A bit of a surprise on my Sunday morning telly today: Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, was one the two political guests on the North West opt out of The Sunday Politics.
It took me a few minutes to remember that Griffin was actually one of my elected representatives – sneaking in as the 8th and final MEP for the North West of England thanks to the unique way in which the European Parliament deals with our votes once we’ve cast them.
At the time, 2009, it was a new high for the party. Two representatives in Brussels, and a growing track record for success in local elections – at one point, they seemed confident about even getting hold of councils: Stoke and Barking were told to me as potential prime targets.
Since then, things haven’t gone to plan for the BNP. One of the two BNP MEPs has left the party, and the number of councillors is down to just three across the country. At one point, the BNP was the second-biggest party on Burnley Council, now it’s not there at all. Either through defections or defeat, BNP councillors don’t tend to stick around.
The established media narrative is that the BNP have had their day. UKIP is now established as the fourth biggest party in the UK, the turn-to protest vote party of the day, and the BNP is dying a slow, painful death.
However, watching Griffin on the Sunday Politics made me fear that not only is that narrative wrong, but potentially dangerous.
The BNP grew throughout the early 21st century by hijacking one issue: race. During its successful campaign in Burnley in 2002, when it first landed councillors, it built its campaign around a claim that predominantly Asian areas got more money spent on them. Despite the fact the council was able to present figures to disprove this claim, the claim stuck.
Less than two years later, the BNP claimed its first political scalp in nearby Blackburn, home to the then cabinet minister Jack Straw. Race again played a big part in their campaign, with one of their more memorable claims being that the council planned to recreate Saddam Hussein’s Swords of Victory sculpture on the entrance to an Asian area of the town. It was, of course, nonsense. The council had plans to create a ‘gateway’ to the area – it was its name for a plan to turn it into Blackburn’s answer to Manchester’s curry mile. That never happened either.
Back then, the political response was inept. Tony Blair has swanned in the week before the election and urged people not to vote BNP. ‘I’d rather they vote Tory than BNP’ was a nice line for the national media, but didn’t play well to those with a ballot paper. After the BNP won in Mill Hill, Blackburn, the deputy leader of the council went on regional TV to blame the local paper for its coverage of the election. Somehow, what we’d written at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph was to blame … despite us splashing on her party leader calling for people to shun the party.
A decade on, and having watched today’s Sunday Politics, I fear we’re in danger of history repeating itself.
The High Speed Rail 2 plan, unveiled last week and extending the existing plans from London and Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester, have generated much media interest but have yet to win over the public. The problem for politicians is this: It was Labour’s idea, and the coalition are just adapting it.
So where do opponents turn to get their voice heard? Certainly not to the Labour Party, which is focusing on quibbling about details rather than whether the cost can be justified. Indeed, the arrogance many politicians have towards opposition to HS2 can be summed by Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk, the other guest on Sunday Politics, saying that opponents were generally those directly impacted by HS2.
You only have to have watched Question Time on Thursday – broadcast from Lancaster, some 50 miles north of HS2’s most northern point – to realise that isn’t the case.
And therein lies the threat the BNP poses. Regardless of your views on the BNP – and as someone promised a place in the Tower of London by a former BNP press officer because of my stories about the BNP, I can assure you I have little time for them – Griffin has hit the ground running. He talked about the fact HS2 would make no difference to Liverpool, and would leave it as a backwater as HS2 passed by. He suggested that Hs2 be built underground in many areas – costing more, he conceded, but leaving the countryside in tact. A possibility?. Probably not – but he’s a politician once again saying what a lot of people will want to hear.
In dismissing the opposing views of HS2 as belonging effectively to Nimbys, Danczuk – who I first encountered while working at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph – committed the error so many politicians do: belittling concerns people feel are genuine. That’s a particularly dangerous thing to do when mainstream politics is generally united on the fact HS2 is a good thing.
Danczuk also committed another common political error against the BNP – trying to trick Griffin. A discussion around the concept of rebranding areas suddenly became a debate on why Griffin had almost caused the collapse of the Rochdale child grooming case because of a Tweet he’d sent. This provided Griffin with the opportunity to bring in an issue which wasn’t up for discussion back into play – asking why Danczuk had stayed silent on the issue when he was standing for election, creating the illusion that the BNP was the only party speaking the truth on such a disgusting crime. Sadly, it was a claim Danczuk failed to dispel – as he easily could have done.
And therein lies the danger of taking on the BNP. I’m a big believe in the power of the oxygen of publicity and quite why a Labour MP was on the Sunday Politics discussing issues with the BNP is beyond me.
This is a party which has been close to the brink of financial collapse, whose only real representation of the North West is in Brussels, where Griffin admits he plays the role of a ‘figleaf’ for the European Parliament. In engaging with him and assuming he could trick him, Danczuk enabled Griffin to legitimise his claims – and demonstrate once again that he is an able politician. Danczuk dismissed the BNP’s rebranding efforts as ‘an attempt to get votes and hide what the party is.’ Of course it is – but that doesn’t mean it won’t work. After all, Labour had its 1997 election success on the back of an effective rebrand, although admittedly Labour’s starting point was hardly the same as the BNP’s.
It’s not just HS2 Griffin is seeking out new supporters on. He talked about how he wants his party to run soup kitchens, help out at food banks and give a leg up to the forgotten in society. Who knows if any of that will happen, but if it does, do you think those in need of that help will turn it down just because it comes from the BNP?
It’s with all this in mind that I fear the media’s narrative of the threat of the BNP being consigned to history could prove to be a very dangerous one indeed – especially if the mainstream political parties fail to learn their lessons of the past too. And if Danczuk’s performance on Sunday Politics is anything to go by, mainstream politics is once again underestimating the threat the BNP could pose. And that’s bad news for us all.
Politicians need to wake up fast. And, by extension, so does the media.