Looking at the press coverage of the BNP’s success in getting an MEP elected in the North West region, you’d think that they’d managed to attract a huge number of new supporters. The numbers tell a different story. Rather than being the beneficiaries of a wave of support, the BNP actually got fewer votes in 2009 than they did in 2004 (132,094 compared to 134,959 ,). The only parties to increase their total number of votes in the region were UKIP, the Greens and the English Democrats. So, how did fewer votes result in a seat being won? There are a few contributory factors:
By far the biggest factor appears to be the collapse of the Labour vote, plummeting from 576,388 to 336,831. The seat that the BNP gained was matched by a seat that Labour lost, so it seems that rather than the BNP actively winning the seat, it was lost by Labour and trickled down to the fifth place party.
Another change is the absence of the Liberal Party, which gained 96,325 votes in 2004. The party was formed by members of the original Liberal Party who objected to the merger with the SDP. The party has traditionally had strong core support in Liverpool and is moderately Eurosceptic. Given that the Lib Dems’ vote numbers dropped, it’s not clear where the Liberal Party votes went.
A further factor is the emergence of new parties which spread much of the vote. Had the Socialist Labour Party not stood, I suspect that enough of its vote would have gone to the Green Party to enable them to finish ahead of the BNP.
All in all, I don't think that the result should be viewed as a sign of progress for the BNP. The reality is that the traditional big three and the BNP got fewer votes than last time, while everybody else got more; the BNP gained a seat purely because they are losing support at a slower rate than the big three. I suspect the damage to the big three is a combination of the expenses scandal and an increasing familiarity with the list system used in European Elections, which is giving people more of a sense that a vote outside the big three is not a wasted vote. The fact that the BNP couldn't increase their vote when there is a recession and disenchantment with the political mainstream is so high tends to make me conclude that this isn't a watershed moment for the BNP. In fact, I feel it’s the opposite, as it’s shown that the BNP have no appeal outside their core vote.
This election provides clear evidence that, when voters become unhappy with their usual mainstream choice, they might not bother voting, or they might decide to vote for a smaller party, but what they won’t do is vote BNP.