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Wednesday, 1 May, 2002, 07:54 GMT 08:54 UK
Burnley waits and wonders
British National Party poster flies on a chimney in Burnley - the party has 13 candidates in this year's local elections.
A BNP banner flies on a chimney over Burnley
Mark Davies

The British National Party might well have got one thing right about the local elections in Burnley.

A website set up to support the party's 13 candidates in this week's poll declares that the very future of the town is in the hands of the electorate.

Community leaders in Burnley fear a worsening of relations in an already segregated town

On that, the BNP will find itself in agreement with the Burnley Muslim/Christian Group, which has taken out a large advertisement in the Burnley Express.

"To everybody who wants to live in peace and harmony with their neighbours... use your vote on Thursday," it says.

The front page of the newspaper is dominated by a photograph of Tony Blair, alongside the prime minister's own appeal to the electorate to exercise their democratic right.

And in the Lancashire Evening Post, a headline across two pages neatly sums up the feeling that whatever happens on Thursday, it will send a ripple through UK politics. "The nation is watching," it declares.

Electoral gains

Burnley is the BNP's main target in what it is calling its biggest ever push for votes. Thirteen candidates are standing in the town's 15 wards and the signs are that the party has a significant chance of success.

First, it can point to its recent electoral gains. At last year's general election, the party polled 11.5% of the vote, doubling that in a by-election in the Rosehill ward in November.

A BNP candidate came third in that election, and with all the town's seats up for grabs on Thursday because of boundary changes, coming third could be enough to win a seat on the council in those wards electing three representatives.

If the BNP is successful this week, it will not, of course, signal a seismic shift in the make-up of the British political map, or send a Le Pen-like echo through the UK.

But it will be the first time a BNP candidate has been elected to a local council since 1993, and such a scenario is of sufficient concern for the main political parties to unite against the far-right party.

Heavyweights

Community leaders in Burnley fear a worsening of relations in an already segregated town. Business chiefs are concerned about the impact a BNP councillor could have on the area's image.

Alistair Campbell, the prime minister's communications director
Campbell has expressed concern over the Burnley election
The main parties are campaigning hard in the area, bringing in political heavyweights to encourage a high turnout.

Mr Blair's communications director Alastair Campbell, a Burnley football fan, has even given an unprecedented interview to voice his concern at the prospect of BNP gains.

And yet, as the early evening sunshine filtered through the windows of the Duke of York pub on Tuesday, you would hardly guess that the town is at the centre of such political intrigue.

Drinkers chatted about the Manchester United match and their own Sunday league efforts. Others played pool or commented on the weather with the friendly bar staff.

Damage

When one man mentioned the number of cameramen he'd seen in the area recently, it was the only time the elections were raised.

The relative calm here hides deep social problems in Burnley

The pub itself seems shiny and new, but a sign behind the bar offering a welcome to both regulars and passing strangers gives away the Duke of York's recent history.

It has, in fact, recently reopened following the extensive damage caused in last summer's riots in the town.

On the streets outside, there are even fewer signs of those turbulent nights. An Asian couple examine a fridge in a shop window. A window cleaner whistles as he wanders past. A white couple laugh as they come out of a pizza takeaway.

But the relative calm here hides deep social problems in Burnley.

Hundreds of homes on the tight terraced streets are boarded up. The derelict mills point to the decline of a once thriving manufacturing base in an area where once cotton was king.

Amid widespread unemployment and alienation with politics, Labour could lose its wafer-thin majority on the council. The turnout in 1998 was just 25%. A repeat of that could let in the BNP.

Poorest areas

Of Burnley's 91,000 citizens, about 5,000 are from ethnic minorities. The BNP's claim is that the town's white community is unfairly treated while money is poured into Asian neighbourhoods.

Rioting broke out in Burnley last year.
The Duke of York pub was damaged in the riots but has now reopened
The council says any disparity in the way cash is handed out has nothing to do with ethnicity, but that money simply goes to the poorest areas.

Last year, however, the BNP was accused of using the perceived unfairness to stoke up the unrest which led to the riots. It has since faced claims that it has tried to capitalise on ethnic divisions in the run-up to the elections.

It counters that by arguing that it is campaigning on local issues neglected by the mainstream parties, that it is redefining community politics.

It is certainly true under the leadership of Nick Griffin, the BNP has changed. The party's structure has been reformed, with more power handed to local activists.

'More mainstream'

Members are offered training in the political process, modern canvassing methods have been adopted and the party's publicity machine has been sharpened up.

Indeed, on its website, the BNP boasts of being "more professional, more prepared, more organised, more mainstream".

It has tried to win more backing by campaigning on local issues such as housing, public services and planning.

It has also tried to target those it perceives as discontented with aspects of Blair's Britain, such as fuel protesters, farmers and anti-paedophile campaigners.

Its campaign for the local elections - 68 candidates are standing in BNP targets across England - centres on concerns about asylum seekers, crime, and "British people being treated like second class citizens in their own land".

It goes on: "The future of the town is in the hands of the electorate and it is their strength of character which will decide the outcome."

The last time the BNP won a council seat, it was lost a matter of weeks later.

Many in Burnley and beyond will be watching to see whether, when the electorate speaks this week, the BNP will get even that far again.

Click here to contact Mark Davies with political news


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24 Apr 02 | England
11 Dec 01 | England
28 Apr 02 | Politics
03 Jul 01 | UK
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