Friday, 15 January 2010

Electoral success in Europe hides problems at home

David Williams reviews how the BNP fared in 2009

Last year was the most successful for the British National Party since Nick Griffin took the helm in 1999. A decade as leader of the BNP was crowned in June when Griffin and his fellow veteran fascist Andrew Brons were elected as Members of the European Parliament for the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber regions respectively. This victory, generated largely by the MPs’ expenses furore and voter apathy, gave the BNP an international platform and generous European funding to staff the MEPs’ constituency offices.

Griffin did not have it all his own way, however, and 2009 was not without its setbacks for the party. The BNP began 2009 nearly £170,000 in debt, a sizeable sum for a party with a turnover of around £1 million in 2008 and an inauspicious start to its European election campaign. A big rise in staff and administration expenditure was largely responsible.

Its turgid racist publications continued to be loss leaders. In an attempt to make Identity more saleable, and financially viable, Griffin ordained that the magazine should cease monthly publication and become quarterly. Voice of Freedom, which Searchlight revealed Griffin wanted to scrap, was kept on out of obduracy but its editorship passed from Martin Wingfield to Mark Collett, who surprisingly has so far failed to run it into the ground, although it compares poorly with Wingfield’s editions. The BNP has turned increasingly to the internet as the principal means of communicating its message and bypassing what it believes to be a conspiracy by the “controlled media”.

HOPE not hate presented a 95,000 signature petition to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on the day the BNP MEPs took their seats, saying that the BNP does not speak for the British people

The BNP contested 83 council by-elections during 2009. Its first foray took place on 23 January when Michael Barnbrook, a former police inspector, contested East Wickham. A hard fought campaign left the BNP with 26.5% of the vote and within a whisker of victory in a seat it believed it would win. The rest of the year was a similar story of wasted effort and dismal defeat with conspicuous failures in Barnsley, Sandwell and South Oxhey. The sole exception was a shock victory for Paul Golding in Sevenoaks, Kent, in February, though the local newspapers soon exposed him as a liar and a do-nothing councillor.

Two BNP councillors resigned their seats in 2009, one in Nuneaton and Bedworth, the other on Loughton town council. Both by-elections were held on 10 December. On the eve of poll Simon Darby, the party’s deputy leader, speculated expectantly: “Now things are finally starting to settle down a bit we can look forward to more reliable voting patterns with a view to predicting what may happen at the general election”. The double defeat was probably not what he had in mind.

In both these by-elections and many other elections during the year the HOPE not hate campaign was central to letting voters know the true nature of the BNP.

There were raised eyebrows when Pat Richardson, the token Jewish BNP councillor, attended an American white supremacist conference on the theme of “Preserving Western Culture”, which involved a number of Jewish racists and Islamophobes keen to distance themselves from the antisemitic outbursts of men like David Duke. This was part of a broader strategy by Griffin to distance the party from the stain of antisemitism, which bedevils far-right politics in Britain. At the beginning of the year Griffin stated that he had “no time” for antisemites, despite being one himself and surrounding himself with them. It failed to fool anyone other than some of the more gullible BNP members.

The centrepiece of the year was of course the European election campaign. The BNP set out its stall early with a provocative “Battle of Britain” theme, which misappropriated iconic images of the Second World War in an attempt to draw parallels between the fight against Nazism and the BNP’s fight against “Islam”. The universally derided campaign got off to a bad start when someone noticed that the Spitfire fighter plane pictured on the BNP’s website and leaflets belonged to the 303 Squadron of the RAF, consisting of Polish flyers, undermining at a stroke the party’s campaign against East European immigrants.

Griffin’s continual wearing of the poppy in an effort to associate himself with the Armed Forces angered the British Legion, while his usurpation of Churchill’s image angered the Churchill family and several senior military personnel.

The BNP campaign was hampered from start to finish by its ineptitude and extremism, which brought a welter of negative publicity. Aware that this was its biggest chance to break into the political mainstream, the BNP pulled out the stops to shed its extremist image. This did not go according to plan. Searchlight drew the media’s attention to the party’s Activists’ and Organiser’s Handbook, which stressed the need for the BNP to counter the party’s stereotypical thuggish image by urging members to be seen as ordinary people not as “shaven headed football thugs”.

The Language and Discipline Manual provided a similarly rich seam for the media to mine with its claims that “Black Britons” and “Asian Britons” “do not exist”. This exposure of the party’s core racist ideology led to the hurried removal and rewriting of these documents as well as some awkward questions for Griffin.

