The BNP and the tide of history

July 7, 2008

‘The Social Democrats haven’t a hope of winning a general election, [because the unemployed and low-paid] make up 40-45 percent of the entire country’s workforce. Certainly under the present electoral system, they will provide Labour with a solid 200-seat base.

Tony Blair, August 1982

And so Labour believed back then, even though the election of 1983 took them perilously close to undercutting that 200-seat base. This notion of a ‘base’ of support was what made the formation of New Labour possible – pragmatically, abandoning the interests of your core supporters in order to attract more support from other demographics would seem to be electorally suicidal. But if that core support could be relied upon to vote Labour regardless, then abandoning those principles which run counter to the interests of the demographics whose votes you are seeking would be a wise step. Assuming, of course, your only goal in politics is the attainment of power.

Now, of course, Labour’s support is collapsing across the entire spectrum, and the loyalty of that ‘base’ is rapidly evaporating. In many respects, it’s surprising that it lasted as long as it did – eleven years in which a supposedly socialist party presided over a massive widening of the income gap is eleven years in which the interests of that ‘base’ were only serviced perfunctorily. Many of the voters who previously would have been Labour loyalists are now supporting the BNP, the Lib Dems, or even the Tories.

The rise of the BNP has caused an awful lot of anguish, but it is in no way surprising. After all, the BNP are a socialist party with an emphasis on nationalism (sound familiar?), and so can legitimately claim to be standing up for at least the short-term interests of the white working classes. They have thereby provided that particular demographic with an alternative, and they’re taking it. Why should the working classes listen to middle-class moralising about the importance of free trade, the market and allowing immigrants to work here when they see no return for themselves? You can’t sell an economic theory by talking about GDP growth, people need to be given something real.

While the Lib Dems are offering long-term solutions to help close the income gap, none of the main parties is putting forward the same sort of short-term massive state intervention that would make a real difference to the lives of these people now. There is no easy market-based solution here – low-skilled workers are simply economically unproductive given the UK’s position in the global economy. There are far fewer significant quantities of natural resources for them to extract, or factories willing to pay the higher wages required by UK employees. State intervention would merely prolong the inevitable.

Nonetheless, this has not prevented calls from within the Labour Party for a return to collectivism and to the party’s roots. Labour is currently caught in a quandary: its old voters are beginning to desert it for a party which partly resembles its former incarnation, while its new voters are deserting it for a party that resembles its present incarnation. Which way to turn? Either field is contested. But surely returning to its previous values would at least give it the security of Blair’s abovementioned 200 seats?

This is not the case. Employment patterns have shifted throughout Labour’s time in power. Examine the graph below.

Over the last fifteen years, the population of the working classes as a percentage of the workforce has declined. This trend is likely to continue in the near future – as I mentioned before, there is simply little call for low-skilled work in the current British economy. Even if Labour did manage to revive their support, relying on a shrinking demographic as a springboard back to power – not to mention a demographic that will be fought over with the BNP – is a foolish move. Thus, I suspect that they will make some cursory moves to the left in an effort to regain some of their heartland support, but retain their market ideology so as to not lose all of their new voters.

This will also affect the BNP. No matter how well they do, since they find their support in a shrinking demographic they can never wield the influence to bring about the changes they seek. For this to happen would require a massive expansion in Britain’s manufacturing industry, which is extremely unlikely even with higher oil prices making it more appealing to produce goods closer to home.

But what do we Lib Dems do about this disaffected demographic? What principled approaches can we take to improve their quality of life? As yet, I am uncertain. I am currently working on this issue with a colleague, but have yet to come up with a solution. I begin to suspect that the answer may lie in high tech industries that require low skilled workers for the production processes, as in biotechnology. But even still, answers on a postcard please.

