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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
In bed with the BNP
by Smyth Harper
BBC News Online, in Burnley, Lancashire

Ex BNP councillor Luke Smith celebrates his victory at last year's council elections
Luke Smith's victory was short-lived, after a fight at a BNP festival
Last year the British National Party won more seats than ever before, and its biggest success was in North West England.

In Burnley, Lancashire, it became for a brief time the official opposition after its strength was increased to eight councillors from three.

Across the country as a whole, the party didn't do so well - gaining just 13 councillors.

But it was enough to send a chill down the political establishment's spine.

So why did voters in Burnley, in many respects a typical northern market town, find the BNP such an attractive prospect?

'Disillusionment'

The town was the scene of race riots three years ago, which saw violent clashes between gangs of white and Asian youths.

There is an undemocratic movement in this country, the sole purpose of which is to stop the BNP
Len Starr, Burnley BNP leader
Shops were looted and destroyed, cars were burnt out, one of Burnley's best-known pubs was firebombed.

To the BNP's many opponents in the town, the party's electoral success is a legacy of that night of mayhem.

But Victoria Duffy, a reporter at the Burnley Express, says there was also widespread "disillusionment" with the traditionally Labour-dominated local council.

In voting for the BNP, people were expressing a "desire to do something radical to shake up the Labour Party locally," she argues.

It is a view backed up by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which in a report published earlier this year said the party was most successful where it had concentrated on local "bread and butter" issues.

Disused mill in Burnley
Opponents claim Burnley's deprivation drew voters to the BNP

Manchester-based social research company Vision 21 interviewed 539 voters during three by-elections in the North of England involving the BNP.

It found the party's national policies, such as the "voluntary repatriation" of "foreigners resident in Britain" and its opposition to mixed race relationships, on the grounds that it destroys white blood lines, were rarely mentioned on the doorstep.

Equally, it claimed the party's belief that gay and lesbian relationships are "unhealthy for any community" were kept largely in the closet.

"The BNP is attracting voters, particularly young men, through effective grassroots campaigning, and the other parties are failing to rise to this challenge on the doorstep," the report says.

'Listen to us'

In Burnley's market square, 64-year-old Brian Stanwick sums up this feeling of frustration.

"You can agree or disagree with their policies, but at least you know where they stand," he says.

"I am very opposed to the war in Iraq, but the government just didn't listen. Voting BNP is a way of making them listen."

Sitting on a bench in Burnley town centre, 19-year-old Tom Green says: "I can kind of see where the BNP are coming from, but they take things too far.

"But they are just like every other party and have made no impact whatsoever.

"They've hardly given the town a good name, have they?"

'Jealousy'

Ms Duffy says a "politically-perpetuated myth" that Burnley's Asian community benefited from regeneration cash at the expense of everyone else was allowed to perpetuate in the town.

"But the myth turned to jealousy," she adds, saying that a "them and us" situation arose which the BNP took advantage of.

Riots in Burnley, 2001
The shadow of 2001's racial tension still hangs over Burnley
Looking around the predominantly Asian areas of Stoneyholme and Davyhurst, you have to wonder how that myth spread. It looks much the same as the other poorest areas of Burnley.

One young Asian man, who asked not to be identified, said: "Does it look like we've been getting millions of pounds at the expense of everyone else?

"Some whites in Burnley still believe that that's the truth, but look at me. I don't have a job."

Divisions

The BNP's arrival on the political stage of Burnley has not ushered in an era of change.

Since last year the party has failed to capitalise on its success and the last 12 months have been marked by division, defections and resignations.

We are not aware of any BNP councillor making any contribution whatsoever to the economic debate in Burnley
Mike Damms, East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce

One councillor left to become an independent and flirted with anti-fascists.

Another - Luke Smith, who was banned for life from Burnley football club in 2002 after being convicted of a public order offence - was forced to step down from the council after glassing a BNP supporter at festival organised by the party.

East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce says the BNP has done little to improve the lot of people in the area.

"We are not aware of any BNP councillor making any contribution whatsoever to the economic debate in Burnley," said Mike Damms, chief executive of the chamber.

"All we are interested in is getting people to invest in east Lancashire for the benefit of everyone here, and it doesn't seem the BNP has helped." he said.

'Conspiracy'

The BNP's leader on Burnley council, Len Starr insists the party is making a difference, but has been hamstrung by a large Labour majority.

"The message coming from the people of Burnley is that they wanted a change," he says.

He admits it has been difficult for the BNP to achieve anything - "it always is when there is just one party with a large majority, but there has not been a proper opposition in Burnley for donkey's years".

Burnley market square
The market square is like any other Northern town
The Luke Smith debacle showed the party's strength, rather than weakness, he claims.

"We will not tolerate violence in this party."

He also claims a report has been written which, contrary to the chamber's view, states that the BNP's arrival in Burnley has encouraged investment, but he is not able to produce the report.

He considers the BNP a party of victims of a massive conspiracy involving Labour, the Lib Dems, Tories and the media.

"There is an undemocratic movement in this country, the sole purpose of which is to stop the BNP," he says.

"We are a legitimate political party."

He looks back to an idyllic childhood and says he wants a Britain like that again.

"In the town where I lived it was 100% white people. People as a community supported each other. You could leave your door unlocked and know that if someone came in it would be a friend.

"That is what I would like to return to."





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