How we beat the BNP in CumbriaAugust 15th, 2011
The church warden of a remote Anglican parish on the west Cumbrian coast was sorting out the church loft when he happened upon an England flag. It was in the run-up to St. George’s day so he decided to fly the flag from the church tower.
Because the church is an iconic coastal landmark, the flag could be seen for miles around – from both land and sea. The church was so overwhelmed by the positive feedback from the local community that a decision was taken to keep the flag flying. It was still flying a few months later when, on 2nd June 2010, Derrick Bird tore through West Cumbria leaving 12 dead, many more injured and a community in complete shellshock. In response, the flag flew at half-mast and it provided a potent symbol of community grief and solidarity.
The church celebrated the Queen’s Jubilee this year – the congregation like to find any excuse for a party, especially if it involves the Queen. There would likely have been a “bring and share” meal with dancing and some games for the children. There are precious few republicans in these parts notwithstanding the rock solid Labour vote which saw the local Labour county councillor comfortably returned, even in Labour’s 2009 nadir.
Here, deep in Labour’s heartlands, there is a strong sense of national identity and pride – yet it was precisely these qualities that made it fertile territory for the BNP whose toxic ideology ripped through West Cumbria with just as much ferocity as Derrick Bird.
In December 2008 the BNP came within 16 votes of taking the Kells & Sandwith county council division – Labour’s safest seat in the county, almost overturning a majority of 1,000 on a swing of 32%.
Kells had been the location of the Haig colliery which, when it closed in 1987, ended 390 years of coalmining in the county. Folk have long memories in these parts and its economic history had forged a deep political identity. Or so it was thought.
Emboldened by their results in Kells & Sandwith, the BNP decided to field a full slate of county council candidates in Copeland for the 2009 elections. Expectations were high: if they could almost take Kells & Sandwith – of all places – then they could take any seat in the constituency.
They confidently expected to take six of the twelve seats – and this confidence went right to the top of the national party. On the day of the count, Nick Griffin travelled from his home in rural Wales all the way to Whitehaven.
He did so because he expected a news story – shock BNP wins in rural Cumbria. On his way into the Civic Hall, he stumbled into leading anti-BNP activist, Gillian Troughton, completely oblivious to her part in his downfall.
Despite the BNP’s brutal campaign tactics, Nick Griffin was to be disappointed. They had a strong showing in four divisions but failed to take a single seat. As I look back on my part in kicking Nick Griffin out of Cumbria, I am reminded how much he helped forge my political ideology.
I approached the BNP’s arrival as a naïve cosmopolitan. I’d moved from Birmingham in 2004. I had deep family roots in West Cumbria, but I was basically a young professional from the leafy south Birmingham suburbs. It was obvious to me that racism was wrong and that multiculturalism is “a very good thing”.
This was backed up by a strong Christian faith that looked forward to the New Jerusalem where people of “every tribe, tongue and nation” would bow before the Lamb. It horrified me that people I liked and respected seriously considered voting BNP. Some of them even went to church with me.
An encounter with three little boys whilst out leafleting in Frizington forced me to look at the world from different perspective. These little boys had such a narrow view of the world that they genuinely thought I was foreign. (I’m obviously white British). I was a stranger bringing strange ideas about racism being wrong. They shouted racist abuse at me that they could only have been learnt from the adults around them. These little boys saw the world very differently from me and I wanted to understand it.
After this encounter, I made it my goal to listen closely to what people were saying to me. I heard people repeat stories about immigrants overrunning the country. They had read these stories in the paper so they must be true. It didn’t matter that Whitehaven obviously hadn’t been overrun with immigrants, it was in the newspaper and that was that.
If we were going to defeat the BNP, we needed to find ways to take on the tabloid media. Interestingly, the local Labour Party already had their own newspaper in Egremont – the Egremont Today. We never worried about the BNP getting a foothold in Egremont.
We needed to get leaflets and other materials through every home in Copeland, though that would be a tall order given the mountainous, rural terrain in many parts. This was my first foray into social media campaigning as I used Facebook to mobilise people across the constituency.
We came across one young lad – he was only 15. He had written an astonishing account on the wall of a Facebook group called “Let’s kick the BNP out of Cumbria”. He had come across Nick Griffin and his henchmen who had set up stall outside the Ali Taj restaurant in Whitehaven and he had challenged them about the BNP’s policy on flogging. The conversation had been photographed and the photo had appeared on the BNP website with the caption “we have supporters of all ages”. The young lad had concluded that the best way to respond to this treatment was to get involved in our campaign
You often hear cliches about “close-knit communities” but Copeland is the real deal. Neighbours have known each other for generations and the dividing line between extended families and communities are all but invisible. Like the elderly gentleman who remembers my great great grandfather delivering milk to his home way back in the 1920′s.
