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Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

White working class

Nick Watson
Nick Watson
Producer
Politics Show West Midlands

Voters in working class areas have traditionally supported the Labour party - and to a large extent they still do - but some senior politicians are increasingly worried about the rise of political extremism in some of their former heartlands.

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There is a changing face to Stoke on Trent - we examine the issues...

deprived area of Stoke-on-Trent
In deprived areas of Stoke-on-Trent voters turned to extremism

With phrases like "the ignored poor" and words like "betrayal" being bandied about it is clearly something that is causing concern inside the Labour party - which seems to be most vulnerable when it comes to former supporters turning to the extremes.

"White working-class people living on estates sometimes just don't feel anyone is listening or speaking up for them," Communities Secretary Hazel Blears said recently.

Immigration fears

High on the list of concerns is immigration - even in areas where there is no real history of in-comers.

A report for the Department for Communities and Local Government based on interviews with people living on estates in Birmingham and four other areas of England found that some people believed that the same rules were not applied to everyone equally.

Nick Griffin
Nick Griffin - moving to Stoke-on-Trent?

The idea that immigrants are jumping the queue for housing and other services and crowding out the local jobs market has taken root on some estates along with a sense of grievance and betrayal with the parties that traditionally fought for their interests.

Industrial collapse

In some areas - in the Midlands it's Stoke-on-Trent - this has translated into support for the far right British National Party.

They currently have nine councillors out of 60 - mainly in areas depressed by the collapse of the traditional pottery industry, where Labour used to be dominant.

Until the post of directly elected Mayor was scrapped last year there were real fears among Labour politicians in the city that the BNP were in with a good chance of winning the election in 2009.

House hunting

And with rumours that BNP leader Nick Griffin is house hunting in the city, Labour are waiting to see if he may challenge for one of the Westminster seats at the next General Election.

However it is easy to get carried away with the idea that the BNP have widespread support when the facts point to a different story. They currently have 16 councillors across the entire West Midlands region.

Sion Simon MP

Unemployment in Kingstanding is far too high, and that really has nothing to do with race but it creates an opportunity for the BNP to blame it on race

Sion Simon MP

In Birmingham for instance the party has fielded a full slate of candidates at the last two local elections - but they do not have a single councillor.

On the radar

The same goes for our other big cities in Wolverhampton and Coventry and aside from a couple of councillors they are non-existent in the shires.

That's not to say the issue is not on the radar of politicians in the West Midlands conurbation.

Birmingham Erdington MP Sion Simon highlighted the issue when the BNP came close to winning a seat in the Kingstanding ward of his constituency.

Rising unemployment

"We have to recognise that there are real issues for Labour in traditional working class areas like Kingstanding.

"White working class areas must be helped. Unemployment in Kingstanding is far too high, and that really has nothing to do with race but it creates an opportunity for the BNP to blame it on race."

Hazel Blears also warned that white people's concerns about the effects of immigration should not simply be branded "racist", as this would alienate them even more.

Disempowerment

Hazel Blears MP
Hazel Blears: effects of immigration not branded 'racist'

Citing a "growing sense of unfairness and disempowerment among poor white people", she said hostility to immigrants was worst among "people who have the least are more likely to be afraid of things being taken away from them".

With the economic recession now adding thousands to the region's dole queues the situation could be ripe for extremist parties to move in.

Labour is at least showing signs that they are aware that something may be stirring.

Labour heartlands

And it seems they have the most to lose with the BNP doing well in former Labour heartlands rather than places where the Conservatives or Lib Dems hold sway.

BNP victories in Nuneaton and Sandwell - where they have two councillors each fit that profile.

The other emerging factor is apathy.

With turnouts at local elections in some inner city areas as low as 25% increasing numbers of people are turning their back on the democratic process completely.

That is a worry for everyone.

The Politics Show for the West Midlands, with Jon Sopel and Michael Collie, Sundays at 1200 GMT on BBC One

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