The British National Party is on course to win its first seats in the European Parliament this year, Gordon Brown has been warned. Senior Labour figures have told the Prime Minister they believe two BNP candidates are likely to be sent to Brussels under the proportional representation system of voting, The Independent has learnt.
They fear Labour’s campaign for the European election in June has been too slow to get off the ground and its lack of preparation is allowing the BNP to win over disaffected Labour voters.
Yesterday, the far-right party was celebrating a surprise win in a council by-election in Swanley, Kent, where the BNP candidate took 41 per cent of the vote after Labour’s support collapsed.
It is the first time the BNP has won an election in a southern English county, and shows it is broadening its appeal beyond its traditional northern heartlands. The party also polled more than 28 per cent of the vote this week in a council by-election in Thringstone, Leicestershire–a seat it had never contested before.
Mr Brown has been told the BNP has a strong chance of fielding successful candidates in the North-west of England and Yorkshire and the Humber. A senior Labour source told The Independent yesterday: “We have got to get our act together–and very quickly. No one is focusing on the European elections; no one knows who is in charge.”
Last night, the former minister Peter Hain warned that every political party was guilty of “complacency” over the threat posed by the BNP.
He said: “Everybody across the political spectrum–especially the Labour Party–has to prioritise beating the BNP with a vigorous strategy based on grassroots politics to win local trust and also making sure we deliver on affordable housing and deliver on jobs.
“There is very fertile territory for [the BNP] now. When people are losing their jobs and there is an economic downturn . . . it’s heaven-made for them.”
Labour officials believe the BNP is well placed to attract support from the UK Independence Party, which won 16 per cent of the vote at the last European election, but has since imploded. They are also worried that disillusionment with the Government among traditional Labour voters will tempt them to support the BNP or not turn out at all.
The UK is divided into 12 regions for the European ballot, with voters asked to back parties rather than candidates. In practice, a party must win between 8 and 13 per cent of the total votes cast to have at least one representative picked from a list of nominees, depending on the size of the region.
In the North-west, where the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, is its main candidate, the party has to add only two or three percentage points to the 6.4 per cent of the vote it secured in 2004. In Yorkshire and Humber, where the BNP polled 8 per cent last time, it probably has to increase its support by three or four points.
Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham, who campaigns against the far-right group, acknowledged that conditions look better for the BNP now than they did five years ago, when it last came close to winning a seat.
Mr Cruddas said: “Five years ago, Ukip did very well and five years ago we had a benign economic environment. Now there is a global crisis. Everything else being equal, it’s going to be tricky.”
The BNP’s ability to spring surprises in previous no-go areas was underlined on Thursday during the ballot in Swanley St Mary’s, which used to be a rare, Labour-leaning ward on the Tory-controlled Sevenoaks District Council. The BNP’s Paul Golding captured it with a majority of 76 over Labour. The Tories finished third.
Mr Golding said afterwards: “I’m going to put British people first on the housing queue. I’ve had lots of complaints that foreigners and asylum-seekers are getting ahead of them.”
A Labour activist, Lesley Dyball, claimed that BNP supporters chanted “blacks out” after the result was declared at Swanley Town Hall. The BNP’s victory at Swanley follows its near-miss last month in an election in the neighbouring London Borough of Bexley. Simon Darby, the deputy party leader, said it would mount a vigorous contest in the European elections, adding: “We are in place for 10 seats and we’ve worked out if we can secure around 8 per cent of the vote we will take one of them.”
The BNP threat will be highlighted today at a London rally organised by the group Unite Against Fascism (UAF). Speakers include Mr Hain, the former London mayor Ken Livingstone and Ennio Odino, a Holocaust survivor. The UAF secretary, Weyman Bennett, said: “Hitler used the economic crisis of the 1930s to gain a hearing for racists and murderous policies.”
Police are preparing for a “summer of rage” as victims of the economic downturn take to the streets to demonstrate against financial institutions, the Guardian has learned.
Britain’s most senior police officer with responsibility for public order raised the spectre of a return of the riots of the 1980s, with people who have lost their jobs, homes or savings becoming “footsoldiers” in a wave of potentially violent mass protests.
Superintendent David Hartshorn, who heads the Metropolitan police’s public order branch, told the Guardian that middle-class individuals who would never have considered joining demonstrations may now seek to vent their anger through protests this year.
He said that banks, particularly those that still pay large bonuses despite receiving billions in taxpayer money, had become “viable targets”. So too had the headquarters of multinational companies and other financial institutions in the City which are being blamed for the financial crisis.
Hartshorn, who receives regular intelligence briefings on potential causes of civil unrest, said the mood at some demonstrations had changed recently, with activists increasingly “intent on coming on to the streets to create public disorder”.
The warning comes in the wake of often violent protests against the handling of the economy across Europe. In recent weeks Greek farmers have blocked roads over falling agricultural prices, a million workers in France joined demonstrations to demand greater protection for jobs and wages and Icelandic demonstrators have clashed with police in Reykjavik.
In the UK hundreds of oil refinery workers mounted wildcat strikes last month over the use of foreign workers.
Intelligence reports suggest that “known activists” are also returning to the streets, and police claim they will foment unrest. “Those people would be good at motivating people, but they haven’t had the ‘footsoldiers’ to actually carry out [protests],” Hartshorn said. “Obviously the downturn in the economy, unemployment, repossessions, changes that. Suddenly there is the opportunity for people to mass protest.
“It means that where we would possibly look at certain events and say, ‘yes there’ll be a lot of people there, there’ll be a lot of banner waving, but generally it will be peaceful’, [now] we have to make sure these elements don’t come out and hijack that event and turn that into disorder.”
Hartshorn identified April’s G20 meeting of the group of leading and developing nations in London as an event that could kick-start a challenging summer. “We’ve got G20 coming and I think that is being advertised on some of the sites as the highlight of what they see as a ‘summer of rage’,” he said.
His comments are likely to be met with disappointment by protest groups, who in recent weeks have complained that police are adopting a more confrontational approach at demonstrations. Officers have been accused of exaggerating the threat posed by activists to justify the use of resources spent on them.
Police were said to have been heavy-handed at Greek solidarity marches in London in December and, last month, at protests against Israel’s invasion of Gaza. In August 1,000 officers, helicopters and riot horses were drafted to Kent from 26 UK police forces to oversee the climate camp demonstration against the Kingsnorth power station. The massive operation to monitor the protesters cost £5.9m and resulted in 100 arrests. But in December the government was forced to apologise to parliament after the Guardian revealed that its claims that 70 officers had been hurt in violent clashes were wrong.
However, Hartshorn insisted: “Potentially there will be more industrial actions. . . . History shows that some of those disputes–Wapping, the miners’ strike–have caused great tensions in the community and the police have had difficult times policing and maintaining law and order.”
Both “extreme rightwing and extreme leftwing” elements are looking to “use the fact that people are out of jobs” to galvanise support, he said.
A particularly worrying development was the re-emergence of individuals involved in the violent fascist organisation Combat 18, he said. “They are using the fact that there’s been lots of talk about eastern European people coming in and taking jobs on the Olympic sites,” he said. “They’re using those type of arguments to look at getting support.”
Hartshorn said he also expected large-scale demonstrations this year on environmental issues, with hardcore green activists “joining forces” with middle-class campaigners over issues such as airport expansion at Heathrow and Stansted. With the prospect of angry demonstrations against the economy, that could open the door to powerful coalitions.
“All you’ve got to do then is link in with the environmentalists, and look at the oil companies. They’re seen to be turning over billions of pounds profit in issues that are seen to be against the environment.”