The far-right British National Party (BNP) is seeking to gain ground in the forthcoming local elections by playing on false fears about race and immigration, and by seeking to exploit the mythology of a white 'Christian Britain'.
Concerns about the possible growth of BNP support in advance of the 5 May ballots in England have come to light through a social policy report on underlying political trends ñ and via the contested claims of Employment Minister and Labour MP Margaret Hodge.
In line with the trend among far-right parties across Europe, the BNP has tried to disguise its racist and extreme nationalist roots in recent years.
It has also attempted to exploit hard-line Christian conservatism by seeking to set up a body claiming to be a 'Christian Council of Britain', by scaremongering about Muslims, and by getting in on anti-Jerry Springer opera protests promoted by the controversial group Christian Voice - which has since distanced itself from them.
According to analysis to be published next week by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, up to 25 per cent of voters admitted that they ìmight consider votingî for the BNP under certain circumstances ñ partly as result of feeling ignored by the traditional political parties.
Further research indicates a particular propensity towards the BNP among white working-class people in economically deprived communities who feel especially let down by the Labour Party.
Traditionally, the BNP, which has gained around 4 per cent of the vote in some seats where it has stood, has relied on a hard core of ideologues ñ and has been more attractive to Conservative supporters. New Tory leader David Cameron has called on people to vote for ìanyone but the BNPî in May.
The British National Party has just 15 councillors across England. Leader Nick Griffin claimed on Good Friday, when the party tastelessly chose to launch its campaign, that the BNP might gain an extra 15 or 20 seats from its 365 candidates in May.
However a leading East London Labour MP caused widespread concern recently by claiming that up to 8 in 10 voters in Barking and Dagenham might consider voting for the BNP.
Margaret Hodge was accused of irresponsibility and alarmism in pursuit of votes, and she has subsequently toned down her remarks by saying that Labour must do more to get across to disillusioned voters what the government is achieving for them.
Even a BNP spokesperson said that her estimates were way ahead of even his own calculations. Psephologists dispute claims both by Hodge and the BNP.
He continued: ìThere is a serious problem in dealing with the BNP. It's not that they are a hugeÖ but rather that following years of successfully countering the rise of fascism, we have become too complacent about tackling their arguments head on. The assumption that marginalising the BNP will do is not good enough any more.î
Hundal says he refuses ìto demonise white working-class people who vote for the BNPî, and adds: ìThe British National Party have done better in local elections than national elections because they target key constituencies with a mixture of falsified propaganda and outright lies. As yet there has been very little effort to combat this across the country in a coordinated manner.î
In 2005 the BNP supporters circulated leaflets in Margaret Hodge's constituency containing spurious claims that Africans were being paid £50,000 to move into the area.
Meanwhile, Professor Peter John, author of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, stressed on BBC Radio 4ís Today programme that his work considered ìunderlying supportî for BNP ideas, rather than concrete voting intentions. ìIt is important not to misinterpret thisî, he said.
On its website the British National Party claims that ìour country is being ripped apart by the forces of multiculturalismî. The partyís supporters seek to blame immigrants and asylum seekers for taking jobs, benefits and opportunities from what it calls the ìindigenousî (by which it means white) population.
Speaking to the BBC on Monday, BNP spokesperson Phil Edwards claimed that because Britain was a ìfundamentally Christian countryî it followed that ìwe should be treated with respect, as the indigenous British people.î
But the UK religious think tank Ekklesia, which has previously exposed and challenged religious arguments put forward by the BNP, says that ìit is disgraceful for the BNP to try to use Christian labels to justify blatantly anti-Christian ideas, and to claim that British is the equivalent of ëwhiteí.î
Ekklesia director Jonathan Bartley points out that racism and discrimination are inimical to the Gospel, and that the Jewish and Christian biblical tradition is one of welcome and generosity towards displaced people.
In East London, voters interviewed for the Rowntree report say that they feel ìlet downî by the main political parties.
Ekklesia says that the answer is not to pander to racism and xenophobia, but to develop rigorous policies to end poverty, inequality and deprivation ñ and to combat the ideas of the BNP, rather than pretending they can be ignored or exploiting them for electoral effect.
ìIt is the mainstream political culture that feeds the British National Partyís ideology through its anti-immigrant rhetoric,î says Ekklesiaís co-director Simon Barrow.
ìIn past elections we have witnessed an unseemly attempt by Labour and Tories to outweigh each other by being seen to be ëtoughí on migrants and asylum seekers. This feeds prejudice rather than uprooting it.î
Says Barrow: ìHistorically, immigration policy in Britain has unfortunately been premised on the false idea that a dose of racism at our borders will quell racism inside the country ñ the extraordinary assumption being that the presence of black people and ëforeignersí is somehow responsible for racist attitudes. We must nail that lie.î
Ekklesia says that the churches should be even more forthright in their opposition to racism and to parties and groups which feed on it. The think tank also says that ìnew attempts must be made to reach out personally to those who may fall prey to far-right propaganda.î
Operation Black Vote, which campaigns for multicultural politics, told BBC Five Live that the challenge is deprivation and poverty, and that the problem has ìnothing to do with black people.î
Meanwhile Liberal Democrat president Simon Hughes, a practicing Christian, urged voters not to be taken in by the simplistic promises of the British National Party.
He said that the failure of Tory and Labour governments to provide adequate housing and jobs was to blame for the growth of the BNP.
But Ekklesia says it is concerned that ìpoliticians of all parties are seeking to bash each other with the BNP stick rather than to confront the roots of racism in some of the policies and ideas which are taken to be common currency in public debate.î
[Also on Ekklesia: UN and faith groups highlight harsh treatment of refugees - don't blame migrants, says Christian think tank; BNP helping to establish church based around racial ideology; BNP members involved in 'Christian' front; BNP claims many of its members are Christians; Christians distance themselves from right-wing religious group; Racist voters are 'spitting at God' say churches; Campaign to preserve Nazi church; Churches welcome exposure of BNP 'bigotry'; Church must face racism, says black archbishop; New black archbishop Sentamu receives racist hate mail; Black archbishop prays for racist abusers; Churches to mark tenth Racial Justice Sunday on 9/11; Churches urged to act for racial justice; Christians to live as asylum seekers during Lent; Churches express solidarity with migrants and asylum seekers; Churches attack global mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers; Christian leaders issue election challenge on asylum; New archbishop: Government's asylum policy 'inhuman'; Bishop attacks xenophobic bidding war over asylum and immigration; Methodist add warning over election treatment of asylum issue; Asylum victims attacked, destitute and vilified say reports; Christian Tory candidate doctored asylum photos; Bishops call for change in asylum law; .Howardís 'false' anti-immigrant claims defy UN and churches; Christian MP attacks anti-migrant rhetoric; Church leaders say asylum system endangers lives; Tory who doctored asylum photos fails to get elected]