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Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin: Might UKIP succeed where the BNP has failed?

By Dr Robert Ford of the University of Manchester and and Dr Matthew Goodwin of the University of Nottingham, co-editor of The New Extremism in 21st Century Britain. The authors would like to thank Joe Twyman at YouGov for assistance with the data.

The BNP’s attempt to become a ‘modernized’ radical right party has failed. The party is in turmoil, and Nick Griffin faces a growing grassroots rebellion. A disappointing general election, empty war chests and costly legal battles have left its foot soldiers demoralized and divided: some demand a re-launched (and Griffin-free) BNP; others have deserted to establish a rival party; and some are even calling for a merger with their arch rival, UKIP. Even Griffin concedes they are ‘sick and tired of losing’ and, in an attempt to quell the rebels, has announced he will step down by 2015.

To add to his problems, at the recent by-election in Oldham the party saw its support slump to 4.5% (down from 11% in 2001), even losing its deposit in an area it once described as “our territory”. The party was also pushed into fifth place by UKIP, a particularly hard pill for BNP activists to swallow. Despite a decade-long effort by Griffin to rehabilitate his party, upwards of 80% of Britons continue to express negative feelings toward the BNP. Put simply, the BNP will never be seen as an acceptable option by most voters. As one BNP blogger urged his fellow members, ‘it’s time to wake up’.

But if the BNP declines, the causes which propelled its rise – public anxiety about Islam and immigration and hostility to the political mainstream – remain in place. Since 2001, they have also been joined by a financial crisis, parliamentary expenses scandal and, more recently, seemingly ‘new’ issues such as ‘Muslim sex gangs’. These issues look set to remain salient. Will public concern over them find a new outlet if the BNP falls apart?

Analysts of British politics have long suspected (though never proven) that UKIP is the ‘second home’ for far right voters, and is seen by a larger portion of the electorate as a ‘polite alternative’ to the toxic BNP. Academics suggest that while both parties share a mutual hatred of each other, they are ‘part of the same phenomenon’, and recruit supporters who share a similar profile and are concerned about the same cluster of issues.

Nigel Farage rejects the ‘BNP in Blazers’ tag, but has recently ‘cautiously welcomed’ comparisons with the far more successful radical right model of the French National Front (FN), now led by Marine Le Pen. But is UKIP really all that different from the BNP, and could it join the successful radical right family?

As we show in our study, despite Farage’s protestations the reality is that both UKIP and the BNP are drawing on remarkably similar bases of support. Not only is UKIP well positioned to hoover up the BNP vote, but it is also well placed to attract a broad and relatively diverse coalition of voters, like those mobilised by radical right parties in Austria, France and the Netherlands.

UKIP draws its strongest support from middle-aged, financially insecure men who formerly identified with the Conservatives. While these voters are of course very hostile to the EU, UKIP is not simply a haven for Eurosceptics. Contrary to what many Conservatives might like to believe, UKIP is not a single-issue party. It is also successful attracting to its banner Britons who are hostile toward immigration, feel threatened by Islam, and disaffected with the mainstream parties.

Indeed, we find two very different kinds of UKIP supporters. On one side are ‘strategic defectors’, who vote UKIP at European elections, but then return to the Conservatives at domestic general elections where more is at stake. These voters tend to be more economically secure, more middle class and motivated mainly by their Euroscepticism. On the other side, however, are the ‘core loyalists’ who vote UKIP in Westminster elections as well as European Parliament polls. It is the ‘core loyalists’ who have most in common with BNP supporters: they are poorer, more working class and more dissatisfied with the main parties. This electorate resembles those voting for far more successful radical right parties elsewhere in Europe.

UKIP also has an important advantage over the BNP – it is not tainted by a violent, fascist past. Free of extremist baggage, it is able to appeal to groups of voters such as women who regard the BNP as unacceptably extreme. Evidence of UKIP’s broader appeal can already be seen: it won nearly twice as many votes as the BNP at the 2010 general election; and nearly three times as many votes at the 2009 European elections.

So what does all this mean for the Conservatives? It suggests UKIP has now emerged as a potent competitor on two very different fronts. On the one hand, UKIP is tapping into widespread Conservative scepticism about Europe to win over large numbers of Tory voters at European Parliament elections. But in Westminster elections, UKIP is also attracting a very different following. The party is becoming an outlet for the frustrations of voters who are angry about rising immigration, anxious over the presence of ‘threatening’ Muslim communities, and cynical about mainstream politics, but repelled by the BNP’s reputation for racism and fascism. For example, more than seven out of every ten UKIP voters in our sample agreed councils allow immigrants to jump the queue for social housing, believe immigration has not helped the economy, and do not trust their local MP. Also, almost two thirds think Islam poses a serious danger to Western civilization.

If UKIP chooses to embrace this electorate, its future looks bright: continued public concern over immigration, growing anxiety over settled Muslim communities; and continuing popular outrage over issues like bankers’ bonuses provide a rich array of domestic issues to capitalise upon. Clearly, UKIP is aware of the potential appeal of radical right messages: like the BNP, at the general election it advocated a halt on immigration (via a five year freeze), the ending of policies to promote multiculturalism and bans on the burka and niqab. It also invited the Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders over to show an anti-Islam film in the House of Lords.

UKIP has already demonstrated the electoral power of Euroscepticism in the last European Parliament elections, where it overtook Labour to secure second place. If the party chooses to focus on a broader populist agenda - embracing the concerns of voters buffeted by economic insecurity, alarmed by the challenges of immigration and Islam and hostile to a Westminster elite they see as complacent and out of touch - they could also prove a potent competitor to the mainstream parties in domestic elections.

The established parties ignore this challenge at the peril – in recent years populist right wing parties have pulled off dramatic victories across Europe, dramatically altering the political landscape in longstanding bastions of moderation such as the Netherlands and Sweden. One day soon, UKIP might pull off the same trick here.


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