The surprising thing is not how much support the British National Party commands, but how little. Immediately after its leader’s appearance on Question Time last week, YouGov explored public attitudes to the party and its appeal. Our survey, for the Daily Telegraph, found that the proportion of people who would vote BNP was up fractionally, from 2% in late September to 3% now. It is possible that this increase simply reflects sampling fluctuation: we have frequently detected 3% support for the party. Past periods of intense publicity for the BNP have sometimes seen sharper rises: for example, its support jumped to 7% at one point during the local government election campaign in 2006.
Voting support is only one measure of a party’s appeal. There could be more people who have some sympathy for a party than those who vote for it. We tested this latent appeal in a number of ways. First, we repeated a set of questions about the minor parties (Green, UKIP and BNP) that we first asked at the time of the elections to the European Parliament. In each case, the proportion saying they feel “positive” about the party has declined: the Greens from 38% to 28%, UKIP from 28% to 19%; the BNP from 11% to 9%. The decline in the BNP figure is less than those for Greens or the UKIP, albeit from a much lower base. Perhaps the figure would have fallen even lower without the Question Time saga; yet it is hard to argue that the BNP is on an upward surge.
Next we asked how many people might seriously consider voting BNP at some future local, general or European election. This is the first time we have asked this question, so we can’t compare with pre-Question Time attitudes. Just 4% said they would “definitely” consider voting BNP, while 3% would “probably” consider backing the party, and 15% would “possibly” consider doing so.
The combined figure of 22% understandably provoked a number of media headlines; yet the fact that as few as 7% would “definitely” or “probably” consider voting BNP is perhaps more significant. To consider voting BNP is not the same as doing so; for the moment, the real potential for BNP support in a high-turnout election is probably well under 5% - far less that the far right has achieved in recent elections in France, Holland, Italy and Austria. (True, the BNP received 6% in June’s Euro-elections – but the turnout was only 33%, so the BNP secured the votes of just 2% of the total electorate.)
Finally, we asked people how they viewed the BNP’s claim to speak up for white Britons, in the teeth of (according to the BNP) the failure of successive British governments to protect their interests. 12% agree with the BNP and say it’s good the BNP speaks up as it does, while 43% feel “the BNP has a point, but I have no sympathy for the party itself”.
This shows why the BNP brand is tainted. It has failed to convert more than a tiny fraction of the people who thinks the BNP has a point into votes. A party will a more positive image would be able to attract many more votes for the cause of British nationalism – as, indeed, UKIP has shown at elections to the European Parliament. Of course, those figures also provide a warning that the BNP articulates some widely-felt sentiments. But it can be argued that the real challenge is to devote more efforts to tackling the reasons for those sentiments than to combating the BNP as a party. For the moment, it is simply too unpopular to be regarded as a major threat – at least, outside its pockets of electoral strength in London’s East End and parts of some northern cities.
As for the BBC’s decision to invite Nick Griffin onto Question Time, the public is firmly on the BBC’s side. A week before the programme, 63% though the “BBC was right to invite him, as the BNP has two members of the European Parliament”. In the hours following the broadcast, this figure rose to 74%. In contrast, the proportion feeling that “the BBC was wrong to invite him, as it should not provide a platform for someone with such extreme and objectionable views” declined from 23% to 15%.