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.