The Conservatives have blamed Labour for the prospect of a historically strong performance by the British National party in Thursday’s elections, as new research suggests support for the far right is strongest in Old Labour heartlands.
The Tory intervention marks a shift in the traditional bipartisan approach to fighting the BNP. All three main party leaders are urging people to shun the far-right fringe party amid fears a low turnout could combine with protests against MPs’ expenses to give the BNP at least one seat in the European parliament.
The complex proportional representation system used in the European poll means the BNP needs only an 8.5 per cent vote share to get an MEP elected in the north-west or London – its principal targets. Recent polls show a dramatic post-expenses rise in support for “others”, putting the eurosceptic UK Independence party on 10-19 per cent and the BNP on 5-7 per cent.
The Tories, battling against the erosion into their own vote from the seemingly resurgent Ukip, accuse Labour of inadvertently creating an electoral opportunity for the BNP.
“That people are considering voting BNP is symptomatic of the neglect that the Labour party has shown in their heartlands. It is a shame Labour has simply abandoned so many of their traditional voters,” Eric Pickles, the Tory chairman, told the Financial Times.
Gordon Brown rejected this assertion. “The BNP. . . stand against everything that makes this country great,” the prime minister said on a campaign visit to Worksop in the east Midlands. “There are some people who argue that Labour has somehow abandoned the white working class. Nothing could be further from the truth . . . we are on the side of people on middle and modest incomes.”
A Labour source accused the Tories of “political point scoring”, saying it was “incumbent on all mainstream parties to push up voter turnout to lessen the chance of the BNP gaining any success”.
But new research suggests the BNP is performing best in Labour heartlands – areas of high unemployment and low education with large Pakistani and African populations. The typical BNP supporter matches the Old Labour profile of a middle-aged, working class northern male, according to research by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin of the University of Manchester. Their analysis of aggregated polling data on self-identified BNP supporters found that more than 90 per cent of the fringe party’s strongest constituencies have Labour MPs.
“The BNP is emerging as a significant challenger to the Labour party among social groups and in geographical areas where Labour has traditionally been dominant,” Mr Goodwin said. “Labour faces a serious threat from the large-scale defection of traditional heartland supporters to the BNP.”
Labour appears divided over how best to respond to this threat. MPs on the left of the party, such as Jon Cruddas, say Labour needs to offer more direct support to the working class to counter the threat of “class politics of the far right”.
But Denis MacShane, former Europe minister, said business had compounded the failure of the main parties to “talk about Europe intelligently” and sell its benefits. “The biggest beneficiaries of the workers who have come from Europe have been employers but the CBI, EEF and BCC are like trappist monks . . . when it comes to campaigning on this,” he said. There was an “unfortunate coincidence” between the BNP’s anti-European, anti-immigration core messages and the campaign being run by Ukip, which, he stressed, he was not accusing of being racist.
The Tories have stepped up the rhetoric against what David Cameron termed a “bunch of fascist thugs”. But the Tory leader took a softer tone with Ukip: “I know you may be thinking of voting Ukip but look what they’ve achieved over the past five years [in the European parliament] – precisely nothing.”