Published on October 23, 2009

Missing the BNP Point

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Just like the old media, the twittersphere is alive with comment about Nick Griffin’s performance on Question Time last night. Scroll back far enough through the mountain of tweets and you can watch real time reaction to the performance of Griffin, the other panellists and the audience. Many of the commentators appear relieved that the BNP supremo performed badly, looked shifty and was unable to answer the questions.

This take on Griffin’s Question Time performance is spectacularly missing the point, as Anthony Barnett in OurKingdom and Aditya Chakrabortty in the Guardian recognise. Barnett copies the BNP’s press release straight after the event at the bottom of his blog, and that says it all.

The BNP did not need to ‘win’ the debate. Their aim was purely tactical; to boost membership and increase funding to the party. With such a low membership and limited financial base even a small increase in numerical terms will make a big difference for the currently marginalised party.

Griffin skilfully taps into some real grievances within many of our communities. As a pariah ppayarty, with a leader who is not ‘treated with fairness’ on the BBC, the BNP is able to claim the voice of the marginalised. These are people who struggle to live in sub-standard housing, are left with low quality, poorly paid and insecure jobs and watch their children stereotyped and laughed at in the mainstream media. These are the people who were losing out most before the banking crisis and now have to watch bankers tell them to get used to obscene bonuses with no way of having their voices heard, let alone their needs met.

All three of the mainstream parties have failed, and continue to fail, to address these grievances. Labour’s empowerment agenda engages people at the margins. However the Duty to Involve , although springing from the right instincts, is not integrated in any meaningful way into any decision-making structures. In practice this means that too many attempts by local government to engage communities end up as isolated from policy processes as the communities themselves are from the UK economy.

The Conservative’s proposals for more direct democracy, to give power to citizens, also sounds worthwhile at face-value. However, first-past-the-post democracy can have the tendency to exclude minorities whether they are ‘ethnic’ or ‘indigenous’. Moving local decisions towards such a model therefore risks, unless it is thought through incredibly carefully, exacerbating community marginalisation, and hence tension, rather than giving meaningful power to citizens.

Involve’s perspective on this is that the real work of engaging marginalised communities across the country won’t happen on our television screens, on the pages of our national newspapers or in the rapid fire world of Twitter. It will happen when our politicians, and people like me, get out into our communities to talk to, listen to and most importantly of all engage meaningfully with the concerns of those British citizens who feel most excluded by our political system. Long, boring and unglamorous work on the ground will beat the BNP, sneering in the closed world of Twitter will not.

2 Responses to “Missing the BNP Point”

  1. kevin mclean
    October 28, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    good point, well argued – I think Chris Huhne touched on this in the debate (politicians need to start/get back to listening)

    I wonder what your answer to the question, should NG have been on the first place, given what you say about their probable aims?

  2. Karl Wilding
    October 28, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Really good points Simon. The observation about the need to roll our sleeves up is well made, though the residential zoning that is apparent in many towns and cities might question whether or not tweeters and bloggers will be heading out into their own communities. I wonder if ‘real engagement’ for too many is attending the climate camp, standing outside the BBC, or similar?

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