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Last Updated: Friday, 20 April 2007, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Are BNP set for Sandwell gains?
By James Hardy
Political correspondent, BBC News, in Sandwell

Ten years ago Tony Blair swept to power promising a new Jerusalem - a recasting of the British state so that power, wealth and opportunity were "in the hands of the many, not the few".

BNP leader Nick Griffin
The party - led by Nick Griffin - says it puts British people first
A decade later, many one-time Labour voters feel let down.

The economic boom may have generated wealth and prosperity, but it has bypassed a cross-section of people at the bottom of the social scale.

Nowhere is that more evident than Sandwell, a borough encompassing six Black Country towns around West Bromwich and Oldbury.

Once the manufacturing powerhouse of Britain, the recessions of the Thatcher years bit deep and it is now a place of low wages, low skills and low aspirations - in the words of one of its MPs, "dirt poor".

Tectonic plates

Sandwell is still solid Labour territory, but beneath the surface the tectonic plates are shifting ahead of the English local elections.

Thousands of voters who would once never have looked beyond Labour have switched allegiance to the BNP which is putting up 750 candidates across England on 3 May - cast aside, they believe, by the party founded to promote their interests.

In Sandwell the BNP already has four councillors. In next month's council election it is fielding 15 candidates in the 24 seats and its political opponents fear the party could win in up to half a dozen wards.

Labour and the Conservatives have had their chance and blown it, the thinking goes, now it's time to give the BNP a shout

At Princes End in Tipton, there is a strong possibility that for the first time in Britain the BNP could end up holding all three seats in a single ward.

On the streets BNP supporters aren't hard to find. There is open and unblushing backing for a party traditionally seen as racist, xenophobic and homophobic.

Some voters might struggle to articulate their reasons, but they can be summed up with the thought that "the BNP would put British people first".

Working class

Labour and the Conservatives have had their chance and blown it, the thinking goes, now it's time to give the BNP a shout.

In a predominantly white working class area, immigration is an issue - though, interestingly, the people now blamed for stealing jobs are Poles and East Europeans rather than Asians.

The BNP is also campaigning hard on housing, crime and a series of local issues.

BNP supporters in Barking
The BNP became the second party in Barking in the 2006 London elections

Its campaign literature doesn't shy away from promises it can't deliver - No to Asylum Seekers, No to the Council Tax, No to Anti-Social Behaviour, No to the Veil.

One of its councillors, Simon Smith, told the BBC immigration went hand in hand with high crime. In the parts of the borough with fewer immigrants, he insisted, crime was lower.

Challenged as to whether he was suggesting that white working class crime was non-existent, he launched an enthusiastic attack on the "white scum" who would be swept away by a Nationalist government.

It is a blunt and powerful political message - and it seems to be getting through.

Baffles and frightens

The party's success both baffles and frightens the mainstream parties.

The four BNP councillors already elected almost never take part in council business, they say, and contribute virtually nothing to the community.

Labour's group secretary in Sandwell, Darren Cooper, says the BNP's support is all too often built on distortion and lies.

It is not inconceivable that the Conservative group could lose its status as the official opposition, to the BNP

He claims the party has told voters that asylum seekers are routinely given mobile phones and cars as well as unlimited benefits.

But there is an acknowledgement in Labour ranks that political dominance has bred complacency. Only now is that being addressed by more vigorous campaigning.

If results go badly for them on 3 May, it is not inconceivable that the Conservative group - currently 11-strong - could lose its status as the official opposition, to the BNP.

Group leader Tony Ward dismisses the possibility, but he's angry at what he sees a BNP con-trick. The party's four councillors have been an "embarrassment", he says bluntly.

The Liberal Democrats, with only five councillors, will almost certainly be pushed into fourth place by BNP successes next month.

The Lib Dem group leader, Joyce Underhill, accuses the far right of exploiting a "blame culture" by encouraging voters to attribute their problems to "outsiders".

But the BNP isn't having it all its own way.

Its group leader, Jamie Lloyd, has had his pub shut down on police advice after reports of violence - a rather inconvenient development for a party trying to shake off its unsavoury braces-and-bovver boots image.

Voters in Sandwell on the BNP


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