Question Time evaluation
For many years, people have argued that if only the BNP were taken on and debated against in public, they would be exposed and their support would collapse. We can now start to do a bit of an evaluation of how this approach is working.
In 2007, a team of debating champions, by their own fantastically modest account, defeated Nick Griffin in debate in the Oxford Union by forcing him to speak "the angry, racist language of demogoguery". And last night, 8 million people watched him debate on Question Time, in a performance which every single newspaper reported on their front page today was a complete disaster for him.
According to the theory, this should lead to a fall in support for the BNP. Admittedly, there is weak evidence so far for this, in that the BNP got nearly 1 million votes a year and a bit after their arguments were "demolished" in the Oxford Union. But that only reached a tiny audience, and presumably the effect of Question Time will be much greater.
So would anyone like to venture a prediction about how we could measure the damage that this has done to the BNP? For example:
-How many members will they lose as a result of this 'disaster'?
-How much will their share of the vote fall in opinion polls?
-How much less will they receive in donations in the next financial quarter, compared to the previous financial quarter?
-How many fewer people will feel positive towards them, and how many more people will feel negative towards them? (In June 2009, YouGov found that 11% of people felt positively about them and 72% negatively - it's worth remembering that the BNP are the most hated political party in the UK, including amongst white working class people).
And if, in fact, the evidence suggests that they have gained money, members or support after Question Time, what does that say about the strategy of giving them a platform and debating with them? What needs to be changed in the future to make this tactic more successful? Should it be abandoned, or is the principle of giving the BNP a platform so vital that anti-fascists should support it, even if it leads to a growth in support for fascism?
For me, the most depressing bit of Question Time came in the discussion on immigration. After half an hour of everyone attacking Nick Griffin with various degrees of effectiveness, the panel and audience turned to discussing an actual area of policy.
Jack Straw was arguing in defence of government policies which set out to starve people into leaving Britain, which has just introduced a policy borrowed from a right-wing Australian government and which have imposed far more controls on immigration than in the days of Thatcher. And the Tories, Liberal Democrats, BNP and the audience queued up to denounce the government for being too soft on immigrants. Nick Griffin may not be a very accomplished media performer, but it's not very long ago that the kinds of arguments that were being parroted last night by mainstream politicians would have been regarded as the views of fringe right-wing extremists like the BNP.