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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 April 2006, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Barking's views on the BNP
By Jackie Storer
BBC News political reporter, in Barking, east London

BNP campaign launch
The BNP campaign launch
Employment Minister Margaret Hodge caused a stir when she said the BNP could win council seats in her Barking constituency at next month's local elections. But what do Barking residents and local politicians think?

It's market day in the town centre. The sun is shining and there's the typical buzz of shoppers seeking a bargain and traders trying to attract their attention on a Tuesday afternoon.

Station Parade is alive. Mums with pushchairs, people struggling with laden-bags - all mingling among stalls offering everything from fruit and veg, clothes, accessories, duvet covers to sweets.

To be honest, it is difficult to tell that there is an election in the offing. There are no posters and no obvious electioneering going on.

Labour stronghold

The only leaflet being handed out appears to extol the virtues of African spiritual healing. Even readers of the local papers have to thumb quite a few pages before there is any mention of this hallowed event.

Yaqoob Mohammad
I am here 6am to 6pm - I do my hard job. I'm not dependent on the government. I don't take benefit
Yaqoob Mohammad

But dig a little bit deeper on the streets of Barking, ask a few more questions and beneath this seemingly innocuous scene, the punters appear to be troubled.

On 4 May the three main political parties, their smaller counterparts and residents' groups will go to the polls to compete for Barking and Dagenham Council's 51 seats.

The council has been Labour since before World War II and the party currently boasts 43 councillors, against the Conservatives' three, one Lib Dem, two Chadwell Heath Residents' Association members and two seats left vacant following resignations last year.

The British National Party is fielding 13 election candidates - more than in any other London borough - and it is this revelation that is worrying politicians such as Mrs Hodge.

'Nothing for the community'

During a council by-election in September 2004, the party's Dan Kelley secured himself a seat in Barking's Goresbrook ward by 1,072 votes and on a turnout of 28.8%. He resigned a few months' later citing health reasons.

Two months earlier the BNP came second in a by-election in the then Valence Ward with candidate Lawrence Rustem receiving 576 votes to the Labour victor Donald Hemmett's 761 votes.

Terry Woolston
Terry Woolston: 'It's not our town anymore'

In October 2004, Mr Rustem again secured second place in Village ward, receiving 934 votes to Labour's Philip Waker, who was elected with 1,085 votes.

The area remains a Labour stronghold - last year Mrs Hodge won the Parliamentary seat with 47% of the vote - but most of the selection of people stopped at random in the afternoon raised the possibility of voting for the BNP.

Amanda Parlminter, 41-year-old market trader from Chaff Hundred, Essex, says the reasons why locals are turning to the BNP are simple.

"People in this area are not being listened to," she says, on her lingerie stall. "Without being racist, there is nothing for that community that used to be here.

"I think people have had enough and will vote BNP. The main reason is they would shut the immigration gates.

"I'll probably vote BNP - I normally vote Labour, but I don't believe the party is for the working man anymore. They are all in it for themselves."

'Trouble'

Terry Woolston, 65, a retired engineer says he will not be voting.

"My concern is it's not our town anymore - there are so many foreigners here. It sounds racist I suppose, but they are taking over," he says.

"We are being moved out and they are moving in and they're getting all the benefits and you name it."

I'm voting for the BNP. I want to get England back to England - it's too over-crowded now. It's not a big place to live
Grandmother, aged 61

Grandmother Teresa Ammon, 76, from Dagenham, says she has always voted Conservative but has been tempted by the BNP.

"When we get on the bus, we can be the only white people on there," she says.

"I have had a leaflet through from the BNP and when I read it I thought 'oh yes, I'll vote for them', but you have really got to think about it. I'm concerned they can be more trouble if you vote for them."

Scared

One 29-year-old mother of two from Dagenham, who did not want to be named, said she did not care what Barking MP Margaret Hodge had to say about the BNP and was undecided about who she would vote for.

Amanda Parlminter
Amanda Parlminter: 'People have had enough'

"My Dad got mugged two weeks ago. They took his keys. They went back in his flat and the police told him it wasn't a crime.

"I reckon a lot of people are going to vote for the BNP because of what has happened in Dagenham and the way it's come down.

"My Mum is scared to go out at night.

"I'm frightened to bring my kids up here and I'm off work. I just hate it. I'm thinking about moving up to Colchester because of it."

The woman's 61-year-old mother is adamant about who she will be backing next month. "I'm voting for the BNP. I want to get England back to England - it's too over-crowded now. It's not a big place to live."

Hard working

But Kashmir-born market trader Yaqoob Mohammad, 46, who has lived and worked in the UK for 18 years, says he is concerned about the views expressed by white voters.

"Some people say they will go with the BNP," says the married father-of-five from East Ham. "I am here 6am to 6pm - I work hard. I'm not dependent on the government. I don't take benefits.

"These white people here get benefit and don't like hard work and blame us."

Teresa Ammon
Teresa Ammon: Moving to Barking was 'a shock'

The available figures show immigrants firmly remain a minority in Barking - making up about 14% of the total population, but it is part of the eastern fringe of London which has experienced rapid change from migration in the past decade or more.

Take the southern end of the town, for instance. In 1991, there were approximately 1,264 people who were born abroad living in the area.

Over the next 10 years that rose by 305% to 5,100 people. While the proportion of immigrants living in the Barking area remains lower than neighbouring parts of London's East End, this rapid and sudden change appears to concern some people.

However, Milton McKenzie, a Labour councillor standing again in Gascoigne ward, dismisses claims that people are considering voting for the BNP.

"It's a shame that others see this in the light that they have," he says. "Nothing of the sort is happening.

"We are concerned with the BNP in the whole country. We are trying to unify the whole of the community, not to divide the community, and do what's best for the people of Barking and Dagenham."

'Unhealthy' democracy

Terry Justice, a Conservative councillor standing in Chadwell Heath, is equally sceptical and says the bigger problem faced by all candidates is apathy.

"I think it's probably a good story for you, but to be perfectly frank, it won't surprise me that the BNP get no councillors at all," he says.

"Personally I find an immense feeling of apathy. I think it's going to be very difficult to get the vote out. Labour has always had an overwhelming majority, which I believe is extremely unhealthy.

"I think people think 'there is nothing we can do about it - we can't get rid of them'."

I think people are concerned by what they perceive as an influx of immigrants into the borough, but I don't necessarily think that is a huge problem - I welcome all comers from different angles
Dianne Challis
Lib Dem candidate

However, Dianne Challis, a Lib Dem councillor for the Eastbury ward - where one BNP candidate is standing - says: "We can't continue to pretend that people aren't worried about it."

"I think people are concerned by what they perceive as an influx of immigrants into the borough, but I don't necessarily think that is a huge problem - I welcome all comers from different angles.

"It wouldn't make a difference to immigration if the BNP took every single seat, so what's the point of voting for them because that's all they stand for? They don't stand for anything else."

But she says she believes that if the BNP is successful, the difference they would make would be to house prices, which "would drop and people wouldn't want to move to the area".




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