Tuesday, 3 June 2008

When people vote BNP, they tend to mean it

An excellent article by Lynsey Hanley in the Guardian last week. She makes several points very well indeed.

Firstly, that BNP voters are not passive sheep with nowhere else to go, they have made a choice.

Voting for the BNP is a deliberate decision: you are not "driven" to it any more than a car drives itself. It is a decision to allow self-pity to influence your vote and to disguise it as righteous anger.
That it is dangerous to assume that BNP voters are a monolithic block, and not a significant one in national terms.

Contrary to the claim made in another newspaper that votes for the BNP are "a cry of white working-class anguish" (thereby letting middle-class BNP voters off the hook), the vast majority of voters refuse to vote for a fascist party because they know what it means to do so.
Ouch. She also gives a useful illustration.

The estate on which I grew up, just outside Birmingham, has had a BNP councillor since 2006. The estate which adjoins it, of near-identical social and economic makeup, has just elected a Green councillor. Interestingly,there has been little hand-wringing over residents of the latter estate being "driven" into the arms of environmentalists, rather than fascists. What motivated "the white working class" there? Are they, as one, "victims" of climate change just as voters in the next ward are "victims" of an unthinking liberal elite?
A turn away from established political parties is almost always a local phenomenon, and has to be understood in terms of the political choices and the people making those choices in a locality. I am not for a moment lumping together the Green Party and the BNP, but I am saying that their vote is often localised and related to local issues.What is needed is for more of the academic research in this area to penetrate public debate (like the 2006 JRF report). But even when it does the accepted metropolitan elite discourse means that such research is used to shore up the metropolitan elite view of a passive white working class rejected by Labour falling into the arms of a grateful and lucky BNP.

Hence the headlines surrounding the JRF research were of "25%" who "might" vote BNP, not an exploration of the more knotty issues, such as why UKIP's decline - a party obsessed with the EU - seemed related to the rise of the BNP - a party obsessed with immigration. Related issues, but still different.

I'd be interested to know whether the rise, such as it is, of the BNP, can be explained in the same way as the turn from mainstream to other "fringe" parties, like the Greens. Or whether it is part of a trend which has seen the Liberal Democrats make massive inroads in previously rock solid Labour cities such as Newcastle, Bristol and Liverpool.

When people are in a polling booth, they make a choice, and they have reasons for doing so. Claiming they do it out of some unconscious urge gets us no nearer understanding what is happening in our villages, towns and cities.

Politics, particularly local politics, is in such a state of flux that we have to look at it from many angles to really get a handle on what is going on. I’m not pretending I’ve got the answers, but I think Lynsey Hanley's done a good job in busting one of the lazier myths.


Sue Luxton said...

Interesting that BNP and Green councillors got elected in neighbouring estates in Birmingham. In Lewisham there seems to be an inverse correlation between the Green vote and the BNP - ie any areas where they tend to do well, we tend to do badly and vice versa.

Andrew Brown said...

I wonder whether in local politics we've got quite a sophisticated electorate, which when dissatisfied with the incumbent parties looks for the most likely alternative to get a change of representative. That'd fit with the idea that there's much less tribal loyalty these days - and the sense that the mainstream parties are quite similar in policy terms.

Certainly that's been the basis of many a Lib Dem bar chart (or so it seems to me).

As far as Sue's point goes I wonder how much of her party's effort (or for that matter BNP effort) was put in to areas where they didn't expect to do well? Parties target the areas they want to make gains in or defend from insurgencies and I suspect that's a factor as well.

William Canynge said...

I think the point about the sophistication of local electorates is a good one, although the level and type of sophistication depends on the locality!

I used to work for a rather well known Tory borough which saw the Labour vote progressively squeezed in the 1998 and 2002 locals, even after Labour swept the board in the parliamentary elections of 1997 and 2001.

The only explanation to my mind is that in that place, people wanted low council tax and outsourced services locally (and, it has to be admitted, very effective and efficient services). Nationally, however, they wanted increased investment in schools and hospitals.

In both instances, people were not voting like sheep, and knew exactly what they wanted from each tier of government.

But, I reiterate - that's just one place in one decade. Generalising from that is as risky as generalising about Burnley BNP from the BNP in Barking.

Alliteration so late at night.

Andrew Brown said...

Having canvassed for - and indeed organised - the Labour Party in the '94 elections in that borough it was a complete but pleasant surprise to me that we got the eastern seat in the General Election in '97.

William Canynge said...

Officially politically restricted (cough, cough) so I couldn't possibly comment . . .