Burnley has provided a strong showing for the BNP in recent years. Last June Sharon Wilkinson won its first county council seat, building upon its previous success which has seen four councillors elected at the local government level. Like many of England’s northern towns, Burnley has issues arising from the presence of a significant Pakistani and Bangladeshi population. Although traditionally a Labour bastion, Labour were wiped out at the county level last June losing all of their six Burnley county seats: one to the BNP and five to the Liberal Democrats. This demonstrates that Labour’s Julie Cooper could see her party’s majority eroded significantly, with the seat prospectively offering a tempting prize for the Liberal Democrats.
The BNP polled strongly in Burnley in both the 2001 and 2005 General Elections, taking 11.3% (4,151 votes) and 10.3% (4,003 votes) of the vote respectively. It is likely that its dip in vote share in 2005 was connected to the strong performance of Harry Brooks, who ran under the banner of Burnley First Independent, taking 5,786 votes (14.8%). Brooks would have attracted the votes of many disgruntled electors, some of whom would probably have voted BNP. The other significant change between 2001 and 2005 which provides a pointer to a possible surprise in the seat on Thursday was a significant decrease in the Labour vote and corresponding rise in that of the Liberal Democrats, with the former falling from 49.3% to 38.5%, and the latter rising from 16.2% to 23.7%. Admittedly, this still leaves a large gap between the two parties, but the electorate’s dissatisfaction with Labour conjoined with the Clegg surge and the eclipse of Labour in Burnley by the Liberal Democrats at last year’s county elections must make this a strong target seat for the latter party.
Paddypower.com offer odds of 33/1 on the BNP taking the seat, but what will be the likely BNP performance this time around? As in 2005, two independent candidates are standing, but Harry Brooks is not one of them. Normally, independents take a low percentage of the national poll, and the other independent candidate to run in 2005 – Jeff Slater – won only 1% of the vote. On this occasion I would not expect either independent to poll more than 1-3% of the vote. This should leave scope for the BNP to increase its share of the vote, particularly when considering their advance last year.
The full slate of candidates standing is as follows: Richard Ali (Conservative); Gordon Birtwistle (Liberal Democrat); Andrew Brown (Independent); Julie Cooper (Labour); Andrew Hennessey (Independent); John Wignall (UKIP); Sharon Wilkinson (BNP). This seat is most certainly not a Conservative target, as in 2005 the Tories took only 10.8% of the vote, only just ahead of the BNP. The BNP must therefore be looking to beat the Conservatives into fourth place this time around, and I think that this is a realistic objective. Labour will either hang on by the skin of their teeth or lose the seat to the Liberal Democrats, with the BNP taking third place, possibly on 15% of the vote, with the Conservatives sinking back into fourth and UKIP battling it out for fifth place with the two Independents. UKIP fielded candidates in both the 2001 and 2005 elections, but performed weakly attracting only 2.3% and 1% of the total respectively.