Poaching populists: is UKIP rising as a phoenix from the ashes of BNP support?

10438765746_e96d4b2bc8_hLaura Mackenzie‘s new article for POP investigates the different results of UKIP and the British National Party over time. What does explain their opposite degrees of normalization and success within the British political landscape?

We are saying to BNP voters, if you are voting BNP because you are frustrated, upset with the change in your community, but you are doing it holding your nose, because you don’t agree with their racist agenda, come and vote for us”. Thus spake Nigel Farage, leader of the UK’s largest populist party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), in 2014.

Since then, Farage has claimed to have taken a third of supporters from the populist radical right British National Party (BNP), and his party is enjoying its highest ever level of support since its creation in 1993, having received over 12% of the national vote (nearly 4 million votes) at the general election held on 7th May 2015.  In contrast, the BNP received just over 1,500 votes, down 99.7% since the last general election in 2010.  Is this downward trend in support for the BNP evidence that UKIP has made good on its promises to be the voice of those who are “frustrated [and] upset with the change in [their] community”?  Or has this declining interest merely indicated an inability of the BNP to achieve lasting political and social legitimacy?

The BNP was formed in 1982, based on the principles of the original National Front: national sovereignty; withdrawal from the European Economic Community; a reconfiguration of the British Commonwealth into an association of white ethnic groups; enforced repatriation of non-Europeans; economic nationalism; etc.  The party failed to make any headway throughout the Margaret Thatcher years in the 1980s and early 1990s, with collective support for the far right averaging at approximately 1% during this period.  The party was characterised by an incoherent electoral strategy, contesting elections sporadically and finding support inconsistent at the local level (in 1984, a BNP candidate polled almost 12% of the vote in a council by-election in Sunderland, in the north of England; in contrast, in a by-election in Plymouth in the south in the same year, another candidate received only 15 votes).

4038721781_4f90384b75_mThis sort of erratic electoral behaviour continued into the 1990s, when the BNP won its first council seat in Tower Hamlets, London, in 1993.  This buoyed the party, with the leader at the time, John Tyndall, referring to this success as a political earthquake. The success of the local council election led to widespread condemnation of the party from the national press, politicians, church leaders and police chiefs, who referred to the party as the ‘nasty party’ and as racists.  Commentators and academics put forth many reasons for this unexpected success, citing the insularity of white voters in the region and the alleged legitimisation of racism as an electoral platform that had been encouraged by mainstream political parties.

The concern that this success might herald a new wave of support for the far right was short-lived, however, with support for the BNP in the region halving to 4.5% only four years later.  Internal divisions within the local party and defections to the violent neo-Nazi protest movement, Combat 18, resulted in decreasing support and chaos within the local branch. This disorganisation became apparent throughout the national party, with electoral support falling and membership dropping to only a few hundred.

With this fracturing came, inevitably, a leadership contest. The first ever leadership election in 1999 saw Nick Griffin take the helm, with approximately 70% of the vote, and with the new millennium came a new, modernised BNP.  Despite a dubious past where he was associated with the ‘skinhead scene’ and National Socialism, Griffin was determined to transform the culture of the party into that of a legitimate political party.

With this came a public rejection of previous violent tactics, referred to as ‘careless extremism’ by Griffin, replaced with respectability and a desire to present the core, still revolutionary, message of the party in less controversial ways.

This new approach included moderating the political language used, as the French Front National had done just the year before, and dropping the old discourse. Overtly racist language was replaced with the concepts of freedom, democracy and identity, and the political style (although, crucially, not the core ideology) of the BNP became modelled on a form of national populism.

4056558744_3e04beeed3_nThe new, measured approach drew increased media attention, particularly from the BBC, and Nick Griffin appeared on high-rating TV programmes such as Newsnight, and the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. In addition, the party saw electoral returns, with the BNP taking local council seats in areas outside London: in Kent in the south and Burnley in the north.  By 2003, the party had no less than 13 councillors: only a decade before there was just one councillor.

