Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Tuesday, 3 June 2008 17:21 UK

Disengaged voters 'look to BNP'

By Philip Churm
BBC Asian Network

BNP leader Nick Griffin
The BNP has attracted thousands of votes from former Labour voters
As a report on politics in Stoke-on-Trent paints a damning picture of "hopelessness and despair", many people fear voter disengagement will lead to a polarisation of political views.

Experts say there is clear evidence a growing number of people there will gladly give their vote to British National Party candidates if mainstream politicians continue to ignore them.

In its report, the Governance Commission, set up by Local Government Minister John Healey, highlights some serious concerns about the city.

The decline of a few major industries has led to high unemployment, and household income is among the lowest in the country.

The area is the 10th most deprived local authority district in England on health issues. Educational achievement is below the national average.

But the commission's chairman, Michael Clarke, also said it was dismayed at the damage to the city's political system as councillors have failed to get involved with local people.

It makes you wonder what is going to happen to us or what is going to happen to our children
Bushrat Hussain

Mr Clarke added if politicians did not work harder to engage with the public, "we shall see the breeding ground of extremism fed and watered".

Until a few years ago all the council's 60 seats were held by Labour, but they have now lost three-quarters to other parties, including the BNP.

BNP councillor Michael Coleman says they have done well out of Labour's failure.

In the last local elections Labour lost seven seats and the BNP gained three, giving them a total of nine on a council split by independents.

Mr Coleman said: "The BNP is the new Labour Party, but we are nationalists as well so we've got a patriotic, nationalist and socialist stance."

'Community champions'

And their stance has attracted thousands of votes from former Labour voters.

Residents on some estates who hardly ever saw politicians in the past are now getting their lawns cut, the elderly are getting help with their chores and the BNP refer to themselves as "community champions".

Anecdotes suggesting the gradual "Islamification" of the area, also help promote the BNP's perceived status.

But compared with many other cities in the Midlands, Stoke-on-Trent does not have a large ethnic minority population - just 2%.

I've had three different BNP leaflets posted through my door and none from the other parties

Mark Meredith, the Labour elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, has also faced criticism.

"People's dissatisfaction with all mainstream political parties across Britain is, I think, pretty clear," he says.

He had previously refused to work with the BNP but now says he will.

But he challenges the BNP to live up to their commitment to the city by presenting policies that "will unite and bind our people together rather than dividing our people".

His position is far from secure. Elections for a new mayor are not due until next year - but the post may not exist by then.

Among the commission's 14 conclusions and recommendations, is a proposal for the city to choose, by referendum, between a directly-elected mayor and cabinet or an indirectly-elected leader and cabinet.

Political shift

The BNP sees the commission's involvement as a deliberate and undemocratic move to stop them gaining power.

Mick Temple, professor of politics at Staffordshire University, has also looked into the political shift in Stoke-on-Trent.

He says if the city decides to keep the elected mayor, Labour could be in trouble. "The BNP would have a very good chance of winning, with the right candidate under the right conditions."

Habib Khan (copyright Staffordshire Police/PA)
Habib Khan was also convicted of wounding Keith Brown's son

The report is not the only reason the city is in the spotlight. A manslaughter verdict against a Muslim businessman who killed his BNP activist neighbour brought criticism from the party.

Habib Khan was found not guilty of murder after the jury heard his family had put up with racism, threats and violence from Keith Brown for several years.

Mr Khan and his victim lived in Mr Coleman's Weston and Meir North ward.

After the manslaughter verdict, Mr Coleman said: "We advise anybody who gets angry - get involved with the BNP."

But race relations in the city are generally good. Mohammed Gulzar from the Gilani Noor Mosque, where Mr Khan was a member, said "You find good and bad in every community,"

However Zahid, who is in his mid-20s and lives in a racially mixed area of the city, can see why many of his neighbours are turning to the BNP.

"An average person is going to vote for the one who knocked on the door and took the time to speak to them.

Common concerns

"I've had three different BNP leaflets posted through my door and none from the other parties."

The leaflets share common concerns about law and order, a better NHS and rubbish collections, but they also strongly oppose the building of local mosque, condemn asylum seekers and call for a ban on the Islamic veil.

Taxi driver Bushrat Hussain says he is nervous: "It makes you wonder what is going to happen to us or what is going to happen to our children.

"It is really frightening."

Man convicted of killing activist
23 May 08 |  Staffordshire
Neighbour killer also wounded son
28 May 08 |  Staffordshire
BNP gains from Labour disaffection
04 May 08 |  UK Politics
Lord will not meet BNP councillor
09 May 08 |  Staffordshire
BNP makes gains in Stoke-on-Trent
02 May 08 |  Staffordshire

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