The mainstream political parties must enter into a policy debate with the British National Party if they are to dent its future electoral hopes, a host of comms professionals have told PRWeek.
The warning follows a strong showing for the party in the recent European elections. In the early hours of Monday morning it was confirmed that BNP leader Nick Griffin had been elected as an MEP for the North West region - the party's second seat of the night.
The results caused much hand-wringing across the media and political spectrum. Tory leader David Cameron described the party as 'completely beyond the pale', while Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg called the BNP a 'party of thugs and fascists'.
But a number of senior comms practitioners argued this week that the BNP won votes not because it won the debate - but because no debate had ever taken place.
Darren Murphy, MD of APCO and a former adviser to Tony Blair, said: 'Political parties can not avoid issues of race and immigration. They have to communicate and have effective policies in place to deal with people's concerns. They must tackle this below the radar politics and it is a challenge for all the parties, not just Labour.'
Simon Francis, head of public sector at Band & Brown, said: 'Politicians have refused to comment and give the BNP credence, but doing this has created a vacuum that the BNP has filled by campaigning locally.'
Nick Lowles, editor of anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, said he was exasperated with the response by mainstream politicians. Searchlight is working with Barack Obama's online strategists Blue State Digital on a campaign targeting the BNP.
Lowles said: 'Ignoring the BNP does not work. Politicians need to stop talking banal nonsense and address the public policy issues.'
Blue State Digital director Matthew McGregor said: 'The campaign had a big impact, but there are fundamental policy issues that need addressing that no amount of effective campaigning can overcome.'
HOW I SEE IT
- Laurence Lee, Director of media, Porter Novelli
Simply saying you do not want to hear what the BNP has to say smacks of a lack of confidence in your own message. If people were prepared to vote BNP, they have to be persuaded that they may have made the wrong choice - you have to take them on to win.
- Daljit Bhurji, MD, Diffusion PR
The approach of the main political parties should be to attempt to provide the voice of reason whenever and wherever the BNP chooses to spread its message. The strategy of hoping that if you ignore the BNP it will simply go away has clearly failed. The best way to expose the stupidity of the BNP is to tackle it head on.
6.2% - National share of the BNP vote in European elections
8% - Nick Griffin's share of the vote in the North West
£310k - Annual EU funding MEPs receive
3 - Number of local council seats won by BNP out of 2,000-plus
3.4m - Number of leaflets delivered by Hope Not Hate