The British political arena has long been an inhospitable place for minor parties. While UKIP is the latest to turn heads, from one election to the next history is littered with failed contenders. Back in the 1980s, it was noted how one of the more significant attempts to challenge the main parties, by the Social Democratic Party, was akin to an experimental plane: it began by soaring into the sky, glided for a while but then crash-landed into a muddy field.
While UKIP’s leader has already crashed into a field, the question of how long the party can soar through the electoral skies is up for debate. But what is certain is that its prospects look good. Never before has the British political landscape offered so much to a party that is hostile toward the main parties and immigration. But this raises another, intriguing question: with UKIP on the rise, and surrounded by a favourable climate, what happened to ‘the other’ right-wing insurgent?
Though founded only one year after the SDP in 1982, it was not until twenty years later when the British National Party attempted its own assault on the system. While never soaring, a series of impressive performances meant that the BNP did turn heads. Its number of votes at general elections climbed from only 7,000 in 1992, to over half a million in 2010. Along the way, voters gave the extreme right party over 60 local councillors, one seat on the Greater London Assembly and two seats in the European Parliament. By 2009, almost one million citizens were willing to vote for a party with a known history of violence, anti-Semitism and crude racism.
But, by 2012, it was all so different. The total number of BNP votes at local elections slumped, from more than 240,000 to under 26,000. The party’s average share of the vote in local seats tumbled, from 18 per cent to only 8 per cent. And in London, the 2012 mayoral contest saw the BNP attract fewer first preference votes than in 2000, and finish in seventh place. Further analysis of the numbers can be found in my latest article (which is free to download). Suffice to say that they confirmed the BNP’s meltdown and added to what was already a serious internal revolt against its leader, Nick Griffin. With not a single councillor in London, and only three nationwide, electorally the BNP was finished. How did this happen?
Some might argue that the BNP’s collapse owed much to wider changes that have taken place in British politics since 2010. As concern over the economy soared, levels of public concern over immigration began to fall: while 46% of the electorate once ranked immigration as one of the most pressing issues facing Britain, by 2012 this had dwindled to 2o%. This also coincided with the rise of the Conservatives, who have long been more trusted on immigration.
But an approach that focuses on the wider environment is also misleading. As the more recent fortunes of UKIP underscore, there remain ample opportunities for a party that targets anti-immigrant, anti-establishment and anti-Europe politics. These are also mirrored in the results of our surveys with the Extremis Project, reported in the article. And as Tory strategists will know, their historic advantage on immigration is far from what once was. Last year, 26% of voters thought Cameron and co. were the best party to handle immigration and 18% backed Labour. But at the same time, 39% said ‘none of them’ or did not know.
Seen from another perspective, the demise of the BNP owes less to changes in the wider arena than factors that are internal to the party and, specifically, reputations. This builds on the argument that there is potential for radical right insurgents in most (if not all) Western states, and that what matters most are the characteristics of the parties that are attempting to convert potential into actual support. For instance, if this really was about economic insecurity and fiscal austerity, then surely parties like the BNP would be in the electoral fast-lane in every state that has undergone the transition to a global economy, and was then hit by the crisis? But they are not. Instead, the radical right in Austria is polling 21-23% amidst one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. And amidst economic chaos and a collapse of political trust in Greece, Golden Dawn is ‘only’ attracting one out of every ten voter.
The varying fortunes of these parties have been shaped strongly by the legacies on which they build. The argument here is one of path dependency, that ultimately the electoral destiny of a party is intimately wrapped up in, and determined by, its own history. It draws on work by academics like Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, David Art and Sarah de Lange, who show how the origins of radical right parties can profoundly impact on their evolution and performance. Those that are rooted in more legitimate traditions (say, of Euroscepticism) enjoy allies in media and politics, attract credible activists and steer clear of the damaging effects of stigma by enjoying what Ivarsflaten describes as ‘reputational shields’. These bring three important benefits to a party, which I discuss in the article. But those that are rooted in toxic traditions struggle to attract experienced activists, lack media and political allies and an image of credibility. As a result they are simply unable to shield themselves from accusations that they are beyond the pale.
The critical importance of reputational shields is underscored by the demise of the BNP, and it could be argued the current success of UKIP. Despite a wider perfect storm and a relatively competent strategy, the BNP’s ambitions were checked from the outset by a highly toxic legacy of ‘racial nationalism’. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the BNP’s own choices strengthened associations in the minds of voters between the party, violence and extremism. By the time they became interested in elections, the party had fallen heavily dependent on a small cadre of inexperienced, extreme and tainted right-wing extremists. Few grasped the nature of the opportunities that lay before them, and few had the experience that was required for a professional vote-seeking strategy. The BNP’s attempt at ‘modernization’ failed, largely because from where the party emerged, it had nowhere to go.
The party’s toxicity was reflected in its bases of support. As we showed here, here and here, the BNP failed to emulate its more successful counterparts on the continent by reaching into more middle-class, younger and better educated segments of society. Instead, they fell dependent on a small rump of older, angry white men, who had extremely low levels of education, were deeply pessimistic about their prospects and concerned primarily about the effects of immigration. This base was sufficient to turn heads, but incapable of delivering a wider breakthrough.
Today, the BNP is faced with a growing number of rivals, most of whom are united by their focus on non-electoral strategies and share a legacy that is toxic and ill-suited to modern politics. Yet other contenders on the right lack these constraints and are now reaping the benefits of a reputational shield. Anchored by its history, the BNP can only look on…
The author is grateful to Michael Thrasher and Colin Rallings at the University of Plymouth, Gareth Harris, Robert Ford and David Cutts for their collaboration on previous studies, and the anonymous reviewers whose comments strengthened the paper.