Categories: Media issues / Political spin

13 March 2009

5 comments

The web suits the BNP better than the mainstream

The British National Party (BNP) is thrashing the mainstream parties – but only online. This says as much about the internet as it does about politics, and I don’t think the mainstream should overdo its response.

PR Week reports that up to 100 Lib Dems are set to convene at the end of this month to figure out ways in which the party can improve its internet communications. It seems the Lib Dems want to obtain a louder voice on the web than their Labour rival Derek Draper and Tory Iain Dale. But it is the racist BNP which is eclipsing them all online.

BNP is currently the number one political hit on the web in the UK. They’re followed by Guido Fawkes’ blog which ranks as 84,182 most hit website worldwide, and by Iain Dale who has a traffic ranking of 100,289. Neither blog matches the BNP’s “UK political-chart-topping” position of 48,382, according to traffic ratings agency Alexa.

Britain’s mainstream political parties lag further still behind the BNP in terms of popularity online (see graphics below). The supposition is that the internet has been neglected by the official party machines. They might have created websites, but they never attracted an audience with which to interact.

The dirty little truth here may be that the web is not crucial to mainstream retail politics. After all, the successful “Conservative” sites are unofficial to a degree. They appeal to a Private Eye sort of market (the “Wannabe Insider”) and the obsessive pol rather than to the routine undecided marginal voter. They are not a model for the mainstream, “official” parties.

Moreover, as Rachel Sylvester has hilariously pointed out in The Times, some of the recent interventions on the web by the mainstream political establishment have been embarrassing. For instance, Derek Draper has just been suspended from Twitter for inappropriate usage. (There’s an amusing report on this from Iain Dale here.) And was John Prescott really the right person to lead Labour’s charge on the mainly teenage Facebook; or was it that he was the only senior figure willing to give it a go? Politicians do need a measure of gravitas, and that peculiar beast may leak away online.

Confronting the BNP online’s presence may be very difficult. But this is because the BNP can resort to dog-whistles and nudges-and-winks and general dissembling in a way which can’t be matched by mainstream parties.

It’s certainly a real problem. One fallout from the recession is that more and more unemployed people have time on their hands and access to the internet. Sections of this constituency, including Chav-town Dagenham-man (employed as well as unemployed), feels that the “traditional” white working class has been bypassed. It should be no surprise that the BNP has tried to pander to such sentiments.

One of the major concerns of this audience is immigration.

Thank goodness, the mainstream debate is now free of racism. Policy itself is daring to be slightly less permissive. Where that “tightening up” will end up, and whether it will leave a big rump of angry refuseniks is important, of course. Will the mainstream leave a large pond for the BNP to fish in?

The good news is that though the party is as unpleasant as ever, most casual BNP supporters are not hardline racist bigots any more than are the rest of Britain’s population. Most of them are not racist at all: rather, they are angry about their recent experience.They could probably be brought back into the mainstream.

But the mainstream policy shifts which might achieve this probably won’t need a specially online approach. Remember, the online world has an element of the Samizdat about it: it is somehow slightly forbidden. That mood inherently appeals to the BNP because for good reasons and bad, its messages aren’t much heard on the mainstream media but are always faintly and deliberately paranoid.

So in this most important case, the mainstream parties can win this and other battles out in the open – and the BNP can’t easily win the battle, however well it uses the web for which it is so well suited.

I am of course very keen that the mainstream use the internet as best they can. But they ought to use the web in a good, richly informative way. Success online, just as it is offline, is about communicating the right messages in the right format in the right place to the audiences which inhabit the online space. For more on this I recommend Stuart Bruce’s PR blog here, on which he usefully challenges the blogging glitterati’s obsession with social media netiquette.

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5 Responses to “The web suits the BNP better than the mainstream”

  1. Matt Wardman says:

    >BNP is currently the number one political hit on the web in the UK. They’re followed by Guido Fawkes’ blog which ranks as 84,182 most hit website worldwide, and by Iain Dale who has a traffic ranking of 100,289. Neither blog matches the BNP’s “UK political-chart-topping” position of 48,382, according to traffic ratings agency Alex

    You have some interesting other points, but can you find some stats not from Alexa?

    Dale is 100k on Alexa. I am currently 110k. And my traffic is about 1/6 of Dale’s in “visits” and perhaps 50% in “reach” (i.e., user footprint). It would be childsplay to game my way above Dale’s position.

    I have not seen any independent stats for political party websites since Hitwise in Oct/Nov 2007.

    Not having a go, but Alexa means very little.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Matt, It would seem Alexa correctly rates your site as attracting less traffic than Iain Dale’s. Moreover, I’m not qualified to know how much difference a 10, 000 gap in the rankings makes in terms of traffic flow. So could Alexa be spot on to put you that far behind Iain Dale?

    In the past there were good reasons to question Alexa’s data. However, they overhauled their systems in 2008:

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/04/16/alexa-overhauls-ranking-system/

    I still doubt the ratings are entirely accurate. But they do seem to provide good ballpark data.

    Whatever, the BNP claim to be the most visited party political website in Britain seems justified to me not just from Alexa data but also from observation. If anybody can prove this not to be so, please do so.

  3. Guido Fawkes says:

    Alexa is not a good guide.

