May 02, 2007

Vote for democracy

In France, the Front National did badly in the recent elections. But how can we prevent the BNP from gaining seats tomorrow?

By Alexander Goldberg

Jean-Marie Le Pen is in a real strop this week and all because an additional 5.5 million people went out to vote in the first round of the presidential election this year, in comparison to 2002. The leader of the extremist far-right Front National had hoped to repeat his success of five years ago, when he came second in the first round of the elections and went into a run-off with President Chirac.

France has done much soul-searching as a result of the 2002 result. Activists concerned about the state of French democracy were shocked into action and embarked on one of the biggest voter registration campaigns, especially in the large ethnic Arab districts of Paris.

The result? With 3.3 million new voters on the roll and an 85% turnout, Le Pen was relegated to fourth place with his percentage vote cut dramatically. One can only presume that retirement looms for the 78-year-old bigot.

Given France's current economic woes and concerns, the conventional wisdom was that extremist parties would perform better than five years ago. Thankfully, this has not been the case. Instead, France has categorically demonstrated that in modern democracies, a robust voter turnout is critical in stemming the advance of extremist parties, who tend to thrive whenever voter turnout is low.

Back in Britain we have local elections this week. Even the ever-cautious political pundit Andrew Marr stated this week that voter turnout would be below 50%. I fear that Andrew may be right. Time after time the statistics surrounding electoral politics tend to reinforce the same lesson: extremist and racist groups succeed best when voter turnout ranges between 25% and 30% of registered voters. Moreover, the Electoral Commission has suggested that the real extent of voter apathy is hidden by the fact that an estimated 9% of the population do not bother registering in the first place, rising to one-third in some inner city areas.

The British National party (BNP), which has aspirations of turning itself into an electoral success along the lines of Front National, is fielding a record 752 candidates across England and Wales. It hopes to increase on the 53 seats it holds, following significant gains made last year.

And while the BNP has tried to rebrand itself in recent years along the lines of Front National, little, in fact, has changed.

The BNP has its roots in fascist movements (BNP founder John Tyndall proclaimed Hitler's Mein Kampf his Bible). Even its current leader Nick Griffin was convicted of incitement to racial hatred in 1998, while according to the BBC's Panorama investigation other leaders have been arrested for such crimes as sending razor blades in the post, carrying CS gas, assault, theft, burglary and possession. Not exactly your conventional campaign tactics. Watchdogs such as Searchlight highlight time and again that the BNP's core platform has remained one that espouses hate.

My guess is that most voters are attracted to the BNP less for ideological reasons than as a protest against mainstream parties and failing town halls. In addition, the BNP gains from voters who decide not to absent themselves from local elections and tends to do better with a low turnout. Meanwhile, it abandons wards where it is resoundingly beaten.

We need to learn from last week's election in France and apply it here. In the long run we need to work on voter registration, but this week we need to get out and vote on May 3. It is not just local services and recycling schemes that are at stake, but the future of democracy.

Edmund Burke, himself an observer of French politics, perhaps said it best: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

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