BNP IN DOUBLE ELECTION DEFEAT
There was yet another encouraging night for democracy last month after the British National Party failed to make any significant advance in two key council by-elections. While the BNP had not really expected to win either seat, it will be disappointed with its poor results. More importantly, the results show that the BNP can be politically confronted and defeated. Nick Lowles reports from Oldham.
Voters in the Oldham ward of Failsworth East and the Birmingham ward of Stockland Green went to polls last month with the BNP presence dominating the election campaign. Both were normally solid Labour seats but in the light of BNP advances in recent by-elections a strong BNP threat was expected.
This was especially the case in Oldham. While the BNP had not stood there before it had contested the neighbouring ward of Failsworth West in May and collected 34% of the vote with little if any campaigning.
The Failsworth East election was the result of the resignation of a Labour councillor who was moving out of the area. Labour lost no time in launching its campaign and within a week had delivered four leaflets across the town. Labour sought not only to go on the offensive against the BNP but kill off any Liberal Democrat challenge before the campaign had even really begun. The Lib Dems had, after all, won the seat in 2001.
The BNP ran an intensive campaign. It was organised by the party's regional organiser, Bev Jones, and her husband, David Anthony Jones, a former UDA intelligence officer. Their campaign consisted of delivering at least seven leaflets, the BNP newspaper and door-to-door canvassing.
However, the BNP could never really build up a head of steam. Few local activists were involved, meaning the party was reliant on supporters from across Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the quality of its candidate was poor.
Its campaign focused on portraying Failsworth as the forgotten part of Oldham, with the inference that the predominantly white residents were losing out to the Asian areas of the town. BNP canvassers even tried to convince voters that, even if they did not support the BNP, a BNP council victory would ensure Labour worked harder for them in the future.
The BNP attracted fewer than one fifth of the votes. Although it came second, it failed to eat into the Labour vote, which increased by almost 25% compared to May.
Given the recent anti-Labour swing and growing disgruntlement over the Iraq war and spin, this was a great result for Labour.
More importantly, anti-fascists can be satisfied with the manner of the Labour campaign. Labour took on the BNP and won. It called the BNP a Nazi and fascist party, highlighted its criminality and gave voters a simple choice about the future of their area and the damage a BNP victory would do. This was in sharp contrast to recent Labour campaigns which have tried to ignore the fascists completely.
It was helped by the fact that there was an active local Labour Party and voters recognised improvements in their area over the past year.
Much of the credit must go to David Heyes, the local MP who ran the campaign. Ignoring the doubters within the Labour Party, he used the same strategy that has so far kept the BNP out of Oldham.
Searchlight worked closely with Heyes. We passed on intelligence about the BNP which he acted upon. In one instance, we informed him of the BNP's reliance on outside activists and within 24 hours a Labour leaflet hit the streets highlighting this fact. When the BNP canvassed the following day there was clear hostility towards them on the doorstep.
Oldham United Against Racism and Manchester Against Racism both produced leaflets. Learning from recent by-elections in Halifax and Burnley, they made the leaflets localised, simple and with a clear theme. The Manchester group focused on BNP criminality while the Oldham leaflets centred on the BNP's past inactivity in the area.
The Labour Party attracted over 500 more votes than in May. Some were disillusioned Labour voters who came out to stop the BNP and some may have been Lib Dem supporters who switched tactically. It is clear that there was a sizeable anti-BNP vote.
The Conservative vote halved compared to May but the bulk of the BNP support seemed to come from new voters.
The BNP has described both elections as "excellent results for our candidates" but its activists involved know better. To achieve only 18% in an Oldham by-election, given the resources and effort put in, was poor. Stockland Green was always going to be harder, with a significant minority of voters being of Asian descent, but fourth place was again below expectations.
The BNP can be confronted, exposed and heavily defeated. The strategy in Oldham quite clearly proved that.
This article appeared in Searchlight Magazine December 2003
Copyright © 2003, Searchlight.