Friday, July 01 2016

‘No Extremists Please- We’re British!’

BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast a programme inquiring into why far right extremists have not made significant gains in the UK in contrast to the steady growth of their counterparts in Europe.

In ‘No Extremists Please- We’re British!’ Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission looked at why “anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-EU parties are on the march in Europe and why such fervour has never quite gripped the UK in the same way.

Phillips began in Barking and Dagenham, the parliamentary constituency in London where the far-right British National Party (BNP) have had both their ‘greatest triumph’ and their ‘most crushing defeat’. Phillips spoke to Margaret Hodge, the MP who led Labour’s victory over the BNP in Barking and Dagenham in 2010, who told him that the key to Labour’s victory was reconnecting with the community. Hodge iterated her fear that the BNP could have won again in 2010 had Labour candidates not made efforts to reach out to local voters.

Phillips pondered whether there is something in Britain’s history which explains the lack of any real success for the far right in Britain. Speaking to Mathew Goodwin, author of several reports on the far right in the UK and Europe (see here and here), Goodwin explained that an inherent British ‘opposition to fascism’ means that political parties which are framed in fascist discourse have never gained any real ground in the UK.

Phillips also looked at one of the key factors which has prevented far-right political gains - the first past the post electoral system. FPTP favours a two party system with Labour and Conservative dominating process thereby preventing smaller parties from making any real gains at the ballot box. Compare this to the various systems of proportional representation used in Europe, in France, Sweden and Holland, and the presence of far right parties in parliaments materialises. It is worth noting too that the gains made by the BNP at the European parliament elections in 2009, when they won two seats, were also a result of the electoral system used. The European parliament election system, the closed party list system, awards seats on the basis of vote share of the party, similar to PR.

Phillips concluded his inquiries with a conversation with the leader of the British Freedom Party, a breakaway group of the BNP that has formed an alliance with the far right social movement, the English Defence League. He concluded the programme with the observation that the EDL is unlikely to advance beyond being a street protest movement, in spite of its alliance with the BFP, because the idea of the far right contradicts the idea of Britain and what the country stands for.

Phillips’ conclusions are confirmed in BNP’s heavy losses in recent elections. But Britain has not been immune from the type of populist politics that has swept Europe and in many ways, European far right organisations have looked to the EDL as exemplary in forming in their own groups or pan-European alliances. Such efforts have culminated in efforts to create a ‘counter-jihad’ movement with stronger international links, connecting European ‘Stop Islamisation’ movements with the transatlantic counterpart.

No Extremists Please - We’re British! is available to listen on BBC iPlayer until the 17th July, link here.

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