October 16, 2007

London The stepping stone to power?

The British National Party has launched its London election campaign in the belief that representation on the London Assembly will be followed by European success and put the party beyond the reaches of its opponents.

Kicking off an eight-month campaign, party leader Nick Griffin joined Richard Barnbrook, the BNP’s candidate for Mayor of London, in a Dagenham pub last month. In front of 130 people Griffin claimed that the BNP would win between one and three seats on the London Assembly, which if achieved could create a momentum for two seats in the London region in the European election a year later. Success in the European election, he went on to claim, would solve the party’s financial problems and provide it with a respectability that could not be touched by its political opponents.

While the BNP has no chance in winning any of the 14 constituencies, which use the first-past-the-post system, the party believes it will gain representation through the London-wide top-up election, in which 11 seats are available. These seats are distributed to reflect the party’s overall share of the vote (as explained in “Voting in London 2008” below).

To win one Assembly seat the BNP would need to get 5% of the London-wide vote. For two seats they would need around 8% and for three little more than 11%.

In 2004 the BNP polled 4.8%, missing a seat by 5,000 votes. The UK Independence Party polled 8.2%, gaining two Assembly seats. Given that the last London election was held on the same day as the European election and that UKIP has imploded since then, the BNP quite rightly expects the UKIP vote to collapse. It must also be remembered that since the last London election the BNP has emerged as a significant force in outer east London, gaining 12 councillors in Barking and Dagenham and one in each of Havering and Redbridge. There are a further six BNP councillors just over the London border in Loughton.

On paper it would appear fairly easy for the BNP to gain the additional 5,000 votes for one seat. After all, BNP gained almost 8,000 in Barking and Dagenham in the last general election, a 40% increase on its 2004 London Assembly vote.

Support for the BNP appears to be concentrated around the outskirts of London, particularly in outer east London and on the fringes of south and southwest London. In addition to Barking and Dagenham, the BNP polled 10% in some wards in Havering, Sutton, Croydon, Lewisham, Hillingdon and Enfield. This corresponds with where the UKIP picked up most of its support. Both parties fared poorly in inner city London, which confirms the view that the UKIP collected a white right-wing vote.

The BNP’s belief that a sizeable chunk of the UKIP vote could switch to it is highlighted in research published by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. The Far Right in London: A challenge for local democracy? showed there was a common identity between BNP and UKIP voters, and to a lesser extent Conservative Party voters. “The results of the mayoral contest suggest linkages between UKIP and the BNP in some voters’ minds, in that those giving their first preference to the UKIP candidate were more likely than other voters to give their second to the BNP candidate, and those giving first preference to the BNP candidate were more likely to give their second to the UKIP candidate. … nearly half of BNP voters chose the UKIP mayoral candidate Frank Maloney as their second choice, while over one fifth of UKIP voters chose the BNP candidate Julian Leppert as their second choice.”

The report went on to discover that as many as a quarter of London voters would consider voting for the BNP, though this is obviously quite different from those who would actually vote for the BNP.

This has been backed up by the London Elections Study which showed that people who expressed a “liking” for the UKIP were also more likely to state a “liking” for the BNP and vice versa. A further project (Margetts, Dunleavy and van Heerde, 2005) has identified the existence of a “right bloc” in London politics, consisting of the BNP, the UKIP and the Conservatives. According to the State of the Nation survey, the crossover between these three parties appears stronger in London than elsewhere in the country.

The existence of a potential rightwing block vote of 8-12% is what makes the BNP confident of electoral success in the capital next year. While most UKIP voters will probably move to the Conservatives next May, especially if there is a close contest for Mayor, at least 20% could move over to the BNP, giving the racist party 6.5% even before the BNP’s growth in the capital since 2005 is taken into account.

To achieve the 11% minimum required for three seats would need a 250% increase in the BNP vote. The party has obviously been looking at its fairly uniform performance in local elections in recent years, with its candidates averaging 14.7% this year. However, because of the ethnic makeup of London the BNP would need closer to 20% of the white vote, which seems highly unlikely.

Will the BNP succeed?

So is the BNP guaranteed success in London next May? Of course not. While the figures show what a difficult task we are facing, there are still seven months to go and everything to play for. The very fact that London has such a diverse population automatically means that 35% of voters should naturally be opposed to the BNP.

There are also a good many white voters who are strongly against the fascists. The same research by Rowntree found that the BNP was Britain’s most disliked political party, with three-quarters of respondents saying they would never, under any circumstances, vote for it. This proves that there is a large anti-BNP vote out there to be mobilised.

Mobilising the anti-BNP vote is crucial. Given the size of London it is not feasible for anti-fascists to undertake door-to-door campaigning across the capital, other perhaps than in Barking and Dagenham as this will be vital for the general election and the 2010 borough council elections. Instead, anti-fascists have to look for alternative forms of campaigning to reach the largest number of people with as little effort as possible.

The focus for much of our work has to be the BME and newly arrived communities. Most should have an intrinsic dislike of the BNP though the threat would have to be explained. Another element of our campaign must be voter registration, particularly for the newly arrived communities from eastern Europe. This should be done in conjunction with the trade unions and linked to campaigns to improve their working conditions. Discussions are already under way with our Polish sister organisation, Never Again, to help in this work.

The fundamental issue for anti-fascists is boosting turnout. To break the 5% threshold to gain one seat, the BNP will have to find an extra supporter for every 20 in increased turnout. As table 2 shows, a high turnout could seriously derail the BNP’s chances, particularly of getting more than one person elected.

It would be catastrophic for the BNP if the general election were on the same day as the London election. Based on the same turnout as the 2005 general election, the BNP would need over 150,000 votes just to get one person on the London Assembly. Three seats would require more than 330,000 votes and, given the intense campaigning of a general election and the reduced media profile the BNP would receive, the task would be almost impossible.

The wider political scene will impact on the BNP, both negatively and positively. The BNP will benefit from the demise of the UKIP. In 2004 the UKIP’s vote was boosted as the London and European elections were held on the same day, which will not be the case this time. Since then the UKIP has suffered several splits and defections. However, the English Democrats might take some votes from the BNP because of the attention that their mayoral candidate Gary Bushell might attract.

Boris Johnson standing for the Conservatives might however help the BNP. While his name on the ballot paper is likely to reduce the BNP’s own mayoral vote, some of the anti-party voters Johnson might attract on the basis of giving Ken Livingstone the boot are likely to be natural BNP voters. As has become evident in recent years, the BNP has proved successful in tapping into the sector of the population that is disillusioned by the political system and does not normally vote.

Searchlight is working with the trade unions, political parties and other anti-fascist groups to establish one united campaign for the London elections. We believe that a new strategy is needed that targets the sections of the population that are likely to vote and mobilises those communities most likely to be opposed to the BNP. While winning the political argument is important, this election will hang on increasing the turnout. Our target turnout must be 45% with our voters coming out. If we achieve this then Griffin’s rolling plans for the next few years, which might even include him standing in London in the European election, could well be in tatters.

Voting in London 2008

Londoners will vote for the mayor and London Assembly on 1 May 2008. While we can safely say that Richard Barnbrook, the BNP candidate, will not be elected as mayor, there is a high risk that the BNP will gain one Assembly member and possibly two. To keep the BNP out, it is important to understand how these elections work. Sonia Gable explains.

The Assembly has 14 constituency members and 11 London-wide members. The constituency members are elected using the first-past-the-post system in constituencies that comprise two or three boroughs. In 2000 and 2004 all the constituencies elected Labour or Conservative members.

The London-wide members are elected by means of a separate vote for a party list or independent. Votes are allocated in a way that ensures that that the number of Assembly members for each party, including the constituency members, approximately reflects the percentage of votes each party obtains. It works like this:

1. Any party or independent with under 5% of the vote is eliminated. This is what happened to the BNP in 2004 when it polled 4.8%.

2. Each party’s London-wide vote is divided by one plus the number of constituency candidates it has had elected. For example, in 2004 five constituencies elected Labour members so Labour’s London-wide vote was initially divided by six.

3. The party that then has the highest London-wide vote (after dividing) takes the first London place. That party’s total London-wide vote is then divided by the number of seats it has taken so far (constituency plus London-wide).

4. Step 3 is repeated until all 11 London-wide seats have been allocated.

There is no set percentage needed to win a particular number of seats. It depends on the precise way the votes fall among the other parties. However because the Assembly has 25 members, any party that reaches the 5% threshold in the London-wide vote is guaranteed a seat. With 8% of the vote the BNP could win two seats.

All votes for other parties will increase the total vote and therefore reduce the BNP percentage, so it is important that voters, wherever in London they are, use their vote to try and put the BNP below 5%.

However it is more effective for people to vote for parties that are likely to poll at least 5%, so that their votes count in minimising the BNP’s seats if it does exceed the threshold. The BNP is clearly hoping to attract votes that went to the UKIP last time so every vote against the BNP is important.

Anyone aged 18 or over can register to vote if they live in London and are British, other EU or Commonwealth citizens. The last date for registration in time for the Assembly election is 16 April 2008.


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