Ellena Knott examines the future of the English Democrats and asks if they may one day pose an electoral challenge to the established parties.
Last weekend around 60 delegates gathered in a hotel function room, just outside Leicester for the English Democrat Party Conference. Rarely mentioned in the press, with a membership of just 3,500 since their inception in 2002, some are starting to see the party in a new light# particularly after the electoral failure of the BNP in last year’s election. Anti-EU, hardline on immigration, condemning of ‘political correctness’ whose motto is ‘Not Left, Not Right – Just English’, they appear similar to the BNP, without the fascism.
Thanks to this, and disillusionment in the moderate-right and Westminster politics, political commentators are now suggesting that there is an opportunity for the EDs to exploit a gap in the market for a radical anti-immigration right party. The party currently boasts the elected Mayor of Doncaster and two councillors in Boston, and a trickle of disillusioned BNP members. This includes significant BNP members who can run and win elections, such as Chris Beverley and Eddy Butler, who is being considered for membership, who have jumped ship. Beverley told The Guardian “To me, the English Democrats are the real exciting new hope for us and there is huge potential for the party to do well”, though he still remains as constituency officer for a BNP MEP.
So is Beverley just trying to back the potential winner after the implosion of the BNP? Dr Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham University believes ‘There is still considerable potential for an anti-immigrant populist party in Britain, but it’s not going to be the BNP’#. Instead of matching the success that Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and other nationalist movements in Europe have had, Nick Griffin has never legitimised the party. The BNP always appeared to think that activists and a leader with a fascist past legitimised them, though this just limited their appeal. Griffin favoured defence of the Ku Klux Klan# for his Question Time debut and running a party dogged by legal issues concerning its money management and party membership rules. While the BNP failed to capitalise on its election successes in the Greater London Assembly in 2008 and in the European Parliament in 2009, by touting ‘socially unacceptable’# forms of racism only supported by ‘old, poorly educated working class men’, the English Democrats and even the English Defence League jumped on growing concerns about immigration and anxiety over Muslim communities to appeal to a wider audience.
Britain is in a new era of politics, the result of the last election showed that the public is guided more by issues and concerns rather than party loyalty. Many of these far right groups offer policies based on immigration concerns, strict law and order, and the compatibility of Islam, all major concerns for the public in the last decade. Furthermore, the major parties are increasingly considered as not being able to perform when it comes to tough immigration reform, ‘not listening’ when it comes to unemployment and social reforms, and generally not trustworthy after the expenses scandal.
The English Democrats have a history of welcoming other minority parties to the fold. The party was created after the merging of smaller political parties, and although the members have concerns about ‘fascist’ members of the BNP joining, the persuasive powers of Chris Beverley appear to be enough to placate them. And the leader is on his side; on Saturday at the conference, Robin Tilbrook said “some of the people who wanted to do their honest best for our country but made the mistake of joining the BNP are now joining us and will help us become that electorally credible party.” To some with far-right leanings, the very action of ridiculing the BNP will be a tipping point for support. At any rate it will make an interesting by-election next month in Barnsley where the BNP and English Democrats go head-to-head – one which anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate describes as being ‘a good indication of the balance of forces on the right in Yorkshire over the next year or two’.
Britain is not impervious to the far right. The failure of the far-right in British politics so far is not one based on demand, but on distribution; the BNP have never been able to get away from their ‘Nazi’ image and have been too focussed on history, failing to grasp political reality. However, the EDs do not seem to have this image. They are not a fringe minority. Their activists do not appear to have a fascist past which legitimises them in their eyes. Large numbers of people share the same concerns; they appear free of the baggage of the British Blackshirts and Nazis. While at the moment the far right is fragmented, should an articulate and practised individual come along, free from political amateurism, they would find a number of people receptive.