Ben Tullett reports on the battle to beat back the BNP in Halifax during the latest round of local elections
Outside London, the June 2004 council elections were particularly significant. Following boundary changes, in large swathes of the country all seats were up for election, meaning that instead of having just one vote, many electors got to vote for three candidates.
As a result, this election was billed as a make or break event for the British National Party. Would it remain a party restricted to the political backwaters or become a mainstream contender?
In Calderdale, as in most other areas, the results were inconclusive. The BNP did not make great gains but it did consolidate its position. Calderdale is divided into two constituencies, Halifax and Calder Valley. By and large the BNP concentrated on Halifax and ignored Calder Valley where the Liberal Democrats have already exploited the decline of both the Labour and Tory parties.
The BNP started the election with three councillors in Halifax, and ended it with three. However, boundary changes meant Mixenden ward, where the BNP had two councillors, and Illingworth ward, where, because of a Tory defection, it had one, had been merged. On the whole, the BNP concentrated on only three wards: Mixenden and Illingworth, Town, and Ovenden.
Many players in North Halifax scrambled for seats elsewhere. Jennifer Pearson, widow of the Liberal Democrat Stephen Pearson, who had defeated the BNP the previous year, went to nearby Warley, and won. When the results were announced, the Liberal Democrats’ vote disappeared in North Halifax as suddenly as it had arisen, leaving one long-serving Labour councillor and two BNP in the new Illingworth and Mixenden ward.
Adrian Marsden, the BNP victor in January 2003, secured a seat in central Halifax (Town ward). Although this was hardly a breakthrough, it did represent a marginally improved position for the BNP. In Ovenden, they gathered a respectable number of votes but failed to gain a council seat, allowing the Labour Party to retain its rump in Halifax.
In other Halifax wards, they fielded only one or two candidates in an attempt to cash in on the fact that these were all-out elections. Their thinking is that if electors have three votes, they might cast one for a new party, for the sake of novelty, while casting their other two votes for the party they normally support. The Greens tried the same trick in Calder Valley ward and slipped into fourth place just ahead of the most popular Labour candidate.
In the wards where they fielded one or two candidates, the BNP’s vote was respectable, but got them nowhere near winning a seat. In contrast, the Red and Green Party, an anti-Blair alliance unique to Calderdale, which issued a populist left-wing shopping list of a manifesto, fell far short of achieving anything significant, rarely getting more than 300 votes per candidate. Perhaps most significantly, in Town and Illingworth and Mixenden wards, the BNP’s unsuccessful candidates lost by only a handful of votes.
Conspicuous braver y
Calderdale Unity against the BNP was very active during the campaign and at least one of its activists showed conspicuous bravery by turning up alone, sporting a Unity ribbon, to a BNP public meeting. The attack on the BNP in its leaflets concentrated on the substantial criminal records of some of the BNP’s leading activists, the BNP’s inactivity on Calderdale council, and their councillors’ acceptance of the vastly increased council allowance, which the BNP initially said its councillors would not pocket. I thought the leaflet was good and showed that the anti-racist organisations were thinking on their feet, but I could not honestly say that the results of such thinking had any impact.
Although many activists in the Labour Party are sympathetic, others are not and believe Unity does more harm than good by attacking the BNP directly. The Liberal Democrats by and large dismiss Unity entirely. The sceptics tend to advocate ‘concentrating on the issues’ such as dog-shit, road crossings and the like. They may have a point in the short term, however uninspiring the strategy, as negative campaigning is conspicuously ineffective. It is common in local council campaigns for negative references to other parties in election literature to alienate voters. However, in the long term, the ‘issues’ strategy hardly challenges the underlying causes of the BNP’s limited success, and it is difficult to let the racism, hypocrisy and, in some instances, criminality of BNP activists go unmentioned.
Helpfully, before the election one Burnley BNP councillor defected because of her horror at the BNP’s racism and she spoke to the press about it. This was widely reported, especially in The Yorkshire Evening Post, and one was left wondering why she joined the BNP in the first place. Perhaps she genuinely believed that the BNP was a community party concerned about crime and asylum seekers, and that its attitudes to race were neutral. However, her testimony had little discernible effect in Halifax, although the Post‘s stand may have had an impact in Leeds where it is more widely read.
In any event, the BNP’s racism doesn’t worry some voters. When I challenged a work colleague in Halifax, who’d expressed sympathy for the BNP, to name one actual BNP policy, she was stumped until she came up with ‘sending all the Pakis home. I agree with that one.’ Exposing the racism of the BNP will not worry voters such as her. It may have had some effect in Burnley where the BNP won only one more council seat, but there was no sign that the defection overturned their apple cart.
