Back in the heady days of 2006, the BNP were gratified to receive some publicity in the form of a media furore. It was thanks to a Labour MP named Margaret Hodge, pictured above, and it went a little something like this:
A Labour candidate, Liam Smith, said: “Since [Hodge] said that eight out of 10 families might vote BNP, we have never seen so many reporters and cameramen around here. She has raised their profile and put them in the limelight. We have had people saying they are considering voting BNP because they feel that once the Labour minister says something, it must be right.”
Ah, the spring of 2006. I was so young then. I was an intern at spiked-online.com, where I wrote this article on the whole brouhaha, which was devastatingly never published. Until now!
‘A game of political smoke and mirrors’: BNP media coverage
Margaret Hodge’s sensational claims about the BNP’s growing popularity in her East London constituency of Barking have given the party a much-needed publicity boost – but how worried should we really be?
The media furore over Hodge’s recent assertion, that 8 out of 10 voters in Barking have expressed their intentions to vote for the BNP in the May 4th local elections, has been immense. The main question is: how great is the BNP threat? As one Barking resident has put it, ‘I would be deeply offended and saddened were the BNP to gain a hold on the local council but I wouldn’t be surprised’; but does this mean that the BNP stand a chance in Barking, or anywhere else in the country?
The coverage of the BNP’s campaign in Barking simply highlights their ability to capitalise upon local issues to win votes. As Hodge has noted, ‘the pace of ethnic change in [the] area had frightened people’, and disillusioned once-staunch Labour voters. It is through addressing local concerns such as this in each constituency that the BNP sway those who feel dispossessed, and this is reflected in regional policy disparity. For instance, when I called local BNP representatives to ask which are the main issues in their areas, I was given extremely varied responses. The West Midlands contact (Simon Darby, also Deputy Chairman of the party) spoke of a candlelit vigil for the white victim of a racially motivated murder, pinpointing a major BNP campaign aspect in the area. However, the East Midlands representative was more concerned with anti-social behaviour; but the most pressing issues according to North East representative, Kevin Scott, are immigration and the local decline of the manufacturing industry. He also admitted that the BNP has won “protest votes” in Tyneside and Sunderland, from those dissatisfied with the political status quo.
To get a clearer picture of the BNP’s strength in numbers, I turned to their official membership figures; however, as always, they were impossible to attain [2008 update: not any more!]. I tried to gain a national figure from the BNP’s London press office, but the call went straight to answer phone, and I was informed that there was no space left on the tape for further messages. Clearly they have become very popular indeed. The regional contacts I managed to get in touch with were also vague on a national figure, so I resorted to Wikipedia: according to the 2004 Electoral Commission, the party had a membership of 7916.
To find out more up-to-date information on local numbers, I turned to the regional BNP offices. The West Midlands representative noted that between 40 and 200 people turn up to the meetings, which take place twice a week. In the South West, however, only 20-30 supporters attend the monthly meetings, despite there being 200 official supporters in the area. Similarly, in the North East, there are “hundreds” of members. In marked contrast, however, the East Midlands representative suggested a figure of 4000-5000 official members.
So who are these supporters? The regional representatives were cohesive in their responses: BNP members encompass broad age and occupational ranges. For example, in the East Midlands, many of the members fall into the 22-40 age group, and all of the advisory board are degree-educated. Similarly, in the North East, the BNP attracts all ages, from those in their early 20s to pensioners. Examples of diversity can be seen in the fact that a doctor is standing for the party in Newcastle, yet an ex-miner is doing the honours for Sunderland. Equally, the West Midlands support base consists of varied backgrounds: “pensioners, some kids with their parents, some people in their early 20s,” including professionals too. In contrast, however, the Bristol demographic principally consists of pensioners, and the contact admitted that the BNP are generally totally ignored in the area.