  4. Tim Pendry says:

    A very intelligent analysis, Paul, and it is a shame that comment so far concentrates on nerdy statistics (which rather made your point for you) rather than reality on the ground. The Far Right presence is not just expressed through the BNP website. It has all the characteristics of the political wing of a ‘movement’ operating through multiple channels and fora, not excluding Facebook.

    Most political internet activity is self-referential activity. It takes place amongst a relatively small group of people who are increasingly detached from the fears and anxieties of the wider population. Their own anxiety is to get a place and recognition within the shrinking opportunities of the existing system, as newspapers and think tanks close and lobbyists reconsider their strategies, rather than to critique and change something that is in rapid transition regardless.

    But I also agree that the threat from the BNP is exaggerated. It suits some elements on the soft Left of the Labour Party to talk it up because it gives a reason – perhaps the last – for its base to remain within the Party that has failed them rather than to follow Die Linke or Besancenot into new territory as the economic crisis unfolds.

    However, the BNP are not stupid either. They look for the same political vacuum that existed in Weimar – areas where the existing parties have failed to maintain their connections and where discontent is growing. Both main parties have shrunk but both think that they can still rely on their ‘machines’ (local business and retired in the case of the Tories and organised trades unions in the case of New Labour).

    You write somewhat dismissively:

    “Sections of this constituency, including Chav-town Dagenham-man (employed as well as unemployed), feels that the “traditional” white working class has been bypassed. It should be no surprise that the BNP has tried to pander to such sentiments.”

    But, if you think about it, you and I are part of the problem immediately when we dismiss a whole class of person who, in law and in politics, is no better or worse than us and consider reasonable concern for their condition in life as ‘pandering’. After all, some might say that Government has ‘pandered’ to private equity bosses and bankers for far too long yet they have rights too :-)

    Unfortunately for both parties, their organisations have hollowed out in the more distressed working class areas. If the Liberal Democrat’s pavement politics has not taken hold on, say, a troubled council estate, the BNP can move in, even on the basis of minimal or no organisation. Once in, they can claim to speak for people who are neither racist nor authoritarian but simply fed up and anxious. Above all, they listen to people who are not listened to by an increasingly professionalised and metropolitan political class. This is precisely what happened in Swanley (Sevenoaks).

    The NSDAP in the late 1920s by-passed the massively organised SDP and worked under the noses of the traditional elites. Its vote went from around 2.8% in 1928 to the Chancellorship five years later. The party organisation sought out unrepresented anger and discontent with a relatively simple set of messages and its success was the success of any organisation finding a massive gap in the market and filling it quickly. The failure in such cases lies in the tired old managements of the existing service providers rather than the creativity of the new start-up.

    In fact, in Swanley, the panic is overdone – the arrival of the BNP created a counter-organisation quite quickly including independent local residents but what is most interesting is that neither main party was involved – in addition to the residents, socialists, anarchists, greens and liberal democrats all made themselves known in resistance, while the two main parties continue to worry about what is in the Sunday Times or Iain Dale’s latest prognostication.

    This is all very predictable. The political crisis derives directly, as does our current economic crisis, from the attempt by the centre-left to ape the centre-right project in the mid-1990s instead of finding ways to re-connect with the people as a whole. The illusion was that prosperity could be sustained indefinitely, leaving no strategy for a major down-turn.

    Although conditions are not as bad as in Germany in the 1930s, the street organisation and cultural integrity of New Labour is far weaker than that of the German Social Democrats at that time and this time around the Far Right are adept not only at web marketing but at using Facebook and other tools. I communicate directly and frequently with New Right activists on FB and their sophistication and enthusiasm should not be underestimated.

    The BNP is cutting into New Labour and not Tory territory. New Labour cannot handle this problem with cash because it doesn’t have any. Its local cadres are ageing or small groups of idealists obsessing about theory and green issues when mass concern is with jobs and debt. State attempts to engage with these communities are distrusted and create more of a problem – political correctness and state interference in lifestyle are major irritants that drive people towards the Far Right.

    This is not an easy one to handle within a democracy that is not currently fit for purpose and desperately needs renewal but what we can confidently predict is a small but aggressive working class party emerging within a very short time to take on the BNP head-to-head and point up the political failures of New Labour. I still expect (on balance) a Conservative victory at the next election but we may see a lot of volatilty in national politics in the months to come.

  5. Matt Wardman says:

    >Matt, It would seem Alexa correctly rates your site as attracting less traffic than Iain Dale’s. Moreover, I’m not qualified to know how much difference a 10, 000 gap in the rankings makes in terms of traffic flow. So could Alexa be spot on to put you that far behind Iain Dale?

    The 10,000 gap would be a lot less than sixfold. In the past I have gamed main party political up and down the Alexa rankings by 100s of thousands of ranks at will using half a dozen friends with the toolbar visiting once a day. Note that was in the 159k->500k position range though.

    I’ll concede that the (maybe) top 25k Alexa rankings have a correlation to *some* version of reality, but very little more.

    Following this one up, an external check will be what happens to Guido’s ranking in Alexa after his traffic quadrupled from March to April according to his published Google Analytics statistics, which are robust – unless he is out and out lying about them,which is not a credible idea. So far I see little change.

    If the BNP wanted to demonstrate high levels of web traffic, all they have to do is publish some auditable data.

    They haven’t published anything auditable, and I think that says it all.