BNP's success may be more than a little local difficulty

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Indy Politics

Just a week ago, it seemed that while the far right might do well in France, it was incapable of crossing the English Channel. But after the BNP won no fewer than three seats in Thursday's local elections in Burnley, the far right appears to be on the rise here too.

Just a week ago, it seemed that while the far right might do well in France, it was incapable of crossing the English Channel. But after the BNP won no fewer than three seats in Thursday's local elections in Burnley, the far right appears to be on the rise here too.

Unique local circumstances undoubtedly played their part in the BNP's success in Burnley – not just the existence of two ethnically divided and relatively poor communities but also a peculiar pattern of split voting that allowed the BNP to capture one of three seats in each of three wards despite not winning as much as a third of the vote in any of them. But even so, it would be a mistake to dismiss the BNP's success as just a little local difficulty in one Pennine town.

For the BNP did not just do well in Burnley. In several other places it achieved double-digit scores – winning on average 16 per cent of the vote on a sample of wards outside Burnley whose detailed voting figures were collected by the BBC, in places such as Oldham, Gateshead and Dudley. The BNP vote on Thursday was simply the best far-right performance in English local elections since the heyday of the National Front in the late 1970s.

The challenge posed by the BNP should not be dismissed out of hand. And simplistic answers about how the BNP's rise might be reversed are best avoided too. One such simple answer is to blame the Conservatives for not fighting all the seats in Burnley. The candidate shortage may have helped the BNP in Burnley, but the double-digit scores secured elsewhere were won against Tory as well as Labour and Liberal Democratic opposition.

Moreover, the experience of the past 10 days raises doubts about the wisdom of a united anti-BNP front between all three main parties. Frightened last week by the success of Le Pen in France, it was just such an impromptu and de facto front that gave the BNP the oxygen of publicity. How little collective hold Britain's mainstream political parties now have over the electorate was revealed in Hartlepool, where 56 per cent voted for one of two independent candidates and the town's former football mascot secured election as Mayor, and in Middlesbrough, where nearly two-thirds backed another independent Mayor, Ray Mallon.

It is probably unwise also to assume that the BNP's support is solely the result of racist antipathy towards "immigrants". The party's nationalism potentially enables it to appeal a wider audience – to those who are unsure about Britain's place in a world subject to growing globalisation, a feeling that we cannot assume is only a minority taste in a country that clearly still has a rich vein of Euroscepticism.

The lesson to be taken from Burnley is that voters are looking for a choice. Faced with a clear contest between the BNP and its opponents, turn-out in many of Burnley's wards proved to be far higher than the average of about 35 per cent where the traditional party battle predominated. A fierce debate over the next 12 months between Labour and the Conservatives about such issues as the euro as well as immigration would do far more to persuade voters that they need not flirt with the BNP than would the formation of any "united front".

If the BNP's Burnley success did register on the political Richter scale, the same cannot be said of the performances of the three main parties. None of them seems either stronger or weaker after Thursday's elections. The Tories' net gains of votes and seats were no more than modest. Projected into a national share of the vote, the party's performance was worth 34 per cent – only a point higher than secured by William Hague in his first local elections in 1998, and four points down on the result in 2000. True, London seemed to give the Tories somewhat greater encouragement, but overall their vote fell well short of the 40 per cent plus rating regularly secured by Labour in the years leading up to its triumphant entry into office in 1997. Iain Duncan Smith has not as yet turned his party into a credible opposition.

Labour itself easily achieved its very limited stated aim of doing better than in 2000, when its projected national vote share crashed to just 29 per cent. Its 33 per cent this time was at least respectable, though these results underline Labour's continued inability to poll as well in local elections as it does for Westminster. Moreover, despite the more Old Labour tone of Gordon Brown's recent Budget the party's performance was still relatively weak in its heartland areas.

The Liberal Democrats in contrast once again proved themselves the masters of local politics, with a projected 27 per cent of the vote, well above their current poll rating but little different from other recent local elections. But the party sometimes ran into difficulty trying to defend past successes. Not only did it spectacularly lose control of the London borough of Richmond, and of Sheffield, but also the party's vote fell back on average across the country in wards it was defending – while advancing a little elsewhere.

But if party strengths appear little changed after Thursday, the elections left in tatters some of New Labour's favourite ideas for reigniting our interest in politics. Electronic and internet voting proved no more popular than marking a ballot paper with a pencil – though letting voters do the marking in the privacy of their own home and putting the ballot in the post did add about 20 points to the turn-out. Meanwhile, voting for directly elected mayors was no more popular than voting for councillors. Turn-out in the seven mayoral contests averaged just 32 per cent – and Labour lost out in South Tyneside and Watford as well as in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. Evidently, what really matters to voters is not how they are asked to vote or for what, but rather what they are being asked to vote about.

John Curtice is deputy director, ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends.