Amateur psephology and the rise of the far-right
Posted by Left Luggage on June 13, 2009
There have been a number of attempts to downplay the scale of the British National Party’s success in the Euro elections last week. One of the main arguments which has been put forward is that while the BNP won two Euro seats, it’s number of votes actually dropped, proving that people are not turning to the far-right.
There’s a possiblity here of reading the results for the narrative we hope find, rather than facing the true extent of the challenge for the Left and the shape of likely developments to come. It’s correct we need to avoid hysteria, but at the same time we need good analysis to form effective strategies. Despite the risk of engaging in amateur psephology, and the danger of getting some of our calculations wrong, we want to try to break down some of the figures to find out if BNP support is static or if the party is still on the march. So, let’s look at the two seats where the BNP won.
First, the North West. In 2004, the BNP won 134,958 votes (6.4%) out of 2,115,163 votes cast. This time around, the BNP attained 132,094 votes (8%) out of 1,651,825. So here we have a 1.6% increase in vote percentage but a slight drop in support of 2,864 votes between the two elections. However, this must be set against a decline in turnout of more than 21%! In this context, the BNP’s total number of votes dropped about 2%.
Second, Yorkshire and the Humber. In 2004, the BNP won 126,538 votes (8%) out of 1,573,201 votes cast. This time around, the BNP attained 120,139 votes (9.8%) out of 1,226,180. Here we have a similar picture. The BNP’s share of the vote is up 1.8% but its absolute number of votes is down by 6,399. But again the turnout fell by more than 22% while the BNP’s total number of votes fell by just over 5%.
If any Left challenger had managed pretty much to hold up its vote numerically and increase its percentage of the poll while turnout plummeted by a fifth, the result would be hailed as a great victory. It is a little incredible to argue the BNP’s support is static because it lost a few thousand votes while hundreds of thousands of voters didn’t turn out. In any case, nationally the BNP’s total number of votes was up significantly, from 808,200 in 2004 to 943,598 this year, an increase of 135, 398 votes, or an increase of nearly 17%. Set that against a national decrease in turnout by 4%, or about 1.2 million voters, and the picture is reinforced.
Another hopeful line that is being put regarding the BNP is that its voters were not disenchanted former Labour voters, but actually “working class Tories”. This is based on a YouGov poll (pdf) of about 32,000 people commissioned for Channel 4 News. It has some interesting data, for instance showing that some 47% of BNP voters say their parents voted Labour, are more likely to be in skilled and semi-skilled manual work, are more likely to read the Sun or the Daily Star, and are more likely to be men in middle age.
The argument that is being put is that BNP are gaining support from at the expense of the Tories, not Labour. Evidence cited includes that BNP voters would rather have David Cameron as prime minister (59%) than Gordon Brown (17%), and more think the Tories are concerned about them (22%) than Labour (6%). It is argued that this, along with BNP voters putting themselves right-of-centre on the political spectrum, shows these people are natural Tory voters. Richard Seymour says:
we had been told somewhat pontifically by some that the economic crisis, and the MPs expenses scandal, would lead to working class Labour supporters backing the far right. This was patronising, and it turns out not to be the case. Labour voters stayed at home or voted for some leftish substitute: by and large, they didn’t vote for the right.
Actually once you look at the data, things appears more complex than this. For instance, 59% of BNP voters said the Labour Party used to care about them, whereas only 6% said it did now. Contrast this with the figure for the Tories: 27% and 22% respectively. The headline figure regarding support for Cameron/Brown as prime minister is misleading in a sense, as the overall result of the poll was 51% for Cameron and 29% for Brown, thus the main difference with BNP voters is a major bias against Brown and Labour, not significantly increased support for Cameron, which fits with the thesis that BNP supporters are largely disenchanted former Labour voters angry at the party’s abandonment of the working class. So too does the fact that 47% of BNP voters come from Labour-supporting families (larger than any other group apart from present Labour supporters, 66%) compared with only 25% for the Tories.
The data highlights some of the nuances of the BNP’s demographic. Obviously, it is not simply the case that all BNP voters are alienated former Labour supporters, but on the other hand it is simply not credible to argue Labour supporters simply “stayed at home or voted for some leftish substitute”. The data doesn’t support this contention, and nor do many first-hand accounts and interviews from areas where the BNP have performed well.
Such a misreading risks seriously hindering an analysis of why the BNP is gaining support and what the Left needs to do to combat it effectively. Other data in the poll show that BNP voters are massively more alienated on a whole range of social measures and issues:
- 74% don’t feel they have enough money to live on properly, compared to a nationwide average of 52%.
- 49% do not feel safe going out in their area, compared with 29% nationally (and 22% for Labour).
- 75% do not feel their family will have the chance to prosper in the years ahead, compared with 52% nationally.
- 49% fear a family member will lose their job in the next year, compared with 40% nationally.
- They also show less trust for a whole range of people than the average – judges, council officials, company directors, politicians, BBC reporters, police etc. The only groups of people BNP voters trust more than the average are journalists on mid-market (Express, Mail) and red-top tabloids.
The figures are quite astonishing and give a deep insight into the thinking of BNP voters, far more so than broad generalisations that risk missing the point about the social roots of support for the far-right.