In the immortal words of Corporal Jones, don’t panic.
The bad news is well-known: the British Nazi Party has won two seats to the European Parliament. The good news is that this does NOT threaten political civilisation as we know it, or prove that racism is rampant in Britain’s electorate. We risk turning a problem into a crisis only if we over-react and end up giving the BNP exposure, and credibility, it does not deserve.
The BNP won 6% of the total vote in the European elections. But only one elector in three turned out. That means just 2% of the total electorate voted BNP. And YouGov research for Channel 4 News found that (depending on precise definitions) roughly half of the BNP’s voters are truly racist; the other half are people who feel insecure and alienated from the main political parties. So just 1% of the electorate were racist BNP voters last week.
Alright, that’s not the whole story. Millions of people feel let down by the main parties. Most want immigration halted completely. A typical member of the general public is more likely to feel that it is white Britons, not ethnic minority Britons, who suffer unfair discrimination. These are issues that certainly need addressing.
But those very facts, alarming as they are, tell us something actually rather encouraging. The surprising thing is not that the BNP vote is so high, but that it is so low. In other European countries, such as France, Holland, Italy and Austria, far-right parties have, from time to time, been much more successful than the BNP has ever been at turning such anti-immigrant sentiments into votes. The BNP remains a badly tainted brand.
By the same token, the real challenge we face is to deny the BNP the exposure and credibility it needs to de-toxify its brand and grow its support. Here’s how to stop them.
- Change our voting system for European elections, and also local elections. Sadly, we are stuck with European rules that require some kind of proportional representation. But if we converted to the single transferable vote in 4-5 member constituencies for euro-contests, the BNP would need much more support to win any seats. And if we moved from first-past-the-post to the alternative vote for local elections, the BNP would lose most, if not all, of the council seats they now hold, as they would find it very hard to pick up the extra transfer votes they need to pass the 50% winning post.
- Make voting compulsory. The main reason why the BNP won seats last week, when it failed in 2004, was not that it’s vote went up (in the North West, where Nick Griffin won, it actually fell) but because turnout was down, as many Labour supporters stayed at home.
- Don’t fret about what will happen at Strasbourg. The notion of BNP parliamentarians may be novel, and appalling, to us, but the European Parliament is used to such unpleasant people. The mainstream parties are adept at marginalising them. Let them get on with it.
- Don’t share platforms with the BNP. And don’t march or demonstrate against them. In other words, deprive them of the oxygen of publicity. Sadly, the broadcasters are required to have their MEPs on air from time to time; leave the task of confronting them to Humphrys, Paxman and Snow. Or, even better, Sir Trevor McDonald, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, George Alagiah and Zeinab Badawi.
- When we have to refer to them, make fun of them. Ridicule is a far more powerful weapon than anger.
- Change the culture of mainstream politics. Fringe parties (nice and nasty) are bound to benefit when MPs come across as venal, evasive, negative and out of touch. So clean up the allowances system – but then go much further, and dismantle the culture of spinning and ministerial “points to take” cribs. Persuade politicians to give straight answers to straight questions – and to admit their mistakes. In short, our MPs need to behave like decent, fallible but essentially honest human beings. At the moment, that’s not how they look.
Do all that, and watch the BNP shrivel. Or treat them as a serious political force and watch them become one.
Peter Kellner is President of YouGov