The aftermath of Yoxford

EADT political editor Graham Dines reviews the Yoxford by-election resultTHE British National Party's candidate claimed after the Yoxford that he never expected to win.

EADT political editor Graham Dines reviews the Yoxford by-election result

THE British National Party's candidate claimed after the Yoxford that he never expected to win. But his decision to stand in this quiet rural idyll of Suffolk Coastal sent shockwaves through the political establishment.

Paul Goodchild picked up 15% of the total vote. It was the first time the BNP had contested a council seat in rural Britain, following their success in areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire where racial tensions have been high.

Just what Suffolk constabulary and the council's election staff expected to happen at Westleton village hall, where the votes were counted on Thursday night, is uncertain. In an unprecedented show of might, four policemen and women were on duty both inside and outside the count, with others lurking in paddy wagons off camera.

In the all-out Suffolk Coastal district council elections in May 2003, the ward was a straight contest between the Conservatives and the Green Party. Although the Liberal Democrats had every intention of fighting the by-election after the death of the Tory councillor, the emergence of the BNP forced the Labour Party to put up a last minute candidate to show its determination to fight the far right party.

The result on Thursday night was a Liberal Democrat victory, as the Tory vote slumped and the BNP picked up 15% of the total poll. Put another way, 85% of those who voted - and 58% is amazingly high for a local authority by-election - did not support the BNP.

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The outcome of the contest has been portrayed by all three major parties as a triumph for mainstream political parties over the politics of the extreme.

The Conservatives were disappointed not to have won what is after all a quintessential Tory seat. But the 2003 result was a false barometer of public opinion because of the failure of Labour and the Lib Dems to put up candidates.

This week, Yoxford was turned into a full-blooded political battlefield and the Conservative Party machine, inexplicably, failed to cope. Whether it misunderstood the nature of the challenge from Labour and the Lib Dems is unclear.

The Lib Dems played their typical by-election hand of claiming they were the only party capable of winning. The Tories had no answer to this and the intervention of a dozen personalities from the world of entertainment did them no favours.

These luvvies, ranging from Libby Purves to Bill Nighy, did not back any particular party, but significantly did not suggest what looked blindingly obvious to outsiders - that the Conservatives, defending the seat, were best placed to see off the BNP challenge.

Their intervention will have sowed doubts in the minds of the Yoxford electorate about the ability of the Tories to win. The Liberal Democrats flooded the area with canvassers - including several MPs - which reinforced the view that they were taking the by-election in general, and defeating the BNP in particular, in deadly seriousness.

It seems that the electors of Yoxford and surrounding villages decided the Liberal Democrats were best placed of the main parties to see off the BNP.

Where did the BNP's 153 votes come from? It would be simplistic, looking at the figures, to conclude that Conservative voters switched en masse to the BNP.

The Tories polled 93 fewer in 2003, and it is highly likely that many of these probably decided to back the Lib Dems. The BNP concentrated on the ward's pockets of social housing and on the agricultural vote, making a clear pitch to the farming community.

If the BNP hadn't stood, would the result been any different? The Lib Dems will claim they would have still been victorious, but what is certain is that the turnout would not have been 58% and East Suffolk's luvvies would not got publicly involved.

The BNP remains defiant. In a message on the party's Internet site, Paul Goodchild says: "We have well and truly sunk political roots in the ward and I think in a straight forward campaign without the media hype and outside interference, I must be in with a chance of winning."

In other words, at the next all-out council elections in 2007, the BNP will fight the seat once again.

And it's clear that the BNP will target hard this June's elections to the European Parliament. The party's lead candidate for the elections Matt Single claims: "If we can average 15% in Yoxford, together with our more significant votes in Essex, we must be in with a chance of getting an MEP elected in June."

On the surface, it seems an unlikely prospect. Because of the enlargement of the European Union, the number of MEPs to which the East of England is entitled will be cut from eight to seven.

To win a seat under the complex proportional representation system, the BNP would need around 10% of the total vote. Based on the 1999 turnout, that would by 99,500 - last time it managed just 9,353.

Taken in isolation, the Yoxford result was catastrophic for the Conservatives. But in contests nationwide, they picked up their first council by-election gain under Michael Howard's leadership with a landslide victory over Labour in Gloucestershire with a 22.6% swing.

And in the Felixstowe Ferry by-election to Suffolk county council, the Tories stormed home with a swing to them from Labour - who were pushed into third place by the Lib Dems - of more than 6%.

According to the Press Association's analysis of five by-elections on Thursday projects nationwide standings of Conservative 37.8%, Labour 31.5%, and the Liberal Democrats 25.7%.

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