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3 Responses to “The BNP and the tide of history”

  1. Rosemary said

    The Liberals were displaced by the Labour Pary after the war because of the secret ballot. Without it they would not have won in 1945, as support for a socialist party was as unacceptabe then as support for a national socialist party is now. It is no accident therefore that they seek to “out” and sack the BNP people now. But will the British people give them the John Seargeant treatment? After all the British hate to se the underdog being bullied and might just tell the “judges” – in this case the establishment, what they think of that – by voting BNP.

  2. declineofthelogos said

    I’m sorry, but that’s totally incorrect. The Labour Party was gaining around a third of the vote from the late 1910s onwards – if it were truly socially unacceptable to vote for them, how did this happen?

    And why do you believe the Labour Party has anything to do with releasing the BNP membership list? If anything, releasing the membership list has only demonstrated that its members come from all walks of life, which is more likely to help them than to hinder.

    The British may root for the underdog, but they also have an inherent sense of fair play. The BNP’s rhetoric will always fall foul of this – especially as the truth, in terms of the economic benefits of migration and incidents of racist behaviour – will always be against them.

  3. It’s refreshing to hear an even-tempered analysis of the BNP, rather than the usual ritualistic histrionics.

    The graph you show has some interesting symmetries; maybe they’re coincidental, I dunno.

    What I can say is that I support your general sense that a significant change has occurred.

    I noticed that in ’97 the turnout dropped off a cliff, and despite winning, Labour support seemed to shift away from the heartlands to new territories as it appeared to transmogrify into the SDP.

    It seems to me that the Tories lost that election more than Labour won it, and despite the spread of support, it looks as through all three parties have experienced real fall in support as the electorate switches off.

    The internet seems to be the key factor in a general paradigm shift that this event may be a symptom of: the BNP and other minor parties and movements seem to have begun to flourish in this new environment (of course sudden and unprecidented immigration is probably a key catalyst for the BNP)… alright, they’re not making much impact yet, but I think the ingredients are there with this depression and the continuing collapse of support for the symbiotic media and MP ecosystem.

    I’m interested in your association of the BNP with the “working classes”; I assumed that too, but my experience has not borne that out. I am semi-rural “working class” myself, but have spent a bit too long at university, during that time I lived in urban working class areas, and whilst there was a BNP presence; the apathy party seemed to be doing the most business.
    As you say, the list reveals that BNP support is broad, and I see support amongst every age group… they reach the young better than Labour; and I think that’s partly because the tribal nature of politics (as in voting as your parents and background dictates) holds little sway now.

    What I see is a BNP that has become more agile and creative in it’s approach, and I don’t know how long the “fair play” thing will hold them back… the way the Tories and Labour behave, and the various illiberal laws are making it easier for the BNP to portray their opponents as Fascists.
    I also note a good deal more sophistication in their presentation and content: a sign that they have some graduates and other surprising categories of staff and member.

    Long term, all I can see is that the next 50 years’ political map could be a lot less predictable than the previous 50.
    Yes Labour and the Lib Dems could well swop places; but that disenfranchised rump is pretty likely to become stable and be fertile ground supporting a few BNP MPs… not everyone can go to university; or work in a call centre!
    That’s your “high tech, low skill” industry!

    However, i’m not sure I can see them rehabilitating the “BNP” acronym, however skilfully they market their policies.
    I remember a Sky poll that showed overwhelming support for the policies – which promptly fell off a cliff once it was revealed that the policies were those of the BNP.
    It shows the extent to which personal image and not wanting to appear nasty can play in vote selection: privately the views are well supported; but the brand is so tarnished that at the moment few want to be seen to be associated with it.
    …that could change if the main three parties fail to engage with the growing and multifaceted resentments in the country.
    …the BNP does make the most effective protest vote …you can imagine how many “listening” politicians would descend on the first constituency to elect a BNP MP!

    There are a lot of trends to play out here… rising demographics of immigrant descendants and issues over the EU. From my own studies of the tides of public sentiment, nothing stirs up trouble quicker than high economic expectations suddenly not being met – and that’s exactly what 2009 is all about.
    …the times they are a-changing perhaps?!

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