U.K. Election: A Bad Day for the Far-Right BNP

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Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, gives a television interview during the count for the constituency of Barking

Nick Griffin, the anti-immigration demagogue and leader of the far-right British National Party (BNP), is well steeped in the language of exclusion. But early Friday morning, as Griffin's bid to become the BNP's first Member of Parliament for the borough of Barking ended with a crushing defeat at the hand of Labour incumbent Margaret Hodge, Griffin found himself on the receiving end of a familiar diatribe. "The message of the people of Barking to the BNP is clear: Get out and stay out," Hodge said to a chorus of cheers from the podium of the Goresbrook counting center, where Griffin and the other candidates had gathered to learn the result of Britain's general election. "You are not wanted here. Pack your bags and go."

This was the year in which the BNP, which proposes to repatriate residents of foreign descent and stop all immigration into the U.K., had hoped to break into mainstream politics. With far-right parties across Europe bolstered by a weak economy and concerns over immigration, the BNP thought it might be able to build on recent success in local polls — and the 2009 election of Griffin to a seat in the European Parliament — to earn a place in the House of Commons. But in Griffin's chosen battleground of Barking — a mostly white, hardscrabble neighborhood devastated by recent job losses — Hodge won 24,628 votes, some 16,000 more than any other candidate. Nationally, the BNP increased its share of the vote by 1.83% to 514,819, but despite fielding more than 300 candidates it failed to win a seat. It also lost seats at the local level and, perhaps most devastating at all, those included all 12 positions — out of 54 — that it had gained on the Barking and Dagenham council authority in 2006, shattering the party's dreams of gaining a majority in order to force through anti-immigration legislation at a local level.

"This is a historic moment for British politics," Hodge told TIME after her victory. "Fascism comes in waves in this country — every ten years or so it rises. What we are seeing here tonight is the beginning of the end of the current wave, and the triumph of democratic politics."

Cambridge-educated Griffin, who dresses slickly and has a glass eye as the result of an accident with a shotgun cartridge, took over the BNP in 1999 with pledges to "normalize" the party by ridding it of what he termed "the three H's — hobbyism, hard talk and Hitler." (His credentials on that last point are dubious thanks to a 1998 conviction for incitement to racial hatred relating to the distribution of anti-Semitic material; his defense included denials of the Holocaust.) But while he may have ambitions of going mainstream, the BNP's campaign for the May 6 election was dotted with amateurish incidents. In the few weeks before Britain went to the polls, Griffin was pegged with tomatoes and his party's candidates faced accusations of anti-Semitism for referring to Hodge only by her maiden name (it's Oppenheimer); the party accused its publicity director of organizing a "palace coup" for the leadership; one of the councilors in Barking ended up in a fistfight with a trio of young men of South Asian origin; and the BNP website's "contact us" link for the media has been defunct for days, directing them instead to an anti-media screed called "The World's Biggest Liar Competition."

After his defeat on Friday, Griffin told TIME that the BNP had run a "strong campaign" and blamed his party's loss on immigrants. Citing the high turnout, Griffin SAID that, "I traveled round the polling stations and all of them had long [lines]. The majority of people in these lines — sometimes even four of every five — were Africans. The Labour party has spent the last five years importing a block vote. And the block vote has delivered."

"It's deliberate gerrymandering," added local councilor Richard Barnbrook, who lost his seat. Hodge called the allegations "complete and utter rubbish," adding that "around 25% of Barking's population is nonwhite" and the BNP "were also trounced by the other 75%."

The BNP's poor result further deepens the mystery as to the reason behind the party's recent success — and its unexpected failure on Friday. Griffin has long said the BNP's core voters are "indigenous Brits" whose jobs and access to affordable housing have been taken by recent immigrants. But an analysis by the think tank The Institute of Public Policy Research earlier this year found that nine of the top ten areas in which the BNP won the most votes in recent local elections actually have a lower proportion of migrants than the national average (Barking and Dagenham was the exception). In fact, the report found that "the more immigration an area has experienced, the lower its support for the far right." The Institute said that BNP strongholds tended to have low levels of "social resilience" as defined by indicators such as a unemployment, levels of education, crime, health, business survival rate and voter turnout.

In Barking and Dagenham, certainly, the BNP had tapped into the discontent and resentment that followed massive job losses in the area. Even as the global economy slowly recovers, the constituency still faces daunting economic challenges. But while nearly one in 10 residents of Barking and Dagenham continues to look for work, the defeat of the BNP may at least have helped soothe another cause of social disunion: racial tensions. Speaking before the election result had come in, Randy Shoyem, 42, who is of Afro-Caribbean descent, said he would move his family out of the area if the BNP won. "I'm scared for my children," he said. But, he added, "If the BNP were to lose, I could tell my kids that they can be proud to live here."