Regionally, the BNP did well in Bradford, where they now have four councillors, mainly in and around Haworth’s Bronte country. Readers familiar with Wuthering Heights will recall that Heathcliff, a dark-skinned outsider, was not exactly welcomed to the area in the 19th century either.
However, in Leeds the BNP failed to make much of a showing. In every ward where the BNP stood, save Kippax and Armley, it only fielded one candidate. Whereas the BNP vote put the Alliance for Green Socialism (and often the Green Party itself, which did exceptionally well in only one ward to get three councillors), in the shade, it never seriously challenged the status quo. By and large, it didn’t embarrass itself either, but if it is to gain seats in Leeds, it must be prepared for a very long and arduous haul subject to the usual vagaries of political fortune.
It certainly had nothing like the success of ‘The Morely Borough Independents’, which wiped out the main political parties in Leeds City Council’s disgruntled southern satellite. How much this lack of success was due to the strongly negative coverage in the Yorkshire Evening Post is hard to measure, but it would be surprising if its unrelenting exposure of the BNP failed to make an impact. The Post is not famed for its progressive politics and it may have had more credibility with the electorate than those ‘broad-based’ campaigns organised by a left that flopped in every Leeds seat it stood in, even Chapel Allerton.
Another feature which may have made a difference is the ethnic mix in Leeds, which is very diverse. The same can be said for Huddersfield in Kirklees. The BNP is doing noticeably better where white communities are close to strong concentrations of Pakistanis or, in the south, Bangladeshis, but meets more scepticism from white voters in genuinely multi-ethnic areas.
In Kirklees, the picture was very similar although the BNP did pick up a council seat in Heckmondwike and made a strong challenge in Cleckheaton and the three Dewsbury seats. However, balanced against that is the fact that once again it fielded only one candidate per ward and, as a result, its percentage of the total vote still puts it on the political fringes. It still seems incapable of making an impact in even slightly cosmopolitan areas.
Nationally, the BNP plateaued, getting a slightly smaller percentage of the vote than before, although turnout was much greater because of postal voting and the desire of the electorate to give new Labour a warning after Iraq. Significant gains were only made in Epping Forest and the BNP struggled to retain its position in the West Midlands.
Where this leaves the BNP is hard to say. There now appears to be a split in the BNP between the Nick Griffin wing of the party, which is electorally pragmatic and perhaps prepared to go down the route of xeno-phobic right-wing populism rather than fascism, and the BNP’s founder John Tyndall and his supporters. They seem to want to reclaim the party for blood-and-guts fascism, which, if successful, would perhaps make the left’s job in combating it a sight easier.
The BNP, therefore, stands at a crossroads. If it can become a serious political party (or at least as serious as the Liberal Democrats), then it has some prospect of building a significant and odious presence in local politics. Alternatively, it may just start arguing among itself and decline. The left needs to be prepared to meet it, and should have a long-term, effective strategy to challenge it.
Whether the BNP will survive or not is open to question. The recent TV documentary showing the psychotic racism of some BNP activists appears to have led to calls from Nick Griffin for a purge of members who are ‘hate-filled’ because of the scars they have suffered ‘living in a multi-cultural society’. As he sees it, ‘The BNP is facing a wave of co-ordinated attacks, both administrative and propaganda. The aim is to disrupt our campaign to turn the thousands of inquiries we received during the election campaign into members, and to criminalise the party in the eyes of a sufficient proportion of the public to “justify” the temporary internment of senior BNP officials in the event of a major Islamist terror strike against the UK.’ It is difficult to imagine anyone voting for this sort of rubbish, or to believe the BNP’s leaders can move very far into the terrain of sane, let alone normal politics.
The election results tell a different story, however. They imply that the left needs pro-active and developing policies based on community engagement, rather than just negative campaigns or merely more of the same at a local level.
There are some positive developments in Calderdale, albeit very nascent. The Art Gallery held a black and white photographic exhibition showing the ethnic diversity in Halifax (which has a Serbian church as well as a Mosque) and the Refugee Council organised a Refugee Week publicising the plight of asylum seekers. In particular, one event concentrated on the situation in Darfor just before it really hit the headlines. The desperate requirement for asylum, and the public sympathy this event has provoked, may provide the sort of information and human interest stories that will counter the attitudes the BNP currently plays on.
Of course Calderdale being Calderdale, there was one final, ludicrous twist. After the elections the Council remained hung, with the Tories as the largest group. One of the first acts of the Tory group was to appoint the BNP’s Adrian Marsden to Calderdale’s Racial Equality and Community Cohesion Working Party Committee. This caused a national outrage and the committee was scrapped ‘because it has achieved its objectives’. Oh, yes. Then a new one was created without the BNP.
On occasions, Halifax politics would be too weird even for The League of Gentlemen.