With a steadily growing support, the BNP went into the 2004 European Parliament elections confident that the party could win in five seats across England. Despite an increase in support of nearly 4%, the party failed to take any seats. However, party support continued to grow and the BNP secured a seat on the London Assembly in 2008 with 5.3% of the vote. At the European Parliament elections the following year, the party increased its share by 1.3% and returned two MEPs: the party leader, Nick Griffin, for the North West England region and Andrew Brons for Yorkshire and the Humber. In addition, the party secured three county council seats in Lancashire in the north, Leicestershire in the Midlands, and Hertfordshire in the south, heralding what would be referred to as an electoral breakthrough by the party and media alike.

The party had capitalised on widespread fears about immigration, and had offered an alternative to disillusioned voters seeking a protest vote after the scandal concerning MPs’ expenses claims. A decade after Griffin had taken over leadership of the party, the BNP was at the height of its electoral success. This, however, was short lived.

Despite fielding a record number of candidates at the 2010 general election, the party failed to win any seats and, instead, lost all 12 of its local councillors in Barking. Following the election, concerns over Griffin’s leadership and party finances grew and the ensuing infighting resulted in a leadership contest between the party’s two MEPs, Griffin and Brons. Griffin narrowly beat Brons to secure his position as incumbent leader, and Brons resigned from the party the following year, leaving Griffin the sole MEP.

At the European Parliament elections in 2014, Griffin lost both his European Parliament seat and his position as party leader. Just three months later, he was expelled from the party following allegations that he had been attempting to create disunity, and had brought the party into disrepute. Following a general election in 2015, where the party contested only eight parliamentary seats and received just a handful of votes, party membership is at an all-time low and the BNP appears to be defunct.

3551186591_e24fd0c753_nIn contrast, the UK’s largest populist party, UKIP, has seen electoral support steadily increasing since the party’s European breakthrough in 2004, where the party won 12 seats. At the 2009 European Parliament elections, UKIP gained one seat and in 2014, the party won the largest share of the UK vote in the European Parliament elections, increasing its support by over 10% and returning a total of 24 MEPs.

UKIP has also seen steadily increasing support over successive general elections. The most recent election in 2015 saw the party  coming third in terms of vote share, with over 12% although, due to the First Past the Post electoral system and the spread of votes across the county, this only translated into one MP being returned to the House of Commons.

A ‘hard’ Eurosecptic party, UKIP has successfully exploited anti-EU sentiment in the British electorate and has capitalised on the growing unpopularity of the main political parties. UKIP’s commitment to UK withdrawal from the EU has found support amongst sections of the electorate and this, combined with its anti-party position, has resulted in greater salience amongst voters who have felt dissatisfied with mainstream British politics. Unsurprisingly, UKIP has consistently done better at European elections than it has domestically. This is, in part, due to the proportional system used for European elections, which makes it easier for smaller parties to win seats than the system of simple plurality used for general elections. In addition, the ‘second order’ model of European elections has seen UKIP receiving a greater protest vote than it has domestically, with many voters seeking to register their dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.

However, the party’s popularity has remained strong and UKIP has sought to move beyond its single-issue status and develop a more coherent set of domestic policies, whilst keeping Euroscepticism as its core ideological component. Following the 2014 European Parliament elections, where UKIP attracted over 4 million voters, the mainstream parties and the media assured the electorate that this was merely a protest vote where voters were registering their dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties’ position on Europe: the Prime Minister said that he had received the message “loud and clear”.  However, support for the party continued to grow to almost 15% prior to the 2015 general election; in addition, UKIP successfully challenged two by-elections, following defections of MPs from the Conservative party to UKIP. The general election on 7th May saw the party achieve its best result in a general election, with over 12% of the national vote and almost 4 million voters showing support for UKIP.

This came amidst frequent scandals exposed in the media, with claims of sexual harassment and homophobic and generally offensive remarks levelled at senior party members and parliamentary candidates, and expense claims abuses proving embarrassing for several UKIP MEPs. However, these revelations seemingly did nothing to damage support for the party, with academic and media commentators alike referring to the party as ‘Teflon’, because none of the negative allegations seemed to stick.


14088303967_28af5c9c55_nIt is in this ability to shrug off scandal and a negative image that we see the first real difference between UKIP and the BNP
.  At first glance, and with UKIP’s active courting of BNP voters (despite Nigel Farage’s entreaty in 2014 for BNP voters to cast their vote for UKIP, the party has been trying to attract BNP supporters since 2011, when it became apparent that the BNP was imploding following several by-elections), it seems there is some acknowledgment on the part of UKIP that the party shares common ground with the BNP.

