to attack someone he obviously sees as a greater threat to civilisation as we know it – Ken Livingstone. Because if you are a politician who seeks to tackle racism and the BNP head on, in Gilligan’s worldview, you are helping the BNP. He makes the claim that the white working class voting for Boris Johnson represents the same phenomena as the white working class voting for the BNP (hardly flattering to Boris, eh, Andrew?):
We saw a similar, London-wide revolt, happily directed towards a mainstream candidate, during the recent mayoral election. The white working class voted en masse for Boris in protest against a mayor who showed little evidence of being interested in them, or recognising their place in London. Meanwhile, Livingstone’s shameless use of the race card, and his false accusations that many of his opponents were racist, did produce a high Labour vote among ethnic-minority Londoners. Thus a mainstream politician did more to racialise the electorate than the BNP ever could.
The problem is, that if challenged to present any evidence that Livingstone showed no evidence of being interested in them, he’d be hard pressed to get beyond a few sensationalist headlines. Of course, Gilligan is the sort of journalist who can find a dastardly pro-multicultural plot in the decision to retire the Routemaster, but in reality the key policy planks of the Livingstone mayoralty were race blind: do the white working classes not benefit from improved bus services, reduced fares for those on income support, increased construction of affordable housing, employment from the Olympics, Crossrail, a coherent climate change strategy or a thought-through skills strategy? Apparently not in Standard-world. Should the Mayor of the (probably) world’s most diverse city not consider the differing needs and challenges of the variety of groups that make up its population and formulate strategies to address those needs? Again, apparently not. Should the Mayor make efforts to tackle poverty and exclusion in the city? Definitely not, because ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented amongst the poor and the excluded – and when the right-wing media works that out, it’ll say you only care about them.
The politics of race is played out far more in the selective reporting of London’s (and the nation’s) media than it is by any mainstream politician. It is a media that runs spurious stories claiming that ‘suicide bombers’ are running Livingstone’s campaign, or that a TfL board member with the highest possible security clearance is in fact a Sri Lankan terrorist, or manages to imply that every BME-led LDA-funded organisation is corrupt or poor value for money (still waiting for those prosecutions, by the way) that does most to racialise the electorate and – sadly – plays into the hands of the BNP. It is this divisive agenda which creates a sense of victimhood and ‘them and us’ amongst members of the white working class.
Mr Gilligan concludes:
The BNP’s real asset is not its rather attenuated, and this week distinctly embarrassed, membership. It’s the way in which some in mainstream politics play into its rotten hands.
Yes, some mainstream politicians are to blame for boosting the BNP, but it is largely those who help to give credence to some of the most ludicrous scare stories carried by the sections of the media of which Mr Gilligan is an all too willing advocate. Mr Gilligan, let us not forget, is the man who defended Boris’ removal of anti-racism from the agenda of the Rise Festival by saying that anti-racism didn’t need to be made ‘fashionable’ anymore. The fact that the BNP exist with 12,000 members, numerous councillors and a London Assembly member prove how wrong he is.