Although in the May 2003 local elections the British National Party (BNP) achieved the biggest fascist vote since the late 1970s - its 221 candidates polled around 100,000 votes - it failed to achieve the electoral breakthrough it had been hoping for.
The BNP won a total of 13 seats, seven of them in Burnley alone. In Sunderland none of its candidates were elected but the party won over 13,000 votes.
There is a widespread view that BNP support is concentrated among former Labour voters in declining industrial areas. The reality is more complex than this. In Halifax, where the BNP won the Mixenden council by-election in January this year, BNP support ran highest in traditionally Tory villages. Similarly, in the May elections, BNP candidates in the north west were often most successful not in working class Labour strongholds but in better off wards like the Briercliffe, Cliverger and Worsthorne areas of Burnley, which recorded the highest BNP votes in the town, or in the relatively affluent ward of Royton North, where the party achieved its biggest score in Oldham. Likewise, the BNP won nearly 50 percent of the vote in Broxbourne, a middle class Tory area of suburban Hertfordshire. In Sunderland the BNP made significant inroads, but the Labour vote also rose.
This is not to deny that the BNP is also picking up votes in working class areas and from former Labour supporters. But the diverse nature of its electoral support needs to be underlined because it reflects the tensions which underpin fascist organisations. For example, the BNP constantly stresses the need for its members to reflect the concerns of ordinary people. Yet the leadership's outlook is steeped in the aspirational management-speak of the bosses and line managers who make their lives a misery.
The disparity between 'populist' electoral propaganda and the nature of fascist party organisation is an important characteristic of the modern European far right. In France, for example, Le Pen's Front National (FN) has consistently picked up votes from workers and the unemployed. But its hard-core electoral support has been shown to be overwhelmingly middle class in origin. The same is true when it comes to translating votes into membership. The FN has failed to build in the unions and its leading members range from small businessmen to millionaires like Le Pen or graduates from elite universities.
The BNP has a long way to go before it can boast a party organisation as sophisticated as the FN's. Its membership has grown to a few thousand but its attempts to organise large gatherings have yet to draw together more than around three or four hundred people at any one time. The gamble the BNP has embarked upon is as follows. In seeking local election victories as a stepping stone to success in European and general elections it has staked everything on creating a respectable image. To this end it has toned down some of its propaganda, dropping calls for the compulsory repatriation of immigrants, and has adopted an official policy of avoiding confrontation with the left. This does not mean that the party has become any more moderate. Its goal is to turn electoral support into a fascist hard core which means masking its real aims behind what it calls a 'minimalist programme'.
The strategy means that the BNP is engaged in a constant struggle to keep its fascist hard core under control. The anti-fascist campaign unleashed in 1993 following the election of the BNP's Derek Beackon in the Isle of Dog offers an example of how the strategy can be knocked off course. Mass mobilisations, including a major march on the BNP's headquarters in Welling, along with a concerted canvassing campaign in the area, meant that Beackon lost his seat in 1994, throwing the BNP into confusion.
Although the BNP nationally is in a stronger position than in 1993, the tension between its fascist hard core and its electoral ambitions remains. Continued success may prevent these conflicts from exploding, but anti-fascist activity which is able to put obstacles in the way of its electioneering and disrupt the party's ability to hold meetings and to organise can stop the fascists from turning electoral support into membership and provoke internal ructions. The BNP vote has reached a level which will not fade away overnight. But the recent anti-fascist campaigns in Oldham and Sunderland - the towns, along with Burnley, with the most BNP candidates - indicate that it can be prevented from winning seats. The 1990s showed that in Britain, as in France, consistent and resolute opposition to fascist parties can breed infighting among their divergent component parts.