What do statistics mean?
Take Vernon Bogdanor’s letter in the LRB. He criticizes David Runciman’s view that the BNP’s showing at the last election was ‘risible’. He cites a rise in their support from 0.74% to 1.9% in 2005, its 26 councillors, and the fact they are now the fifth biggest party in the United Kingdom.
The figures of course are extremely low, and at first glance support Runciman’s point – easily so. However, it could be significant as indicative of a trend: a doubling of support within just five years. Maybe Bogdanor’s right after all, especially when comparing Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, who couldn’t win a council seat.
Still, on second thoughts, I think Runciman is correct, when you look at the broader context.
Both the BNP and the BUF are pretty ugly parties. However, there are significant differences between them. The main one: the BNP promotes itself as a British party. Mosley was copying a foreign model; one, moreover, that was seen as a threat to Britain herself. The two are not comparable.
In the 1930s the political system was very stable, it had legitimacy and the three main parties easily hoovered up the majority of the electorate. Think of the poor performance of the Communists, extraordinary when compared to the continent.
Moreover, one has to understand these phenomena. In his letter Bogdanor says that the BUF were not successful in the 1930s, despite Britain being
…in the midst of a depression, when educational and living standards were far lower.
But Fascism wasn’t a poor man’s creed, and it needed more than a depression for it to be successful:
…its essential base and most important connections were above all among the petty-bourgeois, middle class, and small landholding groups which had been hardest hit by the outcome of the war, the economic crisis, and the structural changes of modern society. (Karl Dietrich Bracher)
J.P. Stern in his classic study of Hitler makes the point that the rise of the Nazis was within a culture that had no “stable liberal tradition”, and they were able to use extremist politics and imagery that was part of that culture.
Mosley, fortunately, didn’t have a chance. He was a toff too.
Fast forward to 2010. The political system is in crisis, with real fears about its legitimacy, reflected in increasing numbers moving away from the two main parties – seen more clearly in the European elections, where there are no worries about ‘wasted votes’.
The mass party for the poor is sacrificing the interests of its core vote; while the right wing press blitz us with anti-immigrant and anti-Europe tirades…. one would think a party appealing to the working class and for Britain and British values, and clean of the political corruption, might be attractive.
Despite this the BNP has a very small share of the vote, even with the extra publicity – which one assumes would increase the number of people voting for them (advertising works, after all).
British voters it appears still prefer their politics mainstream. And so Runciman is right, given the context, the BNP’s performance was risible.
But a word of warning. Bogdanor’s quote about educational and living standards shows a prejudice, shared by a lot of liberal comment. Most people vote for parties perceived to be in their interest, a perception built up over many years (see my previous post – Listen to Me!). They don’t vote a particular way because they are stupid or idiotic – a trait shared across the classes. The working classes didn’t vote on mass for the BUF in the 1930s because it had a party that represented its interests. But what happens if there are no mainstream parties that do so? Isn’t the rational choice to vote for one that does? In a generation it is possible that the BNP, or a similar party, could get a sizeable share of the vote, but that will because of the failure of the three main parties, and the Left wing alternatives – their failure to address the issues and concerns of those dispossessed by our society.