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FEATURES - RIGHT OF WAY

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With race riots a recent bitter memory, Labour fought for its Burnley seats in the face of Iraq protest votes and a...
With race riots a recent bitter memory, Labour fought for its Burnley seats in the face of Iraq protest votes and a resurgent BNP. David Crouch was out for the count

There's nothing like a race riot to strengthen a council's bargaining power with central government. Since the disturbances of June 2001, Burnley has had national press and politicians crawling all over it. Election night in the town will reveal whether this has made any difference.

'We've found it easier to lobby government since 2001,' says chief executive Gillian Taylor, for whom tonight is her fourth outing as the town's returning officer. 'We've had unparalleled access to ministers and civil servants. At one point, if it was a Tuesday afternoon and we hadn't had a ministerial visit, something was wrong.'

Tonight there is a sense that something else might be about to go wrong. With a majority of just one on the council, the ruling Labour group is defending nine out of the 15 seats up for grabs. With voters expected to cast protest votes, Labour is on the defensive.

The British National Party is set to pounce on any sign of Labour weakness. With only one seat to defend, they are standing eight candidates in marginal wards.

Polls in the same wards last year show the party could realistically pick up several more seats, potentially making it the second party of Burnley local government. BNP group leader Len Starr is confidently predicting at least four seats for his side tonight.

Burnley itself is festooned with flags of St George. The football might have come at a good time for the BNP.

Yet, here at the count, there seems to be little sense of what's at stake.

Labour mayor Lilian Clark, standing tonight in a head-to-head contest with the BNP, is wistfully contemplating retirement. 'If I lose, it'll be in the place I started out in politics 50 years ago,' she muses.

She admits her campaign has been weaker than her opponents' - she has put in just six hours on the knocker because she's been 'very, very busy'. Labour leader Stuart Caddy sees the Liberal Democrats as the main threat and is 'feeling positive, as always'.

In contrast, the BNP huddles by the tellers for the result of the mayor's Rosegrove seat, watching the count like hawks. One of them, a nice, clean-shaven lad - clean-shaven all over his head, that is - pauses only to stroke the 8-inch scar that runs from the nape of his neck round almost to his mouth, just missing his ear. And you thought the BNP were trying to look respectable.

The Conservative leader, Peter Doyle, is concerned mainly for his own political skin. 'My main interest is my own result,' he says.

Mr Doyle's daughters are with him, one is a Conservative candidate herself. 'She doesn't stand a chance,' her father shrugs. Defending just the one seat tonight, the Tories will be pleased to hold on to what they have got.

So perhaps the Lib Dems can inject a note of urgency into the night's proceedings?

'What the Labour Party did was obnoxious, they stooped lower than the snake's belly.' Now that's more like it - some fighting talk at last from Mozaquir Ali, defending Daneshouse with Stoneyholme for the Lib Dems. So what have those Labour snakes been up to?

'On Friday night, they put Labour posters up on lamp posts all across the town. The election office was closed until Monday so we couldn't do anything about it.'

As if defacing lamp posts with illicit material wasn't bad enough, Labour also snuck an Asian candidate into Stoneyholme through the back door. 'He was an independent, then hours before nominations closed he turned Labour,' Mr Ali exclaims.

Indeed, it transpires that Labour's only Asian candidate tonight had not been a party member until the eve of the election campaign. The population of Daneshouse with Stoneyholme is 64% Asian - hence Labour's relief at having a candidate who at least looks the part.

The count is subdued partly because the vote has been entirely postal. Campaigning peaked a week ago or more. Instead of the usual frantic chase to get the vote out, candidates have had nothing to do all day.

Ms Taylor is pleased with the postal ballot. 'At 50.1%, turnout is up,' she says. 'At last year's local elections it was 43%, and at the last European elections it was 19%.'

It has also made the count quicker and easier. Council staff started totting up the ballot papers on 1 June. All the same, at 7am on the day of the vote, there was a queue of people outside the town hall unwilling to trust the mail.

Doubts linger about the postal ballot. Burnley police are investigating the relatively large number of applications for appointments of proxies to vote on electors' behalf. Only a small number of applications had been expected, but Ms Taylor went to the police after 197 applications were received, 182 of them from Daneshouse with Stoneholme.

'My staff and I were being very proactive,' Ms Taylor says. 'As the proxy locations started rolling in, I got so concerned I called the police.'

Ms Taylor is clear about her role in making the new system work. 'If the shit hits the fan it's me that's responsible, not the politicians,' she says. But at the end of the day, the proxy voting affair concerns under 200 out of 65,000 eligible voters.

Burnley first made headlines three years ago when rioting broke out and shops and cars were set alight. The violence took place after an Asian taxi driver was attacked by a group of white men.

The rioting came less than a month after the BNP scored its second-best result at the general election, taking over 4,000 votes in Burnley, or 11.25%. A year later, the party won its first three seats on Burnley BC, winning five more at elections last year.

Since then, the BNP has lost two seats in unusual circumstances. In the autumn, councillor Luke Smith was involved in an 'altercation' with other party members and the party kicked him out. In this case, at least, the BNP's boot was truly on the other foot.

The party lost the subsequent by-election. Shortly afterwards another BNP councillor, Maureen Stowe, quit the party in a flurry of recriminations. Ms Stowe, it turned out, had a mixed-race child and was a great fan of Nelson Mandela, neither of which endeared her to the party.

For her own part, Ms Stowe had found membership of the BNP a revelatory experience. Present at the count tonight, she says: 'I can't believe I brought shame to the town by standing for the BNP. I simply didn't realise.'

Some of the key issues behind the rioting and the BNP's vote in Burnley have not gone away. The town is still in the bottom 50 most deprived communities in England. As in 2001, it has the highest proportion of empty housing in the UK. Owners have given up on their properties and left them to rot. Between 1998 and 2002, property values in the south-west of the town - a BNP stronghold - fell by as much as 44 per cent.

It is nearly midnight when the first results are announced. Labour loses two seats to the Lib Dems but gains one from an independent. The Tories, to their own surprise and jubilation, hold onto their existing seat and take another off the BNP.

All eyes are now on Hapton with Park, a large ward in the town's south-west. There is a recount. Labour is four votes ahead of the Lib Dems, but the BNP takes the seat by a margin of 28. Shopkeeper Sharon Wilkinson becomes the BNP's second councillor for the ward.

The BNP still has six seats on the council. But in the other wards where it stood, it consistently occupied second place with a total vote of 3,628 - just 21% of the votes cast in those wards.

The loss of two seats by Labour means the council is now hung: Labour has 21 seats to the other parties' 24. Council leader Mr Caddy announces: 'It is a tremendous result, despite losing overall control.'

The glummest figure of the night is Labour's mayor-elect, John Harbour, beaten by the BNP in Hapton with Park. 'I've been a councillor there for 12 years, maybe the voters got fed up with me,' he laments.

To some this might look like taking magnanimity in defeat to extremes. But it sums up the way in which Labour seems to have sleep-walked into losing control of Burnley BC. In fact, Labour got off lightly tonight. Will it be so fortunate next time?

What changed in Burnley?

Party / Seats up for re-election / Seats lost / Seats gained / New composition of council

Labour / 9 / 2 to Lib Dem / 1 from BNP, 1 from Ind / 21

Conservative / 3 / - / 1 from BNP / 4

Liberal Democrats / 1 / 2 from Lab / - / 11

BNP / 1 / 1 from Con / 1 from Lab / 6

Independent / 1 / 1 from Lab / - / 3

Turnout: 50.1% (up from 43% last year)

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