Concern about the threat posed by the British National Party at next month's elections has prompted meetings between the main political parties, reports say
'The main parties are discussing how to counter BNP candidates'
The Guardian says it has learnt that these have involved ex-senior ministers and members of the shadow cabinet.
The meetings follow new research which suggests the BNP is being considered by some voters as a mainstream, democratic political group, the paper says.
The BNP said it was "flattered" that it was considered such a threat.
The party is expected to put up 450 candidates in the local elections - double the numbers put up last year - and is fielding 101 candidates in Yorkshire alone in the 10 June polls.
The BNP is also putting up a full list of candidates in the European elections on the same day.
According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the party is being perceived as one which is most actively involved in local political issues all year round.
Strength of feeling
The trust found most supporters believed the BNP "would make a difference", and that a quarter of those who voted for the party had supported Labour at previous elections.
Its researchers questioned 539 people in exit polls in by-elections in Oldham, Burnley and Calderdale, where the party stood last autumn.
Focus groups were held in the same areas and voters were asked how confident they were that the party they had voted for would make a difference, the paper says.
Some 30% of Labour supporters said they were "very confident", compared with 33% of BNP supporters, 31% of Lib Dems and 6% of Tories.
Electors were also pressed on how strongly they felt towards the party they voted for. Some 53% of BNP supporters said the party "represents my views very closely", compared with 46% of Labour, 45% of Lib Dems and 29% of Tories.
The research also suggested voters found that they were more likely to engage in door to door canvassing and leafleting with BNP candidates than through telephone polling which was preferred by other parties.
The study did suggest that activists from other parties could be reinvigorated wherever BNP candidates stood.
It also found that more BNP supporters said they had considered voting for another party, with many suggesting they had only voted for the party as a protest against the Labour government or Labour-run council.
According to The Guardian, findings from the research sparked a meeting last summer and a further day-long gathering in West Yorkshire earlier this year.
Among those discussing how to counter the threat of the BNP were politicians from Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, the paper said.
The paper claims a member of Tory leader Michael Howard's shadow cabinet attended the meeting and papers were passed to his office.
Mr Howard has since described the BNP in Burnley as "a bunch of thugs dressed up as a political party".
A senior Labour party source told the paper: "This confirms what activists on the ground have known for some time - left to their own devices, the extremists and racists within the British National party are quite capable of generating their own distorted and dangerous publicity.
"The most effective way to combat the far-right is not to ignore them and hope they will go away, but to expose the real anti-democratic, racist agenda behind the veneer of respectability that they try to put across."
But Phil Edwards, the BNP's national press officer, said the fact mainstream parties were meeting and agreeing on something showed "there is not much to choose between them".
"It's a compliment really and shows how worried they are," he said.
"It proves that we have got a point and they are concerned that people are going to wake up and see they have been lied to about immigration and other matters that have been to the detriment of British society.
"We are willing to debate our philosophy with anybody, including the leaders of the main parties, but they don't want to debate with us publicly."