BNP SEEN OFF IN SUPER THURSDAY
The British National Party suffered a major electoral setback last month after failing to win council by-elections in Burnley and Halifax. The Burnley result was especially disastrous and could signal the decline of the party in the town which has become synonymous with the BNP. Nick Lowles reports on a day of triumph for anti-fascists.
A national newspaper had billed 16 October "Super Thursday". Council by-elections in Burnley, Bradford and Calderdale offered the BNP an opportunity to make further advances in its northern heartlands and build momentum for its 2004 campaign.
While Burnley was always going to be the most difficult of the three, as the election was called after Luke Smith, a sitting BNP councillor, resigned after bottling a fellow BNP member, the two Yorkshire seats were both winnable. The BNP already had a councillor in Mixenden ward in Calderdale, while in Great Horton, Bradford, although it was not natural BNP territory, the party had secured 18% in May with virtually no campaigning.
The BNP campaign got off to an atrocious start when the party was disqualified from the Bradford election. Its candidate, James Breslin, had not obtained the necessary number of signatures on his nomination form. His pleas to the returning officer to add two more names after the deadline were, unsurprisingly, ignored.
Breslin should have known better. He is already under police investigation for allegedly falsifying two names on his nomination paper for last May's local elections.
The failure to stand a candidate in Bradford allowed the BNP to concentrate its Yorkshire resources in Calderdale. The by-election was the result of the sudden death of Stephen Pearson, a Liberal Democrat councillor, who had taken the seat in May on an anti-BNP ticket. A former mayor of Calderdale, he was also widely known for his campaign to save the local football and rugby clubs.
The Liberal Democrats selected Jennifer Pearson, Stephen's widow, as their candidate and her campaign played heavily on his legacy.
The BNP by contrast, relied on its usual lies and scare stories to win support. According to the BNP, pensioners' operations were being cancelled, they were being struck off waiting lists and having their social housing issues delayed, all because of asylum seekers. The town's post office had a special queue for asylum seekers and care homes for the elderly were being earmarked as asylum hostels.
Unfortunately neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats were willing to confront and expose these lies in their own literature. That job went to a local anti-BNP group, Communities Against Racism.
CAR activists took apart each BNP leaflet and researched the issues. They contacted the local Primary Health Trust, local GP surgeries and even the post office to discover the validity of the BNP's claims. There was widespread dismay at the BNP scare tactics and local leaflets effectively confronted the issues.
These leaflets were targeted to those areas of the ward with a higher proportion of elderly voters and the feedback was very positive.
Labour, meanwhile, ran a far more energetic campaign than it has done in recent elections. While Labour received fewer votes than expected, the energy and commitment shown by its activists gives renewed hope for next June.
The Conservatives failed to stand a candidate, a situation that the other parties roundly condemned. Considering that the Conservatives won the ward as recently as 1999, this does not bode well for the 2004 all-out elections when each party will be expected to find three candidates for every ward.
It was unclear where the 140 votes the Tories received in May would go. While some feared that most would switch to the BNP, others believed that, as the Conservative vote had already fallen from a high of 700 in 1999, what remained were probably "constitutional" Conservatives who were unlikely to vote fascist.
On the other side of the Pennines the BNP was running a low-key campaign in the Lanehead ward in Burnley. The by-election was the result of BNP thuggery so the party was unable to make much of its usual law and order theme.
What leaflets did appear were poorly produced and contrite, which given the circumstances was probably the fascists' only option. "We are still learning," read one leaflet. "Don't judge the party by one bad apple" said another.
As well as the Luke Smith factor, continuing internal problems hampered the BNP campaign. The resignations of the branch organiser, Steve Smith, and his deputy, Simon Bennett, coupled with the resulting demoralisation of many local activists, meant that there were fewer people on hand to help and the campaign was far less sophisticated.
The Liberal Democrats looked likely to win from the outset. Once again they successfully used a strategy that combined positive Liberal Democrat material with anti-Labour and anti-BNP messages. They played heavily on how Luke Smith had let down local people and, as election day approached, emphasised that they were the party to back if you wanted to keep out the BNP.
Searchlight assisted the local trades council in producing some terrific anti-BNP material. One Unison official summed up the importance of these leaflets.
"Until the leaflets went out people only knew that Luke Smith had resigned as a councillor because of an 'unsavoury' incident. The Burnley & Padiham Gazette exposed the true nature of this assault and local voters were shocked."
Labour and Liberal Democrat canvassers reported how people had picked up on the leaflet and in many cases it had changed their opinion of the BNP. Even The Guardian, which ran a three-page piece on Burnley on polling day, opened with reference to Luke Smith's use of a Stella bottle.
The other theme of the Burnley & Padiham Gazette was the BNP's broken promises. It was good to hear a couple of Lanehead residents tell a Radio Lancashire post-election phone-in that they had voted BNP in the past but felt let down by them.
The BNP went into election day expecting a victory in Mixenden. Its canvass returns showed increased support compared to May and the party believed it had enough activists to turn out the vote on the day. The BNP even proudly announced to voters in its final leaflet that victory was almost certain.
The gullible press swallowed this line. The Daily Telegraph as good as crowned the BNP candidate in an article that appeared on the eve of the election.
The BNP brought in nearly 60 activists to help on polling day. Some sat on polling stations while others ferried elderly voters from their homes. Groups of leaf-leters put out literature well into the afternoon. Even Nick Griffin, the party leader, was there to lend a hand.
All this activity made the BNP even more furious when it became clear that its candidate was not going to win. Even before the result was announced, the BNP candidate and his entourage had stormed out of the hall, an act of petulance that might come back to haunt them in the near future.
The Liberal Democrats won both by-elections comfortably. There is clearly growing electoral dissat-isfaction with Labour but there is an increasing amount of tactical voting, especially in Calderdale. Many Labour voters switched to the Liberal Democrats as the best means to keep out the BNP. This was harnessed well by the Liberal Democrats in their final leaflets.
A positive development was the change of attitude of the local newspaper which, in the past, has been criticised for giving the BNP too much attention. A change of editor and a realisation that the BNP was bad news for the town led to a strong anti-BNP editorial on the eve of poll.
The death of Councillor Pearson obviously created some sympathy for his widow but the BNP vote remained worryingly high. Any talk of a declining BNP in West Yorkshire is well off the mark and it will certainly pose a major threat next June.
Burnley might well be different. The Liberal Democrats took the normally safe Labour ward with a 600 vote majority. The BNP saw its vote slashed by 40% and dropped into third place.
There is growing optimism that the BNP is on the decline in Burnley. Defeat in two by-elections, internal problems and a failure to deliver has caused the party to lose momentum. More significantly, the Liberal Democrats have emerged as a new home for the substantial anti-Labour vote.
Anti-fascists can also learn from these elections. Third party leaflets played an important role in both Burnley and Calderdale yet they were very different in design and content. There were different leaflets targeted at different voters, they were localised and simply produced, and each campaign had its own unique message.
Super Thursday was billed as an opportunity for the BNP to break through on several fronts simultaneously. Instead the headlines were about the BNP's failures. Hard work can beat the BNP in its northern heartlands. While it needs a positive vote for another political party to beat the BNP, anti-BNP groups have proved that they are a central component in the fascists' downfall.
This article appeared in Searchlight Magazine November 2003.