Nevertheless, uniform reports of a surge in interest, in the wake of Hodge’s scare stories, were given by each of the regional representatives. The West Midlands contact said that Internet traffic on the BNP website had leapt up over Easter, which is usually a quiet time, and that they have had a lot of phone enquiries about their policies. Across the country, other BNP contacts also reported a “groundswell” (representative for Wales North) of interest in the past week. The South West representative spoke of 10 to 15 calls that morning alone. The contact for the East Midlands had more concrete information on the subject of new members. She had recently spoken to the membership department, who informed her that the increases in the past week were comparable to the kind of response they would get in three months. In light of this, perhaps the 2004 figure of 7916 needs to be augmented.
Or, perhaps the fact that all this interest has developed in the aftermath of the media spotlight suddenly being trained unflinchingly upon the BNP explains the nature of all this fervent ringing and emailing. For instance, the East Midlands representative assumed that she had spoken to me the previous day, confusing me with a correspondent for The Independent, who had promised to ring back. Additionally, the West Midlands and North East contacts seemed familiar with spiked and its content, with the latter representative saying that he was looking forward to reading this article, and wanted to know if he would be able to write in if he disagreed (yes, you can – see the bottom of this page) [This blog accepts comments too!]. Clearly, they have had their fingers burnt by the left-wing press before, and they are eager to use the Hodge-instigated profile boost to their own best advantage.
This media-savviness is seen most clearly in the fact that all of the contacts I spoke to know just how significant all this free publicity could be, especially in this period immediately preceding local elections. As Darby (West Midlands) suggested, Hodge engaged in a “bidding war” with the BNP in Barking, and her subsequent scaremongering has simply made BNP success more likely. A few mentioned the fact that Richard Barnbrook (BNP candidate for Barking) presented Hodge with flowers this week, to express his gratitude. Indeed, if the Hodge story had not been ubiquitous throughout the media recently, how many people would actually remember to vote BNP on May 4th?
A writer from spiked visited Barking at the time to see why people were thinking of voting BNP.
19th April 2006 – The making of: highlights from my notes during the phone interviews I conducted for the article above…
- Said three times that there had been a “groundswell” in the number of telephone enquiries about BNP policies and membership. Mentioned something about being called ‘Nazi scum’ [in the past I guess?] but now “people are saying we’re telling the truth.”
- Got onto my first Q about the number of supporters in his area and he abruptly put the phone down.
West Midlands (Simon Darby):
- Said that meetings take place twice a week with 40-200 people attending. Lots of pensioners, some kids with their parents, some people in their early 20s joining up. All kinds of occupations, professionals too (a BNP theme), and both wealthy and poor involved.
- Even made a joke about the Hodge situation: Richard Barnbrook is planning to visit her office today and give her a bunch of flowers (including lilies) to say thank you for giving the BNP so much free publicity. Said time again that Labour has “messed this country up.”
- Sharif Gawad: “the foreign name was obviously a problem” for a lot of BNP members. Meant to be Welsh-Armenian but contact isn’t completely sure. Thinks that the fact that such newspapers as The Guardian carrying the story was a deliberate attempt to “create discord within” the BNP.
- Conspiracy theory about Hodge: Labour actually aiming to promote BNP in order to tarnish the Conservatives [not sure how this would work]. Mentions how, if Labour has their way, Nick Griffin (“our leader”) would be in jail. Also mentions that Mark Collett (Head of Publicity) was in danger of this fate too.
- “Feel free to call anytime.” Friendly!
- V.old, sounded rather surprised.
- Age range: mainly pensioners in the Bristol area. Some young people are supporters but can’t often get to meetings as they work. 200 official members in the area.
- Views on policy: went off on a hard-to-follow tangent about the “British Constitution.” As he says, “the British people are sovereign and the state is the servant of the people.”
- “I’m more up on the Constitution than the rest of the BNP… it’s my domain…”
- Big Magna Carta fan, but not sure what he thinks should be done with it.
- Said that they’re generally totally ignored in Bristol, but that the Hodge comments have boosted their publicity.
- Previously stood for UKIP.
- At the end, rather charmingly reassured me that “the BNP is a fun party – more fun than you can imagine.” It includes “people who fought in the war” and a hell of a lot of pensioners I imagine and he absolutely loves it. Loves it.