A disturbing trend

Print edition : June 06, 2003

BNP Chairman Nick Griffin. - PHIL NOBLE/AP

The results of local elections boost the prospects of the racist British National Party, upset New Labour and confuse the Tories.

IN the spring of 1982, the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher was deeply unpopular, as she herself was, and Tory leaders widely expected a drubbing in the local government elections scheduled for May in the same year.

However, as the local election campaign coincided with the mounting crisis over the Falkland Islands there was a noticeable upsurge in Tory confidence, and an eventual electoral reward for Thatcher. A reinvigorated Thatcher and the Tories rolled on to a resounding success in the general election in 1983, giving rise to the coinage "Falklands factor" in British elections.

The Blairites in the Labour Party, ever ready for a sound bite, and equally ready to emulate Margaret Thatcher, hit upon the rather unfortunate, indeed insensitive, phrase "Baghdad bounce", to forecast that the Labour Party would win back many disillusioned voters by capitalising on Tony Blair's eminent role in the Iraq war. It was not to be.

The local elections saw a dramatic loss for the Labour Party, down 700 seats overall as a somewhat bewildered Tory Party staged a recovery, winning some 500 seats. The result threw the Tory Party into some confusion. They are certainly not good enough to indicate that the Tories could win any general election, but for their beleaguered leader, Ian Duncan Smith, they come as a lifeline; by almost unanimous conclusion he was a lacklustre performer on the national stage. A bad result is what many senior Tories privately wanted. Then they could have got rid of Duncan Smith and installed a new leader in time for the next general election, scheduled for not later than 2006. Duncan Smith's survival is the major consolation on a bad day for New Labour. But New Labour has been the real loser in these elections.

The most alarming trend evident in the results is the continuing rise of the British National Party (BNP). It has not only made gains in votes but actually won seats, too. The BNP campaigns on an aggressively anti-foreigner, racist platform. Last year, the BNP made a national breakthrough in the former textile town of Burnley in North East Lancashire. The three seats they won there were dismissed somewhat too superficially as an unfortunate reaction to a summer of race related street disturbances. This election, despite enormous efforts to expose the BNP's murky nature, the party increased its representation by winning five more seats.

Alarmingly, in what is seen as a safe Labour parliamentary seat, the BNP outpolled Labour. In other areas, the BNP has been hampered by the choice of candidates. Often the party has put up people with criminal convictions relating to race crimes and violence.

But the BNP's candidate in Burnley have been literally "whiter than white", people deeply routed in the local community and who might be described as naive and uneducated racists, rather than bigots. As one prominent local politician in Burnley said. They are "the kind of people who used to vote Labour and stand for Labour".

Moreover, the BNP has succeeded in appealing to the hardest group of voters - motivated white working class males aged between 18 and 30. The local Labour Party is in dismay, and the national leadership in denial, about the rise of the BNP.

There was an extra degree of interest in these elections. The Scottish and Welsh National Assemblies, first elected four years ago, on a mixture of "first past the post" constituencies, in addition to a proportional representation list, had their first test before the electorate.

The old Labour idea that devolution to a Scottish and Welsh Assembly would take the wind out of the nationalists' sails, does seem to have been vindicated, for both Welsh nationalists (Plaid Cymru) and their Scottish counterparts lost votes and seats.

However, the results for Labour were mixed and offer no comfort for "New" Labour.

The avowedly "New Labour" Scottish Party also lost seats, polling its lowest total vote in Scotland since 1931, and will have to continue in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who posted a modest and steady increase throughout Britain.

The beneficiaries of New Labour's slip seem to be the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Alliance, who increased their seats from the previous sole seat of their charismatic leader, Tommy Sheridan, to six.

ANOTHER feature of the fracturing of traditional voting was the success of "independents". Dennis Canavan, left-wing Labour rebel, and Margo McDonald, left-wing Scottish Nationalist, defied the party, in which they had made their names and won as independents.

The Welsh Labour Party posted a good result to win half the 60 seats in the Assembly and established overall control. But the result is cold comfort for Blair, who had intervened personally once to block the present leader Rhodri Morgan's bid for leadership of the Welsh Party. When Blair's own nominee proved not to be up to the job, Blair reluctantly had to accept that Rhodri Morgan, distinctly old Labour, was the best man for the job. Since then Morgan has been keen to "put clear Red water" between himself and the New Labour hierarchy by mounting a skilful campaign to reverse, within the remit of the powers devolved to Wales, many of what traditional Labour voters have seen as the unpalatable policies of New Labour on health and social matters.

In her heyday, Thatcher was able to translate her power on the national stage to cohesion within her own party. Such power, as once existed, now seems to be slipping from Tony Blair's fingers.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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