A lot has been written about who votes for the extreme right-wing British National Party – but little about why more people don’t vote for it. Stephen Ashe examines what the lack of support for the BNP means for anti-racism and anti-fascism.

Between 2001 and 2009, more than 50 BNP councillors were elected and the party also won a seat on the Greater London Assembly (GLA). At its electoral peak, the BNP won two seats in the European Parliament in 2009 after receiving just shy of one million votes.

Over the last four years the BNP has lost all but two of their local council seats and its seat in the GLA. BNP leader Nick Griffin lost his seat in Brussels after the party received only 179,694 votes in the recent European elections. But while the party’s electoral fortunes have waned, the BNP still plays a role in the production and reproduction of racism in Britain.

I spent several months in 2010 talking to local residents in the outer-East London borough of Barking and Dagenham about who they voted for and why. I also spent time watching interactions between political campaigners and local residents.

In 2010, Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism launched the largest anti-racist, anti-fascist mobilisation since the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s. Over 500,000 pieces of literature were distributed in Barking and Dagenham. Powerful images of Swastikas, Adolf Hitler and expressions of admiration for the Nazis or denying the holocaust were used to condemn Nick Griffin and the BNP as fascists, Nazis and racists.

During my time in Outer-East London, the suggestion that the BNP were Nazis and fascists was revealed to be the main reason why many people could not to vote for the BNP. Other reasons for not voting BNP included the poor performance and lack of professionalism of local BNP councillors. Alongside the local and national media, Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism played an important role in ensuring that local residents were aware of these issues.

Yet many of the non-BNP voters I spoke to shared the same views and concerns as BNP voters. Many expressed the same cultural and economic concerns from the same racist standpoint as their BNP counterparts, despite their protestations that they themselves were not racist. This poses an important challenge for anti-racists and anti-fascists.

On the other side of the coin, many BNP voters tried to distance themselves from the BNP by making references to violence, racism, fascism and / or Nazism. Some even drew connections between the BNP and the broader history of extreme right activism in East London. But this did not stop some voters from voting BNP – another significant challenge for anti-racists and anti-fascists!

This evidence suggests that while labelling the BNP as fascists, Nazis and racists does have limitations, the approach is partially effective. In Barking and Dagenham, this was the principal reason in voters’ self-explanations for their rejection of the BNP at the ballot box. At the same time, opponents of the BNP have never suggested that simply pinning fascist, Nazi and racist tails on BNP donkeys would make their electoral threat disappear.

The effectiveness of campaigns that oppose the BNP is usually measured by the number of votes that the party receives. Such a view misrepresents the aims of contemporary anti-racism and anti-fascism. In particular, it overlooks a desire to create a broader culture of anti-racism.

Moving forward, ‘condemnation strategies’ must be bolstered by intensive interventionist, educative, anti-racist work. As well as handing out leaflets with the words fascist, Nazi and racist written on it, time and effort needs to be devoted to sustained local community-based campaigning. This work needs to engage local civil society organisations in a bid to promote an anti-racist ethos and inter-ethnic solidarity. This is particularly important given that many non-BNP voters also hold racist points of view and the pervasive nature of racism more generally.

All too often mainstream political parties have pandered to, and legitimised, the politics of the BNP. If anti-racists and anti-fascists completely abandon ‘strategies of condemnation’, our efforts to build anti-racist political alternatives to the politics of parties and organisations such as the BNP will be limited.

It will hinder our efforts to build political alternatives that are serious about addressing the disadvantage, discrimination, exclusion and inequality experienced by ethnic minorities in Britain (see www.ethnicity.ac.uk/census/).

Most importantly, we will undermine our efforts to establish a broader culture of anti-racism.

– This blog is based on the forthcoming journal article, ‘Attitudinal predictors without guarantees: Why people didn’t vote for the British National Party in 2010’.