A few days ago, a dissident member of the British National Party posted his party’s membership list on the internet. The publication of this data provides us with some interesting information about the demographics of BNP membership.
The Guardian (20 November) published an interactive map showing the concentration of BNP membership by parliamentary constituency.
On BBC2’s Newsnight (19 November), its political editor Michael Crick drilled down further. Newsnight commissioned polling company Ipsos-MORI to analyse the BNP membership list. The top five places where BNP members live are Halifax, Blackburn, Blackpool, Leicester and Romford. There are hardly any members in Scotland and few in the rest of London outside Romford. The membership is 80% male.
The places where BNP members live was also analysed according to the ‘mosaic’ system used by marketing companies to break down the country into different social categories. The highest concentration of BNP members is in the ‘Ties of Community’ category, defined as “close-knit communities, small industrial towns, terraced housing, strong Labour voting”.
The second concentration is in the ‘Blue Collar Enterprise’ category, defined as “council estates, not well-educated, self reliant (often bought their council house), ‘Sun’ readers”. The category where BNP membership is weakest is ‘Urban Intelligence’, defined as “young single, well-educated, Liberal views, prosperous”. The biggest concentration of BNP membership in terms of social class is C2 (skilled working class), more concentrated there than among the lower D/E classes of unskilled working class and unemployed.
The demographics of BNP membership come as no surprise – older, uneducated, white males form the bedrock of support for far-right parties throughout Europe. But what this profile also illustrates is that, in demographic as well as ideological terms, BNP membership is the polar opposite of Liberal Democrat support.
The ‘we can win everywhere’ brigade won’t like it, but the Liberal Democrats also have marked demographic characteristics. Our party’s natural support can be found more among those who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan than average. The evidence is overwhelming:
• At the 2005 general election, the Liberal Democrats performed best among voters aged 18-35 and worst among those aged over 65. Indeed, the Lib Dems captured a higher percentage of voters aged under 35 than the Tories (see ICM poll, May 2005). This was despite a Lib Dem election manifesto skewed towards the interests of elderly voters. Many of the seats gained in the 2005 election had a younger and better-educated population than average, with a university in or near the constituency (for example Cambridge, Bristol West and Manchester Withington). A recent ICM poll (October 2008) underlined this trend; Lib Dem support is strongest in the 25-34 age group at 31% and weakest among the over-65s at only 4% (figures not adjusted for don’t knows and refusers).
• In the 2004 European election, the trend was even more striking. Michael Steed analysed the results in an article in Liberator 201 (March 2005). In Greater London, he found that the Liberal Democrats performed best in the central and western boroughs where the population is younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan than average. They did worst in Barking and Dagenham, the borough with the least educated and third oldest population. Steed went so far as to say that the Lib Dem result could have been predicted on the basis of 2001 census data and that local campaigning appeared to have made little difference.
• As Liberal Democrat Voice readers know, recent research shows that Lib Dem voters are more intelligent than average.
• The annual British Social Attitudes Survey regularly shows a direct correlation between higher education and liberal attitudes. As an increasing proportion of the population experiences university, liberal attitudes gain ground. Take the example of the death penalty, a key issue distinguishing small ‘l’ liberals from small ‘c’ conservatives. A tipping point was reached three years ago, when a YouGov poll conducted for the Daily Telegraph (3 January 2006) showed that support for the restoration of the death penalty had fallen below 50% for the first time since its abolition 40 years previously. Young people were much less in favour of restoring capital punishment than their elders. Significantly, support for restoration was lowest among Lib Dem voters, at 35%.
• Liberal culture and policies provide economic benefits to the younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan demographic. Professor Richard Florida (see his book ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ and website) demonstrated a strong correlation between having a liberal and tolerant culture and enjoying economic success. He studied 100 American cities and found that liberal cities – those that are welcoming places for creative and bohemian people, ethnic minorities and gays – tend to thrive economically, whereas cities with a conservative and intolerant culture tend to fail. This is not a purely American phenomenon. Similar research has been conducted elsewhere in the western world (including Europe) and the findings are similar.
