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The mainstream parties have been fretting about the possibility that the British National Party will score big gain...
The mainstream parties have been fretting about the possibility that the British National Party will score big gains in next Thursday's local elections. The BNP has a slate of 40 candidates in Birmingham and have 10-plus standing in Sunderland, Bradford, Kirklees, Leeds, Wakefield, Barnsley and Barking & Dagenham. Concentrations of Muslims and immigrants, in particular, are being used as trigger issues.

But the biggest cause for concern was Barking MP Margaret Hodge's statement that eight out of 10 white people in her east London constituency may vote for the far-right. This week, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has published academic research which supports Mrs Hodge's contention that in some areas a significant number will consider voting BNP (LGC, 13 April).

It is difficult, a week before polling day, to know whether this particular BNP scare is real or not. In previous years, British voters have proved resistant to extremist parties even when the far-right has been making inroads in countries such as France, the Netherlands and Italy. However, pollsters have latterly started to ask new questions, along the lines of 'would you ever consider voting BNP?'. The results are certainly alarming when compared with the more normal 'will you vote BNP in the next election?'.

The BNP has seen its opportunity in parts of urban England with significant and poorer white populations. During the past decade, established minorities have been joined by large numbers of new migrants. The BNP has identified enclaves of immigrant and/or minority residents close to poorer white communities

as places to organise.

The key to BNP success appears to derive from the party's capacity to exploit fears about local services. Their argument goes along the line: 'we can't send our children to the school we want there are lots of immigrants in the local school therefore, immigrants are taking our school places'. Ditto local health facilities. The perception of migrants 'queue-jumping' to be given social housing is even stronger.

New migrants and established minority populations still tend to be concentrated in a small number of authorities. It is at this local level the greatest degree of political management is needed. National politicians with responsibility for immigration and asylum are not the ones who must then manage its local consequences. Resources to underpin the consequences of immigration have rarely matched the scale of recent settlement.

Moreover, the political class has yet to find a sensible way of approaching the BNP. Calling potential supporters 'racists' is not much of a strategy. In politics, argument and debate are the only way to achieve democratic change. The BNP must be confronted and defeated at the local level. Next week will show us how great the challenge really is.

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