Page last updated at 14:02 GMT, Sunday, 4 May 2008 15:02 UK

BNP gains from Labour disaffection

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Richard Barnbrook
Richard Barnbrook is now the BNP's highest profile elected politician

The British National Party has won its first seat in the London Assembly - but what does that result mean?

For the past 10 years there have been predictions that the British National Party (BNP) could achieve a major electoral breakthrough - but at the end of each election the picture has been mixed and open to interpretation.

The BNP and its supporters are cheering the success of Richard Barnbrook's election to the London Assembly, but it was a tight race - and tighter than a lot of people had feared.

Mr Barnbook was elected because he passed the critical 5% mark required for a seat from the city-wide list.

This is a form of proportional representation that balances constituency results with each party's overall tally in the capital. But the senior BNP man only just made it, scraping in with 5.3%.

The party says its tally of councillors has reached an important barrier of 100 - although that includes parish or community councillors who have no real power.

The BBC estimates that as of the May 2008 elections outcome, the party has seen 56 councillors elected - however thanks to differing interpretations of defections, splits and at least one exclusion, it's rather difficult to come up with an exact figure.

But the number is perhaps not as important as looking at the share of the vote.

There can be a world of difference between a point of importance for a small party and a genuine gathering of electoral steam.

The party's average share of the vote across the seats where it has stood in each election has not topped 20% since 2000.

Its elected councillors represent less than 1% of all those in the UK. The gains on the night, beyond the headline-grabbing result in London, were short expectations.

Nevertheless, 130,000 people supported the idea of a BNP assembly member in London - and the party has a toehold in a handful of councils around the country.

Unite Against Fascism, an anti-BNP pressure group, has done its own electoral analysis which shows that the number of votes per elected councillor has steadily increased over the past eight years.

So what lies behind this? The BNP's strategy has increasingly seen it focus not just on fears of immigration, but also on a subtle blend of tensions relating to feelings of disregarded "entitlement" in communities that would have long been considered core Labour supporters.

You may have your religion behind your closed doors but you don't bring it onto the streets
Richard Barnbrook, BNP

MPs in communities that have seen the most change from immigration in recent years have warned about this for some time.

John Cruddas, an east London Labour MP, has warned more than once that the frontline is housing.

When the BNP claims on the doorstep that local folk are losing out to newcomers, the main parties have found it difficult to explain the intricate realities of a system that is targeted at the very poorest in society.

Tension over churning Eastern European migration, particularly a fear of competition for the lowest-skilled jobs, has not helped.

To make matters worse, no politician can honestly provide voters with hard facts about migration - for historical reasons, the data and statistics just do not answer many of the questions people want answering.

The BNP has targeted these fears - but has also sought to moderate its message. The party used to talk purely in terms of sending people "home".

Tapping into anger

Richard Barnbrook's language in London was different, couching an anti-immigration pitch in terms of "fitting in" with British society - the target being Muslims.

"You may have your religion behind your closed doors, but you don't bring it onto the streets," he said.

"You can be gay behind closed doors, you can be heterosexual behind closed doors, but you don't bring it onto the streets, demanding more rights for it."

Critics would say this is laughable in a city like London - arguably the most important city in the world because it is home to such as extraordinary range of different people.

But if the BNP has found a way of tapping into anger - particularly among those who would not necessarily always vote, then a different view of London is revealed.

The future

The question is what happens next?

In more than one area the BNP has found its support drain away very quickly as councillors have been accused of incompetence or worse.

The party's vote in Sandwell in the West Midlands halved on Thursday - almost certainly because of a row over one BNP member who was ejected for not doing his job.

The key to understanding the BNP's attraction is perhaps more easily found in places like Nuneaton, which Labour lost after three decades of control.

The BNP did not sweep to power - but it won two councillors. Up and down the country the party appears to make very small gains when traditional Labour voters stay at home.

But when those voters come out, its vote is very quickly squeezed.

Dominic Casciani covers Home Affairs for the BBC and is a specialist in minority communities in the UK.





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THE ELECTION RESULTS
COUNCIL RESULTS
  Councillors Councils
Party +/- Total +/- Total
CON 257 3155 12 65
LAB -334 2365 -9 18
LD 33 1804 1 12
PC 31 205 -1 0
OTH 10 898 0 0
NOC - - -3 64
159 of 159 councils declared.

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Overall results
Name Party Votes
Johnson CON 1,168,738
Livingstone LAB 1,028,966
Paddick LD 878,097
Berry GRN 409,101

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London Assembly Results
Overall results
Party Constit' Top-up Total seats
CON 8 3 11
LAB 6 2 8
LD 0 3 3
GRN 0 2 2
BNP 0 1 1

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