Certainly, both parties have drawn their greatest support from those who consider themselves “left behind”: those voters who are older, male, white and working class with very few educational qualifications, if any.  Both the BNP and UKIP have played on the idea that ‘ordinary people’ (the bedrock of all populist rhetoric) are being betrayed by the political elites: they are paying too much in tax, they are being dictated to by outsiders and foreigners, and they are becoming isolated in their own countries.   Both BNP and UKIP voters are hostile to the EU and concerned about immigration, and both feel disaffected with mainstream politics.

However, voters are keenly aware of parties’ reputations. UKIP is considered legitimate, whereas the BNP is viewed as unacceptable. 62% of voters at the 2009 European Parliament elections held ‘very negative’ feelings towards the BNP but only 19% felt the same way about UKIP. In addition, the collective criticism from media and mainstream politicians of UKIP as racist, homophobic and sexist has served to cement the ‘us and them’ position of the party, portraying the accusers as bullies and UKIP as victim.

With mainstream parties engaging with the immigration issue, it is no longer de rigeur to equate the politicising of immigration with racism.  The attempt by the mainstream parties and media to do so only serves to confirm in the minds of UKIP voters (who do not consider themselves racist) that there is an insidious agenda against their party of choice.

Similarly, allegations of racism levelled at the BNP do not affect supporters’ perceptions of the party.  However, in contrast to UKIP, the BNP subscribes to a form of ethnic nationalism which views British identity in terms of race and ancestry, a notion firmly rooted in its fascist past. In addition, open racism is widespread amongst BNP supporters. As a result, BNP supporters are not generally put off by the allegations of racism. Crucially, however, the BNP has failed to attract a wider electorate and those ‘ordinary people’ to whom the party seeks to appeal tend to favour the more legitimate xenophobia of UKIP than the overtly racist BNP.

17063788516_bd2f9fc520_hOf course, there is a wealth of debate over how one should categorise racism in terms of UKIP’s policies and rhetoric. Is it any less racist to suggest that unemployed EU migrants are after the jobs of hard working Brits? Or to actively reject multiculturalism as a force leading to “alarming fragmentation”? Nonetheless, the unconcealed racism of the BNP (whose ‘modernist’ leader, Nick Griffin, holds a conviction for “publishing or distributing racially inflammatory written material”, and the party banned black and Asian people from membership until it was forced to change its position by law) sets it apart from the hard Eurosceptic UKIP.

UKIP has long distanced itself from the BNP and the parties have very different histories and values.  However, UKIP has clearly seen in BNP voters an electorate to be exploited. Farage estimates that his party has poached a third of the BNP’s vote, clearly appealing to a demographic that considers itself marginalised by an ‘international’ political elite. Simultaneously, the party has widened its appeal beyond the angry, white, male voter and has succeeded in taking support from the centre-right Conservative party and the centre-left Labour party alike.

UKIP’s electoral success in both European and domestic elections has cemented its status as the legitimate populist party of the UK. The BNP has all but disappeared from the political scene, its inability to appeal to a wider electoral audience evident in its pitiful showing in both the European Parliament election of 2014 and the general election of 2015. Given Farage’s desire to attract voters away from the BNP, we can assume that UKIP has only benefitted from the BNP’s marked decline.

Having successfully secured social and political legitimacy, in a way the BNP could only wish for, UKIP seems now to be rising as a populist phoenix from the ashes of its radical right rival. Whether the Eurosceptic UKIP brand will retain its salience, however, in light of Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempts to renegotiate terms with the EU prior to holding an in-out referendum on EU membership is a question still to be answered.


Laura MacKenzie

Laura MacKenzie

Born and educated in Scotland, Laura MacKenzie is now a final-year PhD student at the University of Leicester.  Her research interests include populism and the radical right, with a specific focus on the European Parliament. Her PhD thesis concerns the behaviour of populist MEPs over time, since the first parliament in 1979.

For POP she already published an interview to Susanna Steptoe, UKIP candidate.

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