Three local comrades are sat in a McDonald's. In come eight men who, before occupying their seats directly behind them, each buy a Happy Meal. So who were these oddballs? They were the eight remaining members of Stoke-on-Trent's British National Party. Yes, remember them? It was only a few short years ago that the party - along with Stoke City FC and Robbie Williams - were counted among the city's three biggest claims to fame. Over the last decade, it had picked up nine councillors. It came within a whisker of taking the elected mayoralty. They were barely off the front page of the local rag, and Nazi Nick himself dubbed Stoke "the jewel in the BNP's crown". And now it is reduced to eating brightly packaged food for the under-10s. How did this happen?
When Brons and Griffin were packed off to Brussels in 2009, I'm sure they weren't the only ones who'd thought the BNP had hit the big time. A discredited Labour government was stumbling toward a heavy election defeat, and the Tories were in the full flush of hug-a-huskyism. Then, as now, the press and broadcast media was rammed with anti-immigrant scaremongering. Yet the fascists' hopes for 2010 were thwarted. Their parliamentary candidacies went nowhere and they suffered severe reverses in the local authority contests held on the same day. They were checked because, on the whole, the general election is the one that "matters". People file to the polling booths to cast a ballot for the government of their choice, not to protest. So yes, everywhere the BNP stood their candidates recorded modest increases but on the whole, their support stuck to the parties they knew. Unfortunately for the BNP, their toe-tip advance was prelude to a total rout.
UKIP disproportionately benefit from Tory disenchantment. The BNP drank the anti-politics run off from Labour. But here there is a significant difference. UKIP is drawing on dozens of small scale splits from the Conservative Party proper - a councillor here, an association chair there. UKIP's story is part of the historic decomposition of Conservatism. The BNP on the other hand did not thrive the same way. In the main, they spoke to and temporarily won over the most backward sections of working class people. The lumpen and semi-lumpenised, those anxious about
This left the BNP particularly vulnerable to the political winds. With the Tories in and Labour out of power, what's the point in protesting against the opposition?* The rug was torn from underneath the BNP, politics had undergone its periodic polar reversal. Hence in the by-elections following May 2010, and at the 2011 local elections the BNP's (anti-Tory) vote returned back to Labour.
Political tectonics precipitated the BNP's fall. More often than not, when other (second order) elections are held on the same day as a general, candidates standing for the main parties do better than in "off" years. General elections push turnouts up, and those accustomed to only voting every four or five years tend to vote for their preferred party of government in secondary contests. This can sink smaller parties, and the BNP proved no different. Bloodied and smarting from hitting an electoral brick wall the BNP's rotten internals spilled out in messy leadership challenges, expulsions, splits, and scandals. The discipline of success caved like a soggy souffle as factional battles had free rein. Many fash simply gave up and the softer, gullible layer quietly "forgot" to renew their subs. Of course, being an open member of the BNP has its personal costs too. Is that a price worth paying when your party's going nowhere, when it hasn't won a single council seat or chalked up any success at all since its 2009 high point? The majority of the BNP's membership thought "no".
The BNP in Stoke built up its position by faithfully applying the "suits, not boots" strategy. It put out rasping, ranting racist fare but also posed as community champions, as the authentic voice of white working class Stokies "let down" by Labour councillors who couldn't be bothered to knock on doors even at election time. If there was a gap in council services, the BNP's activism would plug the gap. Hence former leading figure Steve "Bin Bag" Batkin regularly knocked around his ward litter picking, helping with small household repairs and offering ornithology tips. Alby and Ellie Walker, the former fascist "power couple" kept a handle on their Abbey Hulton fiefdom by substituting themselves for the City Council's meals on wheels. Them leaflets through the door might have the BNP down as goose-stepping holocaust-denying morons, but they were handy with the flatpack furniture.
Stoke BNP began careening in early 2009, before the European elections. A small scale split involved the party's branch secretary, Craig Pond and his henchman Terry Cope. Pond (who by coincidence, features in this week's Weekly Worker) fell out with the local BNP because both were, how shall we say, a bit "unreconstructed". That and, bizarrely, as a fascist interested in nuts and bolts policies Pond was frustrated that the party was only interested in general propaganda. His politics were best characterised by racism and library opening times. It was a crack, but as the BNP were still on the up it didn't appear to matter. The election came and went and in preparation for 2010, the local party picked Alby Walker - its council group leader - to contest the Stoke Central seat, where six of the BNP's nine councillors had their wards. However, as Griffin and his lieutenants believed this was the BNP's best bet of getting into Parliament, he unilaterally imposed himself on Barking, which was hitherto Richard Barnbrook's (remember him?) fiefdom. Griffin's lackey in the West Midlands, Simon Darby did the same in Stoke and Alby was turfed out. And so, hours after Griffin launched the BNP's 2010 campaign in Stoke Alby announced his resignation and decision to contest Stoke Central too. While that was the real reason, Walker's "good reason" was his discovery that the BNP were a bit racist. Yes, he really did say that.
The election challenges came to nought, and the BNP lost four seats in the simultaneous council elections. It wasn't long before Ellie Walker also packed it in and made the leap from the fascist far right to the leftish (short-lived) Community Voice party. And come 2011 the national swing to Labour put paid to the remainder. Michael Coleman, Stoke BNP's "brains" since got a little bit of notoriety for saying racist things on the internet, but as an organisation they're broken. Coleman's "normal bloke" image hasn't been enough to prevent the jewel in the crown from disintegrating like a sherbet lemon. Even dear old Bin Bag has reportedly given up fascist politics and is now, apparently, a reformed character. In the two Stoke by-elections since 2011 the BNP have come nowhere, the mantle of anti-politics having passed firmly not to UKIP (as elsewhere) but the ragtag-and-bobtail City Independent group. So, while there are local dynamics pushing the BNP down these have not been decisive factors in their decline. National politics have done for them.
Could the BNP ever come back though? You should never say never in politics. If the Tories get back in in 2015 it's unlikely. Their fortunes are better served by having Labour in power. Yet the dynamics on the ground are likely to be much different. UKIP are trying to corner the anti-politics vote, and might do well under Labour too. But they cannot feed off Labour in the same way they do the Tories. It will be a bottom feeding operation, picking up disenchanted and alienated votes as the BNP did last decade. With broadly similar messages to UKIP, a now-fragmented far right, and possible electoral competition from the far left in the shape of TUSC and Left Unity with any luck they'll remain a political relic - and a warning to Labour to never neglect its core areas again.
* An understanding lost on TUSC, but not the working class voters they claim to be the vanguard of.