The BNP are masters at working these networks that bind communities together. They were in the pubs talking to the regulars over a pint, they got to the taxi drivers some of whom had BNP posters emblazoned all over their cars and they were good at working out who were the local ringleaders. By winning these people over, they could also win the support of all their friends and followers.
In order to counteract this, Gillian Troughton and I targeted another set of community leaders – the clergy – with significant effect. As churchgoers ourselves, the church was the obvious place to look for help and support. Ministers responded in various different ways: one wrote a comment piece for the local paper, another offered to host a church prayer service which was well attended and several made statements in morning services.
In one parish, the anti-BNP campaign was completely run by the church and elsewhere congregations provided a network of willing leafleters.
Our final coup was a full page spread on the front page of the local paper on Election Day featuring a statement from the Bishop of Carlisle, James Newcome, urging people not to vote BNP. In communities which retain a strong residual allegiance to the church the message was heard far beyond church walls.
I heard people complain that all politicians were the same. In the midst of the expenses scandal, this was understandable, but the truth was that no local politician had done anything wrong expenses-wise and the local MP had a completely clean record in that respect.
But in political campaigning, everyone gets tarred with the same brush: the problem with this is that those who genuinely deserve to be tarred – such as the local BNP candidates – end up looking no worse than mainstream candidates.
If we were to expose the BNP, we needed to raise the tone of political discourse in the local press. So, I started writing positive letters to the local paper about Labour and the local MP. This was a strategy that continued up to the 2010 general election – and it was a strategy that certainly unnerved the local Conservatives!
In 2009, 3,250 people voted BNP in Copeland. In the 2010 General Election, the BNP candidate secured 1,474 votes. In the 2011 Copeland Borough Council elections, the BNP only managed to field four candidates and secured a mere 541 votes in total.
In the end, Nick Griffin’s demise was a victory for West Cumbrian decency. The same people who trusted everything written by tabloid journalists would come to revile those same journalists whose brazen chequebook journalism caused so much trauma in the wake of the Cumbria shootings.
The same people who were so utterly – and rightly – appalled by the expenses scandal would come to see the BNP for who they were with their repugnant ideology and their brutal campaign tactics.
The same deep community ties which the BNP had worked to such devastating effect were the same ties that had helped to bind the wounds of every fatal coalmining disaster, every pit and factory closure and every natural disaster. They were ties that could withstand a fatal shooting and the subsequent media invasion. The flag flying aloft that remote coastal church is a constant reminder to me of that victory and everything that is good about West Cumbria.
The successful anti-BNP campaign prevented the BNP getting their news story. Copeland did not – as the BNP had hoped – turn into another Barking, Dagenham or Burnley. With that, there is a risk that the lessons of the campaign are forgotten amidst the non-news story.
Copeland could not be further from the “Westminster village” but its voices need to be heard loud and clear within it. Those voices tell us:
- Politicians and opinion-formers need to spend less time listening to the sound of their own voice and more time listening to the voices of ordinary people, even if those voices offend them. They might learn something.
- The media matters. It is easy for the educated elites to laugh off and ridicule unhelpful tabloid headlines, but the truth is, people read these stories and believe them. We cannot hope to build a fairer society unless we are prepared to tackle these headlines head-on at both a local and national level. The Egremont Today is an excellent example of how this can work locally.
- Watching the BNP in action reminded me of how the Labour Party used to be – and what it needed to return to: being visible, engaging with people, being the fabric of community life. I knew some Labour councillors who seemed to know every voter in their ward – and it showed at the ballot box. There is no shortcut to this level of community engagement.
- The clergy played a crucial role in defeating the BNP, but our ability to mobilise them was largely due to the fact we were ourselves leading figures in the Church. Gillian had been church secretary for many years and, as such, had contacts across the diocese; I had established a church youth group and consequently knew youth leaders, youngsters and parents in other churches. Our campaign utilised these existing networks.
- Negative campaigning is employed with the deliberate intention of suppressing voter turnout and this always helps the BNP. Obviously we need to expose the flaws in our opponents, but we also need to be aggressively positive about our achievements. It’s hard to travel far in Copeland without seeing visible evidence of Labour’s achievements in Government but people were blind to them. Much of Kells overlooks Whitehaven’s fabulous harbour, built with money secured by Labour in Europe.
In the wake of the 2009 elections I concluded the most effective place from which to defeat the BNP was from within the Labour Party, fighting to return the party to the place it began – as a grassroots, community organisation representing the real needs of ordinary people. Our task continues.