Posted on October 21, 2009

Analysis of a Party–What the BNP List Says About Its Members

Robert Booth, Simon Rogers and Paul Lewis, Guardian (Manchester), Oct. 20, 2009

The leak of a British National party membership database provides a detailed anatomy of an organisation whose growing public profile means that this week it will enjoy the most prominent platform in its history when Nick Griffin, its leader, appears on Question Time on BBC1.

The BNP’s constitution states it is “committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring, by legal changes, negotiation and consent the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948”. The party also proposes “firm but voluntary incentives for immigrants and their descendants to return home”. Only last week did it agree to alter its overtly racist constitution which bans non-whites from joining. But who are the people who join such an organisation and who does Griffin represent?

This morning BNP officials began scouring the document but could not confirm or deny whether it is genuine. According to the Guardian’s analysis of the available data a typical supporter is likely to be called David, John, Paul or Michael and he is likely to have a “standard” membership which means he has a paying job. The most common names among the BNP’s 2,034 female members are Patricia, Joanne and Karen, and the largest concentration of BNP members is in Charnwood, a Conservative-controlled East Midlands constituency.

If this picture makes the supporter base of the BNP sounds very normal, bland even for a party that concerns so many opponents of far right politics, then that impression will only be reinforced by the different types of membership available, including “family”, “family plus”, “old age pensioner” and “gold”–a £60 membership for members whom Griffin describes as “the elite of the party”.

Not everyone who joins is quite as ordinary as these descriptions suggest. The latest list also reveals that the membership include dozens of doctors, majors, captains and corporals.

BNP spokesman Simon Darby, said today that at first glance the list includes some people who are no longer members and some who have moved abroad. Nick Griffin, the party’s leader, said the list could contain people who have shown an interest in the party but have not become members.

The list does not show as many members as the BNP claims to have. Darby said membership had grown recently, partly as a result of anger at the MPs’ expenses scandal, and has now reached around 14,000. But the data seen by the Guardian, which appears to be a snapshot at the end of April 2009, shows 11,811 members. It is not clear if it is comprehensive and when the list of the BNP’s membership at the end of 2007 list was leaked in November 2008, it showed 12,802 names. Some of those were not full members and had only showed an interest in the party.

But it is the geographical spread of the BNP’s members which is most revealing about where the far right’s power base comes from. The greatest concentrations of BNP membership are in the East Midlands, in the urban areas around the Pennines and in Essex.

Charnwood in Leicestershire is the parliamentary constituency with the largest number of BNP members with 63. The area borders Leicester, one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. The BNP won 3.4% of the vote and came fourth at the 2005 general election more than trebling the party’s share of the vote since 1997. It includes Loughborough’s Soar Valley in the suburbs just north of Leicester, villages from the other bank of the Soar river, Thurmaston to the north-east of Leicester and to the city’s west it covers Glenfield, Ratby and Leicester Forest East.

The BNP has one councillor on Charnwood borough council, Cathy Duffy, who represents the village of East Goscote. The neighbouring constituency of Loughborough is also home to BNP 46 members.

The next membership hotspot is the Pendle constituency in Lancashire, which includes mill towns and villages where many people of south Asian origin have settled. In 2008, the BNP councillor Brian Norton Parker distributed leaflets which alleged: “Muslims are exclusively responsible for the heroin trade.”

Amber Valley in Derbyshire and Ashfield in Nottinghamshire each have 59 members. In a trend that suggests the party’s influence is spreading, if not growing in absolute terms, the fastest growing membership–compared with the data leaked last year–are in areas outside the party’s current heartlands. The number of members in Salisbury in Wiltshire has trebled to 36, while Barnsley Central in Yorkshire has 48, Hastings and Rye in East Sussex have 32, and Orpington in Kent has 25. There have been significant falls in Leeds and Keighly, in Yorkshire, and Carlisle in Cumbria.

The data also appears to shows a party in a constant state of flux with many supporters allowing their memberships to lapse each year.

“What happens is the membership flow acts like a bath with running water and the plug missing,” said Nick Lowles, editor of Searchlight, a magazine which monitors far-right groups. “People join the party, because they’re angry, agitated or curious, but they leave in equal numbers out of the bottom. We believe their turnover rate is far higher than any other political party.”

He said that moles who operate inside the BNP on behalf of Searchlight have said the party’s electoral success in the European elections in June, as well as the recent spurt in media coverage, have not resulted in a surge of support. “My understanding is that their membership hasn’t changed in any great way over the last six to eight months,” said Lowles.

Analysis after the last year’s leak, he continued, showed that the BNP’s membership consisted of mainly middle-aged white men who worked in semi-skilled jobs. Membership lists can, however, give a skewed impression of the BNP’s supporters and voters. “The fact is a that a lot of BNP supporters wouldn’t join a political party,” he said.

Lowles said recent falls in the BNP’s share of the vote at council byelections, including a seat in Barnsley last week, indicated that party’s increased national profile in recent weeks as a result of Griffin’s forthcoming appearance on Question Time was not translating into electoral success.