SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 78 - October 2003

Power struggle in the BNP

EARLY IN August John Tyndall, a British Nazi activist for over 40 years, was formally expelled from the British National Party (BNP), a party he had led from its inception in 1982 until his defeat in a leadership contest in 1999. Days later Luke Smith, one of the BNP’s Burnley councillors, was suspended pending internal ‘disciplinary proceedings’. Both events are the first time that the tensions within the party have spilled out into the public arena since its big successes in May’s local elections.

BNP leader Nick Griffin is taking advantage of the party’s recent successes to move against his opponents within the party, as part of an election-orientated strategy of presenting a ‘respectable’, populist image of the BNP. Judging that most BNP activists would prefer to stay in a party that succeeds in winning elections, however much they hate him, Griffin felt in a strong enough position to expel Tyndall from the party, and to take action against one of his critics in Burnley.

Tyndall has been a thorn in Griffin’s side since 1999, when Griffin beat him in a leadership contest. Tyndall still has a lot of support from long-standing BNP activists, however, and he has repeatedly criticised Griffin and the rest of the BNP’s national leadership both in his magazine Spearhead, and in BNP meetings.

Griffin, Tony Lecomber (the party’s Group Development Officer), and other members of the current BNP leadership, have tried to stop Tyndall’s criticisms, banning Spearhead from being sold at BNP events and attempting (unsuccessfully in most cases) to stop BNP branches inviting Tyndall to speak.

According to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, Tyndall was expelled by a BNP tribunal who found him guilty on two of the seven charges brought against him, and not guilty of one, while the other four were dropped during the hearing (Tyndall expelled, Searchlight, September 2003).

Tyndall has vowed to fight his expulsion in court, obviously not believing that a substantial number of his followers would be prepared to leave the BNP to join him in building a new far-right party. A court battle would be likely to attract a substantial amount of press coverage, particularly over the neo-Nazi beliefs and history of BNP members on both sides of the power struggle.

This is more likely to damage Griffin and the current BNP leadership, who have more to lose than Tyndall, particularly their semi-respectable public image. However, Griffin is obviously gambling on presenting the expulsion of Tyndall as proof that the BNP really has changed, ditching its past neo-Nazi beliefs. If this strategy works, Griffin and the BNP could gain from it.

It would be wrong, however, to view Tyndall as the ‘old-fashioned’ neo-Nazi and Griffin as the new, ‘respectable’ face of far-right populism. This is exactly how Griffin will want to present the situation publicly; in reality though, there is very little political difference between the two men. The tension between them is caused by their struggle for the leadership of the BNP, not by any fundamental disagreement about the direction the BNP should take.

Both Tyndall and Griffin are hardened neo-Nazis. Both are also realistic enough, however, to recognise that in this political period it is impossible to build the kind of mass fascist street-fighting force they envisaged in the past. Instead, both have attempted to implement a ‘rebranding’ exercise, broadening the BNP’s appeal with a more populist approach.

Griffin has gone further in doing this in his period of leadership than Tyndall did when he was leader, particularly on issues such as opposition to privatisation (previously the BNP was in favour of it), and by dropping the BNP’s policies of compulsory repatriation for non-whites and making homosexuality illegal. But this doesn’t mean that Tyndall would not have done the same, particularly if he thought it would have won him a fraction of the councillors that the BNP has won under Griffin’s leadership.

The battle between Griffin and Tyndall has inevitably spilled over into the Burnley BNP which, with its eight councillors, has been the most successful exponent of the ‘reinvention’ of the BNP as a far-right populist party. According to the BNP national leadership, Luke Smith was suspended for ‘bringing the party into disrepute’ by his involvement in a fight with one of Griffin’s minders at the BNP’s summer camp in August.

Smith’s suspension was an attack by Griffin, Lecomber and co on the Burnley branch leadership. Luke Smith is the nephew of Steve Smith, who has been the Burnley BNP organiser for a number of years. While Burnley BNP has been the most successful branch in the country at building an electoral base, the local leadership have always distanced themselves from Griffin.

The long-standing tensions between Griffin and the Burnley BNP, who resent the ‘interference’ of the national leadership, appear to have got worse. Earlier this year the national leadership tried to persuade Burnley BNP not to hold a post-election branch meeting with Tyndall as the main speaker, but the local branch point-blank refused to change their plans.

Undoubtedly, Griffin’s failure to win a council seat in Oldham hasn’t helped him: undermining respect for him among BNP activists, particularly when other areas have succeeded in winning seats, as well as pushing him to try to claim part of the responsibility for Burnley’s success, which was bound to stir up even more resentment among Burnley activists.

Smith’s suspension has had serious repercussions for the party in Burnley. In last May’s local elections the BNP became the official opposition to Labour on Burnley council with eight councillors to the Liberal Democrats’ seven. In June, however, the Liberal Democrats won a by-election in Hapton-with-Park ward – by just 11 votes (788 to 777 for the BNP, with Labour third) – in a seat where the BNP had won a councillor in May. Smith’s suspension has therefore lost Burnley BNP the position of joint opposition, making the Liberal Democrats the largest group opposing Labour on the council. Smith has subsequently resigned as a councillor, triggering a by-election on October 16 which all three main parties are standing for, as well as a BNP candidate and an independent. Smith told the Burnley Express: "I have had enough of the BNP. I have no interest in it whatsoever and I am disgusted by how the people locally have been treated by the leadership". (Burnley Express, 22 August)

The fallout within the BNP branch in Burnley has probably been more serious. As well as losing Luke Smith’s position as councillor, his uncle Steve Smith has also resigned as branch organiser, saying: ‘I am burned out and expelling Luke was the final straw. We have taken the Burnley party as far as it can go’. With the resignation of Burnley BNP’s press officer earlier in the summer (apparently due to resentment that the national leadership had not supported him financially), this means that a good proportion of the key activists who were behind the success of the branch are no longer playing a role.

Even if the BNP does now suffer setbacks in Burnley, however, this would not necessarily mean that it is set to implode nationally. Significantly, over the summer – while Griffin’s struggle with Tyndall was reaching its denouement – the BNP succeeded in winning two more council seats, in new areas of the country. On August 14 the BNP, by winning the Heckmondwike ward, gained their first councillor on Kirklees council, in Yorkshire. Then, on September 4, they broke through in Grays Riverside ward in Thurrock, to win their second councillor in the south-east. Both were traditionally strong Labour wards, and both saw an increased turnout – to the benefit of the BNP – compared to the last full council elections. The BNP have succeeded in breaking out of winning isolated local successes into having a national profile.

While they are only winning a minority of the seats that they stand for, the BNP have shown that, given mass disillusionment with the Labour government, a far-right party pushing a right-wing populist agenda, can win support. The big question for the left and for the trade unions is how to cut across the development of the far-right. We have to work to channel the massive anger and radicalisation that exists against the main parties and the establishment into a positive, socialist direction; away from the dead-end of prejudice and division that the BNP represent.

Naomi Byron


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