Far-Right Party Strains to Hang On in Britain
WYTHENSHAWE, England — At the time, it was hailed by its leader as a huge breakthrough in British politics.
One of the most extreme of England’s far-right parties, the British National Party, won two seats in the European Parliament in 2009, just as populist anger, fueled by the recession and anti-immigrant sentiment, prompted voters to look beyond the mainstream.
Five years later, while far-right groups prosper in other parts of Europe, the British National Party is on the edge of political oblivion. It has been riven by infighting, and it stood by as the United Kingdom Independence Party, a populist upstart, stole much of its appeal. Its leader, Nick Griffin, is in the news now mostly because of a dispute with his former lawyers that left him bankrupt. And the party faces crucial tests, first in an election this week for a vacant seat in the British Parliament and then in defending Mr. Griffin’s seat in the European Parliament in May.
Its struggles are in stark contrast to the success of several right-wing groups elsewhere in Europe that have taken advantage of the international economic crisis. Golden Dawn, in Greece, and Jobbik, in Hungary, have raised their profiles, while in France the National Front has reinvented itself under a new leader, Marine Le Pen.
But the British National Party’s experience shows how parties on the outer edges of politics — especially those lacking organization, discipline and a popular leader — can fall as fast as they rise.
“The B.N.P. has been edging ever closer to political irrelevance, having been distracted by bitter infighting and rejected by the voters,” said Matthew Goodwin, associate professor of politics at the University of Nottingham. The party, which in 2009 won more than 6 percent of the vote in the European Parliament election, now routinely fails to register in opinion polls. Its collapse is all the more striking, he said, because “if there were ever a climate for the B.N.P., this is it.”
The party now has only one or two politicians on local councils, said Mr. Griffin, who acknowledged that he might lose his seat in the European elections in May.
“We are in defensive mode,” he said on a recent car trip to the European Parliament in Brussels. “We were in survival mode for a couple of years. We have clearly survived.” Mr. Griffin insisted that his is “the only nationalist party that is actually, genuinely in the game.”
That hypothesis will be tested on Thursday in Wythenshawe and Sale East, suburbs of Manchester, where the death of a lawmaker has prompted a by-election for a parliamentary seat. In the 2010 general election for the same seat, the British National Party outpolled the United Kingdom Independence Party, finishing fourth over all.
According to the British National Party’s candidate, Eddy O’Sullivan, people here “feel their identities have been stolen, particularly in the Islamic areas of the city.” A woman on a Wythenshawe street who would give only her first name, Claire, agreed, complaining of “immigrants coming in and taking all our jobs and housing.”
But in the covered market, Shaun McClabe, working at a fish counter, and Ronke Ohonyon, at an African-Caribbean food stall, said they had never heard of the British National Party.
In May, voters here in northwestern England will also help decide whether Mr. Griffin keeps his European Parliament seat. If he loses, he said, at least he will regain his status as a political outsider — a recognition that being a European lawmaker might have hindered his cause.
The party flopped in elections for the British Parliament in 2010, in part because of Britain’s “first past the post” electoral system, which squeezes out smaller parties.
Internal feuding played a part, too. In 2012, Andrew Brons, a party member who was also elected to the European Parliament in 2009, accused Mr. Griffin of having “destroyed” the party. Mr. Brons, who later founded a rival party but retained his Parliament seat, claimed Mr. Griffin had described him as “vermin” and a “state agent.” (Mr. Griffin says he was referring to Mr. Brons’s associates, not to Mr. Brons.)
If the mood inside the party was poisonous, it was uglier on the streets. By steering the British National Party away from confrontation and toward electoral politics, Mr. Griffin allowed a more aggressive nationalist organization, the English Defense League, to gain a foothold. Insults were exchanged as Mr. Griffin derided the group’s founder, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, as a “big girl’s blouse.”
Though educated at Cambridge University, Mr. Griffin, who lives in Wales with two Rottweilers, seems to relish this sort of politics. “Yes, it was personal,” he said. “He was calling me a Nazi. I have never been a Hitlerite Nazi, never, ever, ever. We pointed out that he was a neocon Zionist puppet.”
The success of the nationalist league was short-lived. Mr. Yaxley-Lennon, who was convicted in 2012 of using a false passport to travel to the United States, left the group and was sentenced to 18 months in prison for mortgage fraud. And the British National Party’s core working-class support started drifting back to the Labour Party, which, no longer leading the government, moved to the right on immigration and focused on the cost of living.
Then came the upsurge of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which opposes immigration and Britain’s membership in the European Union while stressing its opposition to racism. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has carved out an affable image in a country where, because of World War II, right-wing extremism is viewed with suspicion.
“People see UKIP as far more mainstream than the B.N.P.,” said Matthew Collins of Hope Not Hate, a group that campaigns against the far right. “You don’t have to worry about going to the pub and being ridiculed.”
By contrast, Mr. Griffin seems to revel in being the pariah. He once suggested sinking the boats of migrants heading for Europe. Criticized in 2009 for describing David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, as a “nonviolent” figure, he refuses to discuss his views on the Holocaust. If he did, he said, he would be “at risk of being extradited to Germany.”
As for his party’s future, Mr. Griffin says he is biding his time until the Independence Party’s star wanes. In the meantime, in Wythenshawe and Sale East, where Labour is favored to hold the seat, the bookies are giving the British National Party odds of 500 to 1.
The party’s candidate, Mr. O’Sullivan, is not planning to bet. He is “not expecting a miracle,” he said.