And are we any nearer to finding out after last week's Question Time?
If you read the BBC's Have Your Say, for example - and I don't recommend you do if you're in easy reach of breakable objects - you'd be forgiven for thinking that everyone in Britain (especially people who live in ENGLAND, NOT EU) welcomed Griffin's delightful presence as a fragrant rose among the thorns. This post at Speak You're Branes contains a startlingly brilliant comment from a HYSer:
In the famous book “to kill a mockingbird” Atticus Finch tells his kids, bravery is not a man with a gun in his hand, but someone who knows they are going to be beaten before they start, but still goes ahead. Nick Griffin knew he wouldn’t get a fair hearing and would be raked over the coals. But he went ahead and aired his views, that makes him brave in my eyes and thats why I am voting BNP next election
Yes, that's right. If you are in any way familiar with the book or film you might be forgiven for finding a comparison between Nick Griffin and Atticus Finch a sliver on the bewildering side. As ever with these matters - as I did the other day with a comment of tremendously convincing verisimilitude - you encounter Poe's Law. How can you tell whether it's a kosher nutjob or just a clever spoof? Tricky. I veer towards thinking the Finch comment is spectacularly ignorant and unknowingly ironic, but I could be wrong.
Alex makes a vital point about how the over-the-top reaction from the BNP supporters on HYS puts other discussions on there into focus:
It’s actually rather reassuring, to see a party almost unanimously inducing massive, racist erections in HYSers, when we know only a fraction of the population would ever actually vote for them. It’s almost as if they’re just a small group making a lot of noise, who the majority of us disagree with, but stay silent because we don’t think they’re worth bothering with.
It tells you a lot about how extremists can create a Wizard of Oz style representation of much more support than they really have. You'll see it often in web discussions on a variety of subjects, and this one is no different. If you read HYS every day you might be under the impression that no-one in the UK supports Labour, that everyone is obsessed with immigration, that everyone hates political correctness and longs for the days of the Black and White Minstrel Show, that everyone is 'fed up'.
Web-savvy folk, as we all are pretty much nowadays, know to take it all with a pinch of salt. The internet has made us all more sceptical, and that's a good thing. Your first experience of the internet might be a pop-up that tells you you've won a prize, or an email that tells you you've come into a Nigerian fortune, and you begin to learn that pretty much everyone is going to bullshit you. I think this is a good thing. It makes you on your guard. So that when you see a messageboard full of HYS types loving the attention for Nick Griffin, you don't think: "Oh my goodness. Everyone is suddenly in love with the BNP. What on earth has happened?" - you think: here we go then, an infiltration.
If that doesn't tell us how much support the BNP has, what about polls? The shock figure from the weeekend was that 22 per cent of voters were considering voting for the extremists. Really? Well, not quite. A couple of interesting things have come out of these figures, which were initially reported as showing a huge boost for the much-hated ultra-nationalists.
Firstly, as Lancaster Unity among others has pointed out, there have been claims by some at the BNP that they are actively taking part in YouGov, partly to skew polls and over-represent their support, but also to get some much-needed funds for BNP coffers.
This also needs to be treated with caution. Who knows how many BNP types are really taking part in YouGov and whether they're having a significant impact? As we saw with the release of the BNP list the other week, 100,000 had been added to member numbers with the possible intention of overstating membership - they would appear to want to seem bigger than they really are. On the other hand, though, if that scenario were true then it could have the danger of misrepresenting BNP support and possibly creating a bandwagon effect by making them appear more popular and less marginalised. If such polls were skewed - and it's probably easier to do than hanging around shopping centres waiting for people with clipboards - then that might create a false impression. But at the moment all we have are claims by some BNP people to be trying to skew polls, and no evidence they have.
Secondly, as Sunny wrote at Liberal Conspiracy yesterday, the full details of the YouGov poll - beyond those happy headlines for the BNP - are a little less frightening:
Only 11% of the public have a favourable impression of the BNP. Positive feeling towards the BNP has in fact fallen over the last 10 months.
And the poll also vindicates the BBC for the way it handled Question Time, with a significant increase in the number of people (over 11%) saying the BBC was right to invite him.
So according to the very poll which initially led to stories claiming the BNP had a worrying level of support, support for the BNP has actually fallen. It's not surprising to note how that bit didn't get as many enormous headlines as the "22% of people might vote BNP" (although 15% say it's only a possibility) figures.
So how popular are the BNP really? It's hard to tell at the moment. The next time we know will be at election time. But in the meantime, it's important not to overstate the threat, while at the same time recognising it is there.
*update* Liberal Conspiracy has more and has asked YouGov for a response.