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Explaining membership in the British National Party

By Michael Biggs and Steven Knauss


The BNP’s membership list was leaked in November 2008 by a disgruntled activist who had been expelled late in 2007; he has since admitted responsibility and been convicted. The BNP never challenged the list’s authenticity, merely stating that it was out of date. The list is apparently a complete record of membership at November–December 2007. Of the 13,009 individuals listed, 30 were missing a current address, 138 had a foreign address, and 41 lived in Northern Ireland. Of the remaining members, 12,536 (97.9 per cent) can be precisely located in Britain using the postcode field of their address (Office of National Statistics, 2004, 2008). Postcodes provide exceptionally fine resolution, down to the street level.

The distribution of members diverges significantly from the distribution of voters.  The correlation of votes with membership, across the 628 constituencies in Britain, is surprisingly modest (r ¼ 0.46). The party contested only one in five seats, but the correlation is scarcely higher in those alone. Voting also gives a misleading impression of the national distribution of the party’s support. Wales and Scotland provide over three times the proportion of members compared with voters.

Members must be matched with a population denominator. Data come from the 2001 Census, conducted in April. The great majority of members on the leaked list had joined since this date, as the BNP had 2,173 members in November 2001 (Copsey, 2008: 137). The BNP recruited only ‘indigenous Caucasian’ people (Copsey, 2008: 238). We count adults who defined their ethnicity as ‘White British’, including ‘White Scottish’. The proportion of white British adults belonging to the BNP was 0.032 per cent across Britain.

For statistical analysis, we use the finest geographical unit defined by the Census, the ‘output area’. This is a very small neighbourhood; the median covers an area of 6 hectares and contains 280 people. There are 218,038 neighbourhoods (as they will be termed) in Britain: the BNP was present in 10,165 (4.7 per cent) of them. Most of those had a single member; 11 was the maximum. The highest proportion was 5.7 per cent.

We begin with independent variables capturing economic insecurity. These are measured ecologically, as the fraction of people in the neighbourhood with a particular characteristic, though they are proxies for individual characteristics predicting support for the BNP. Education is divided into three categories: no qualifications, qualifications below university degree, and degree (denominated by people aged 16–74 years). Class is divided into five categories, from routine and semi-routine to managerial and professional (denominated by occupied population). The unemployment rate is also measured (denominated by the economically active). Alongside these sociological staples, housing is included because the BNP promotes the myth that foreigners are given privileged access to public housing. Housing tenure is divided into three categories: owned or mortgaged, rented from the local authority, and private rental (including other arrangements). Overcrowding, as defined by the Census, is also measured. (In both cases the denominator is households.) We expect, then, that white British adults are more likely to belong to the BNP in neighbourhoods with lower education, lower social class, higher unemployment, more private renting, and greater overcrowding. Control variables are entered to reflect findings that BNP voters are disproportionately male and middle aged (Ford and Goodwin, 2010; Cutts et al., 2011). Additional controls are population density and the proportion of people living in communal establishments like prisons.

For Hypotheses 1–3, we define minority—from the viewpoint of white British—in various ways. The simplest is non-white. Non-whites comprise 8.1 per cent of the population (whites who do not identify as British comprise 3.7 per cent). A second classification differentiates the largest non-white ethnic groups: South Asian (3.6 per cent) and black (2.0 per cent). For convenience, we refer to South Asians, but it should be emphasized that people in this group are identified as ‘Asian or Asian British’, and half are British born. The BNP has come to define their enemy in religious rather than racial terms, especially since 2001, focusing on Muslims. Most Muslims originate from the Indian subcontinent, and voting for the BNP responds to South Asians rather than to blacks (Bowyer, 2008; Ford and Goodwin, 2010). We can also measure religion directly. Muslims comprise 2.8 per cent of the population. Alternatively, we can measure country of birth. 8.5 per cent of the population were born outside the UK.

The above is an excerpt from the paper ‘Explaining Membership in the British National Party: A Multilevel Analysis of Contact and Threat’, which appears in the European Sociological Review, posted with permission from Oxford Journals. Click here to read the full version of the paper for free.

Michael Biggs is Lecturer in Sociology and Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford. Steven Knauss is a graduate student working with Dr Biggs.

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