The weird thing about English local elections is it’s easiest to be either one of the huge national parties – or be totally on your own.
In the May 2023 local elections not a single councillor from the fascist tradition got elected. This seem to show a far-right movement in England that neither has good local candidates nor a brand identity or party organisation that gives them a bigger reach.
Back in the heady days of 2010 the British National Party had reached 50 councillors, and hoped to one day get into Parliament. The single remaining BNP councillor, who had switched to the ‘Britain Democrats’ lost his seat in Epping Forest in this local election.
Another fascist party, Britain First, fielded several candidates, and boasted on Twitter about getting as many as 400 votes in a Salford ward and 200 in one in Essex. But in both cases this meant getting less than half of the votes of the winning candidates.
In Cannock South in Staffordshire an ‘independent’ candidate was revealed by researchers Red Flare to actually have close ties to the neo-Nazi Homeland Party. This candidate only got 81 votes, compared to the winner from Labour on 651. Red Flare’s investigation also saw Homeland kicked out of the local anti-immigration protests in Cannock; participating in groups like this is a classic way for fascists to build up a local profile.
Standing as an independent is relatively easy in an English council election. Of the 8,000 or so councillors elected for England in May about one in ten are independents or represent a local issue. Since you can get the few hundred votes needed to win in a small ward based on building up a personal reputation with consistent work or by being a well-known local figure, independent work can get you a council seat. Many people will even vote for you precisely because they want to show they don’t like the big parties who are in power.
So although none of the big-name English fascist groups did get candidates elected, some of the ‘independents’ elected this May in England may actually be neo-Nazis. But the fact they can do better by hiding their party loyalty also says a lot about the weakness of English fascism.
Building a local reputation and winning elections based on independent activists only works if you have candidates willing to put in the community work to become locally known; and people with this ability are in short supply. Finding people to put their names down on paper as candidates is even difficult for the big parties. On the other hand a party that is genuinely huge, like the Liberal Democrats, Labour or Conservatives can help weak candidates get elected thanks to advertising, volunteers from other areas, and with name-brand recognition.
It’s the difficult zone between the sweet spots of being an ‘independent’ and being a big party that English fascists have usually found themselves in. It took the Green party of England and Wales almost two decades to get its first 100 councillors, and this involved constantly fighting and losing elections. Their current position means they are starting to make breakthroughs and they got 481 seats in this year’s local election alone.
By comparison the English far-right has usually been unable to hold together long enough to reach the stage where it benefits from a large organisation and a reputation that gets it votes.
The closest we’ve seen was with the rise of the UK Independence Party, which was more of a far-right neo-liberal party than part of the fascist tradition. UKIP definitely got to the stage where it was winning council seats based on name alone, getting over a hundred in two separate elections. After its support waned after 2016 UKIP started to get closer to the outright extreme right. This election has seen UKIP lose all its council seats. The party that took over the baton of populist far-right politics from UKIP, ‘Reform UK’, only got six seats in these local elections,
This confirms a picture of an English far-right that is struggling to hold together an organisation or put out a message. Part of this is down to how the Conservative Party itself has embraced politics that until recently would have been seen as part of the far-right. When the government in power is enthusiastically xenophobic, transphobic and nationalist it’s hard for fascists to motivate people beyond a tiny core of committed activists.
This means that although the conclusion from these elections is that the far-right and the populist right in England is splintered and in disarray, this could change significantly after a change of government. The Labour party is likely to lead a government after the 2024 general election. Both times when English fascism rose to prominence were under Labour governments in the 1970s and 1990-2000s, as the National Front and the BNP respectively. We can expect the fascist right to mobilise racist and nationalist feeling against a government they will call ‘socialist’ and ‘woke’, even if the Labour leadership try their best to be bland and centrist. And if the Labour government end up supported by the Scottish National Party or other smaller parties there will be a rise in British unionist anger, and that has long been linked to the English fascist far-right.
Image: Guy Smallman