I'm struggling with a cold at the moment but wanted to make time to take a quick look at this pie chart which first appeared in Socialist Worker and has been reproduced on various blogs purporting to be a breakdown of the membership of the British National Party.
Fascinating stuff obviously, and very pretty to boot, but there is a small problem... it's wrong. You look at this and you think, oh, 8% of the BNP are managers but we don't know this, no one knows this and the data doesn't tell you this. It's not true, no matter how tasty the graphics are.
Anyone who saw the leaked BNP list will know that some entries (and it's clear they weren't all paid up members) had all kinds of weird and wonderful notes next to their names. Whether they were into World War Two reenactment or witchcraft, whether they were an activist or a troublemaker, and sometimes what they did for a living.
It seems that 584 of the names (less than 5%) had an occupation listed and, in an admirable enthusiasm for graphics, Socialist Worker has crunched these numbers in order to demonstrate that the BNP membership is not, as some might suggest, overwhelmingly working class. But hold on - who says this is a representative sample of the BNP membership?
There are two screening processes here. Firstly you have to tell the BNP what you do and secondly they have to be interested enough to write it down. We need to ask ourselves - are there really more prison officers than Tesco shelf stackers in the BNP? How likely are shelf stackers to admit their occupation? Could they be embarrassed or just believe the party wouldn't be interested? And if you told the Eagle's Nest you work in the frozen fish department how fascinated are they likely to be by that information?
It seems to me that the BNP might be more interested in taking control of the police canteen than ASDA's aisle five. The purpose here is to record information that's useful to the BNP, an organisation that is concerned with being able to physically defend itself. Of course bouncers and ex-soldiers are interesting to the BNP, they have skills that this kind of organisation may wish to call on. They are not necesarily overrepresented in the membership, only more likely to get their occupation (or former occupation) recorded.
When 95% of "members" don't have an occupation listed you have to ask yourself whether this sample is representative. It clearly isn't. What it does represent is the kind of industries the BNP want to record. How else do you explain the "fact" that 7% of BNP members are artists? Because being an artist is interesting enough to write down, nothing more.
What it does not mean is that artists are somehow drawn to fascism, only that of the entire list of 12,000 members we know that around 40 of them describe themselves as artists. If you're interested this includes a voice-over artist, someone who's hobby is water colours, and a number of cartoonists. We're not even sure this is how they make their living.
The data is not sound. And frankly you don't even need to go that far in depth to see it. Are there genuinely no students in the BNP? Or unemployed people? Or retired people? Not according to this graphic.
Well, actually there are retired people listed - but Socialist Worker ignores them, so a retired civil engineer becomes a professional. That's a judgement call that may or may not have merit, but it's one that screens out an interesting piece of information - whether people are more likely to join the BNP once they retire. It's also an interesting assumption to make that retired civil engineers are part of the same category as civil engineers who have not retired. Not necessarily wrong, but interesting.
There are around twenty two students on the list (from a quick count) - where's their slice of pie? 4% students not interesting enough for Socialist Worker? Or is it ideologically unsound to mention that young people can be bigoted morons too? What other pieces of unpalatable information have the designers of this graphic decided to shield us from?
There are more difficulties with the way these figures are represented. There are as many vicars as serving cops on the BNP list. Strange but true. But cops head up the largest slice of the pie whilst our reverend goes in the... he's in the... actually, I haven't a fucking clue where they've put the God squad. Professionals? Other workers?
Looking at the chart you'd have thought that the police and the army make up a huge section of the membership - but actually many recruiters for the BNP would advise these very people not to join when they applied and certainly the idea that there are hundreds of BNP *members* in the police is just untrue. Yes, it would confirm certain prejudices if it were, but the figures simply do not back this up.
What there are is nineteen retired or former police officers - which is very interesting. Were these policemen (and they are all men) thrown out for being racists? Did they drop out because they're kind wasn't tolerated? Were they quietly purged after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry? It actually doesn't tell us very much about the actual police force. It does beg the question why is a former police officer far more likely to join the BNP than a serving police officer? That's a question we could have a stab at answering, unless we just lump them all in together and forget there's a difference.
Now, I was asked whether I thought this was a result of sloppy thinking or deliberate falsification. Personally, I think it's sloppy and they don't care because it's "useful" to their argument. You can guarantee that if the chart had said that most BNP members were PCS shop stewards Socialist Worker would not have printed it.
I think it's part of trying to debunk the idea that the working class is more racist than other sections of society. If the fascists draw their membership predominantly from the middle classes and the armed thugs of the state we have a useful tool to counter those who want to say that workers are the most backward section of society.
An entirely worthy goal I'm sure. But before these figures pass into mythology as incontrovertible truth I think it's worth highlighting that they do not bear scrutiny. Not even a bit.