The party suffered from equally negative publicity when Searchlight tipped off the media that Darby was going to Milan, Italy, to address a conference of the fascist Forza Nuova. He was photographed entering the building greeted by fascist salutes without any objection from him. The media also seized upon racist remarks about a black Victoria Cross winners and election leaflets featuring foreign actors to depict “British workers” and BNP sympathisers, which made the party look particularly foolish.

Much of this negative publicity was orchestrated by Searchlight, which ran a highly effective media operation throughout the campaign. Both Darby and Wingfield, not to mention Griffin himself, paid a backhanded compliment to its effective ferocity which, by the eve of poll, the BNP had come to believe had cost it the election, in which it had previously confidently boasted of winning up to 12 seats.

Against the backdrop of the expenses scandal Labour voters in particular stayed away from the polls on 4 June. In an election based on proportional representation this was all that was needed for Griffin and Brons to win election. This was galling, though some consolation could be gained from the fact that in both regions the BNP vote was lower than in the 2004 European election. The shock was palpable. In the six weeks after the election over 95,000 people signed HOPE not hate’s Not in My Name campaign.

On the same day the BNP fielded 428 candidates in the county council elections, including a full slate of 75 in Essex. It won just three seats, all in areas that have seen sustained BNP campaigning in recent years, signalling a small foothold in a new layer of local government that the party had hitherto failed to penetrate.

Victory was not without its costs. The BNP spent “nearly £600,000” to get Griffin and Brons elected. In the aftermath party administrators confessed that it had been left “bruised” by the outlay. One of its bigger donors last year, giving £5,105, was Eileen Sheridan-Price, a former beauty queen and a friend and admirer of the villainous Kray twins who she believed made the East End “a much nicer, safer place”. The Krays were gangsters involved in torture, armed robberies, arson, protection rackets and murder to enforce their will. They were both convicted in 1969 and sentenced to life imprisonment, so much for the law and order policies of the BNP.

Griffin’s attempts to bask in glory were short-lived. His effort at a victory speech from College Green opposite the House of Commons ended in ignominy when he was pelted with eggs.

Once elected, Griffin embarked on a display of nepotism by handing out jobs on his and Brons’s European staff to the party faithful. Martin and Tina Wingfield, Eddy Butler, Clive Jefferson and Chris Beverley in particular were all beneficiaries of his policy of jobs for the boys (and girls). Activists in the North West who had played a key role in Griffin’s campaign were similarly rewarded though one, Alistair Barbour, did not last long in his position as case worker, resigning from his job and party membership after less than six months, disillusioned with the party which he was “sick” of defending against accusations of racism, no doubt because he couldn’t.

Griffin’s victory revealed other tensions in the party. Darby stood down as West Midlands regional organiser and was replaced by Alwyn Deacon, a Nuneaton and Bedworth publican. This angered Richard and Tanya Lumby in Birmingham, who believed that the job should have been theirs. It also outraged Chris Turner, the Coventry BNP organiser, who took exception to Deacon following the publication of photos of members of the openly nazi British Freedom Fighters giving “Sieg Heil” salutes outside his pub. Turner, furious that Deacon was not disciplined, resigned from his post.

The BNP had hoped to celebrate its European election victory at its annual Red, White and Blue (RWB) festival in August but this proved a damp squib. Party members were few and far between with maximum attendance on the Saturday around 800. The white supremacist Preston Wiginton, who had been invited to the festival, was deported back to the United States upon arrival at Heathrow. Those who attended were regaled with speeches by the Swedish fascist Marc Abramsson and Griffin’s Italian fascist friend and political mentor Roberto Fiore, the convicted former leader of the terrorist Armed Revolutionary Nuclei, who had failed to retain his MEP seat.
BNP members displayed their racism at the party’s Red, White and Blue festival

The RWB provided yet more evidence of the visceral racism of many BNP members when an undercover News of the World team filmed several members engaged in the mock execution and burning of a gollywog doll for “crimes” against whites. Other BNP members were arrested for giving Nazi salutes to protesters against the event, two of whom were convicted of racially aggravated harassment in December.

Throughout the later part of 2009 Griffin was becoming increasingly alarmed at the participation of BNP members in the confrontational and racist activities of the English Defence League (EDL), which emerged in March 2009 in the wake of an attempt by a tiny group of Islamist extremists to disrupt the homecoming parade of the Royal Anglican Regiment in Luton. A number of protests across England followed, precipitating clashes with anti-fascists and local residents, which also acted as a magnet for the forces of organised racism despite protests to the contrary from EDL organisers. Griffin dismissed the EDL as both “Zionist” and a state-run “honeytrap”.