• During the 2005 general election campaign, the polling company YouGov revealed where a new fault line was opening up in public opinion. Its director Stephan Shakespeare suggested in the Observer (17 April 2005) that voters no longer range along a left-right axis, but are divided by ‘drawbridge issues’.
We are either ‘drawbridge up’ or ‘drawbridge down’. Are you someone who feels your life is being encroached upon by criminals, gypsies, spongers, asylum seekers, Brussels bureaucrats? Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it’s a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other?”
‘Drawbridge down’ is clearly where the Liberal Democrats belong. No other party represents such people, so why compete with the Conservatives, Labour, UKIP and the BNP for the bigoted ‘drawbridge up’ vote? It is quite mystifying why the Lib Dems seem more concerned to appease the people least likely to vote for them, than to energise the people most likely to.
For example, the party’s recent pre-manifesto ‘Make it Happen’ contained some unpleasant ‘dog whistles’ clearly aimed at ‘drawbridge up’ voters. In the section headed “Why have we lost our sense of community?” – where you would have thought Liberals had something distinctive to say – the key policy highlighted in bold text was a proposal to introduce “proper border checks”. Meanwhile, the only mention of the European Union was a call for a referendum.
This is rank defeatism. It risks alienating our core support while making us sound indistinguishable from the other parties. It is also short-sighted when social attitudes are moving in a liberal direction.
The biggest electoral barrier to Liberal Democrat long-term success is that the party’s support is transient and shallow. Indeed, polls and election studies ever since the merger have shown that about half of Lib Dem voters cannot even recall correctly which way they voted. The Lib Dem vote is like a bath with the taps left on and the plug left out. At each election, the party has to put a disproportionate effort into winning its previous vote afresh, and hence struggles to reach much beyond 20%. No more than 10% of the electorate remains loyal to the party, compared with a core vote of roughly 25% enjoyed by both Labour and the Tories. To remedy this, the party must cement the allegiance a larger base vote – and younger, better educated, more cosmopolitan people are the likeliest source.
Let us be clear what a ‘core’ or ‘base’ vote means. It does not mean all the people who vote for us or the only people who should vote for us. It means the people most likely to remain loyal to the Liberal Democrats and therefore the group whose support the party should consolidate as a base on which it can build.
But the necessary base vote cannot be secured if the party – forever petrified of causing offence – tries to be all things to all men or pitches to the wrong demographic altogether. The Liberal Democrats will never become a party of government if they sound like the boxer who, in the words of the song, was “afraid to throw a punch that might land”. The party must learn that it cannot attract without also repelling.
The real test will come at next June’s European elections. The Liberal Democrat campaign in 2004 was a disgrace. Activists were instructed not to mention Europe but focus on local issues. This strategy failed. Far from mollifying Eurosceptics, the party ended up coming fourth behind UKIP. Say what you like about UKIP, but at least it campaigned for what it believed in. The Lib Dems didn’t and consequently failed to mobilise their natural support.
The biannual Standard Eurobarometer poll regularly shows that roughly one-third of British voters are pro-European (with one-third anti- and the remainder holding no strong views either way). Significantly, pro-European respondents tend to be younger and better educated than average. Now you may say that 33% is a minority, but it is a substantially greater one than the 14.9% who voted Lib Dem in 2004. And if we fail to stand up for this large group of people, they have nowhere else to turn.
The 2009 Euro campaign is an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to be true to themselves, energise their natural support and consolidate a core vote, instead of indulging in yet another futile attempt to appease their opponents. So let’s stand up for ‘our’ people and stop imagining that everyone everywhere is equally likely to vote Lib Dem.
* Simon Titley is a Liberal Democrat activist who helps write and produce Liberator magazine.