All of this was a distraction for Griffin, who was busy attempting to coral the variegated forces of the European far right into a homogenous movement. He had tried and failed to precipitate such a union before the European elections but afterwards was pivotal in marshalling its sparse forces into the European Alliance of National Movements, a pan-European party rather than an official group of the European Parliament, which would require the support of 25 MEPs. It was formed too late in the year to apply for EU cash, which was, of course, one of its principal aims.

Griffin courted outrage in November when, as his constituents in the North West faced severe flooding, he travelled to a Nazi conference in Madrid as a special guest speaker at a far-right rally held to commemorate the death of the Spanish fascist dictator General Franco. The conference ended in violence after which Griffin appears to have paid a visit to Franco’s tomb, although the party issued a curious non-denial about the story that had appeared in the Daily Telegraph. On his way to Madrid Griffin stopped off in Turin, Italy, a visit organised by Fiore.

While Griffin was off grandstanding on the European stage, the BNP was beginning to show a distinct lack of momentum, a sign perhaps of the physical and financial exhaustion brought on by the exertions of the European election campaign.

In September Matt Single, the former BNP security guard, was fined £200 for putting the entire BNP membership list online, which made the BNP a laughing stock in 2008. Within two months Griffin was again wincing with embarrassment as he tried to explain how yet another membership list had been posted online despite his claim that such data were now held securely.

Further irritation was caused to the BNP when Searchlight exposed its fundraising nexus in Northern Ireland, revealing the pivotal role that Jim Dowson continues to play in the party, which has effectively outsourced central functions to a convicted anti-abortion extremist.

For Richard Barnbrook 2009 was certainly not a good year. His election to the London Assembly in May 2008 made Barnbrook the toast of the BNP. His star has now been eclipsed by Griffin’s election as an MEP. Almost immediately Barnbrook lost his two staff members, Emma Colgate who was poached to become the party manager, and Darby who, suspended for racist comments about the Archbishop of York, jumped ship seemingly having lost interest in holding Barnbrook’s hand.

Shortly afterwards Barnbrook was suspended from Barking and Dagenham council, where he is the BNP’s deputy group leader, and officially censured by the Greater London Authority for lying about murders. He was forced to issue a public apology which appeared on his own blog and the council website.
Autumn brought two historic moments in the history of the British far right. In October Griffin appeared on the BBC’s flagship discussion programme Question Time. His performance, watched by over eight million people, was lamentable. He lied openly and brazenly in response to questions about his past statements, tried to pretend he had not denied the Holocaust by claiming he was legally prevented from saying anything on the subject, despite being assured by the Justice Minister that there was no such law, and defended David Duke’s Ku Klux Klan as “almost totally non-violent”.

Perhaps more important, at least to the cosmetic modernisation of the party, was Griffin’s capitulation in the legal case brought by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that the BNP’s “whites only” membership policy contravened the Race Relations Act. Griffin, who was adamant he would fight the case to the death, caved in only days later much to the chagrin of many members. Having conceded in court, Griffin put the question to the vote at the BNP annual conference in Wigan, where the “voting members”, the party’s key officers and activists, rubber-stamped the decision, perhaps in the knowledge that a protracted legal tussle with the EHRC could bankrupt the party.

The new constitution was to have been put to a vote of the full party membership, which Griffin had argued he was constitutionally obliged to do and which the court accepted. However, it is understood that the necessary Emergency General Meeting will now take place several days after Griffin returns to court, depriving members of a genuine say on their new constitution – so much for party democracy.

Whatever happens, the BNP will have to unveil its amended constitution soon. What is not in doubt is that its core racist values will remain unchanged. Further proof, if any were needed, was the arrest of another BNP member on terrorism charges, this time in Kirklees. Terry Gavan admitted 22 offences and will be sentenced shortly.

A few days after the annual conference the BNP announced that Griffin would be contesting the 2010 general election in Barking, unceremoniously abandoning the voters of the North West after less than six months. Richard Barnbrook had rather embarrassingly already launched his own “Barnbrook for Barking” campaign with a huge billboard on one of Barking’s main roads, though stood aside for Griffin, seemingly on the promise of the supposed sinecure of Leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, which the BNP believes it will win in May.

Griffin’s victory in the 2009 European election has undoubtedly coloured perceptions of the success of the BNP in 2009. However, it overshadows a myriad of serious personal, political and financial problems that have continued to affect the party, which, by any measure, should be performing far better than it is in the current dismal political and economic climate. Although it currently claims 13,000 members, with another 3,000 waiting to join after the lifting of the membership freeze arising from the EHRC legal action, Searchlight intelligence suggests that the number has barely changed from the 9,801 recorded at end of 2008. Whether all these troubles will continue to hamper the BNP in 2010 as it vies to elect its first MP and seize control of its first council only time will tell.

by David Williams

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