Page last updated at 09:05 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 10:05 UK

Focus on BNP as economy weakens

By Ben Wright
BBC News political correspondent, Stoke-on-Trent

BNP placard
The BNP sense opportunities in the current economic climate

Alby Walker surveys the grand Victorian chamber of Stoke-on-Trent's council building.

Former leaders peer out from portraits hanging over the wooden benches. Twelve years ago, every one of the 60 councillors here was Labour.

Today Councillor Walker can point to a segment of seating and proudly call it his - the BNP's.

He is the party's leader in Stoke and their councillors make up the second largest single party group in the chamber.

In the event of recession we'll use whatever political campaigning we think will be most effective to gain more BNP votes

Alby Walker, BNP councillor

Over tea in a cafe, the dapper, silver-haired BNP councillor agrees that an economic downturn could be good for his party's support.

"In the event of recession we'll use whatever political campaigning we think will be most effective to gain more BNP votes."

"So you'll run a campaign putting the blame for the downturn on immigration?", I ask.

It would be remarkable if they didn't.

But side-stepping the question, Councillor Walker simply says that "the BNP speaks for the silent majority who are looking for something new" and predicts a major breakthrough for the party.

Of course major BNP breakthroughs have been predicted before.

Since 2004 they have seen steady incremental increases in their support, with the party now having 56 councillors across Britain, including a seat on the London Assembly.

Fifty six is still a tiny fraction of the total number of councillors but every BNP councillor elected gets noticed nationally.

The BNP have made strides in some overwhelmingly white, poor parts of the Stoke-on-Trent area such as Bentilee where the party controls all three wards.

Shift in focus?

Outside the new, redeveloped shopping centre, several people say they are fed up with the local council and it is the BNP who are promising to do things differently.

"It all comes down to immigration - jobs for us and not for them - and the BNP stand up for that" says one woman.

Jon Cruddas

I've got a sense of foreboding about what lies ahead

Jon Cruddas, Labour MP

An older lady describes feeling threatened by a recent BNP rally in the area while another man says "if you put all the racial things to one side the BNP are trying to do something for Stoke-on-Trent".

One of Stoke's Labour MPs has noticed a change in the BNP's approach.

"They are adopting a much more localised, practical, day-to-day, we're-on-your-side approach to hide what the party fundamentally stands for", Robert Flello says.

The recent relative success of the BNP in Stoke and other areas such as Barking and Dagenham has taken place against a benign economic backdrop.

But now there is a recession on the way and Dagenham's Labour MP Jon Cruddas expects the BNP to capitalise on the downturn.

"It will make a qualitative difference in terms of the context within which they're allowed to perpetuate their scapegoating and myth-making," he says.

"I've got a sense of foreboding about what lies ahead."

He believes government must do more to address some of the complex issues around housing, flexible labour markets and immigration that have enabled the BNP to grow in areas such as his.

Economic factors

The economically-turbulent 1970s coincided with the rise of the National Front in Britain.

Riots, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations rumbled on through the decade but there was no electoral breakthrough and the movement collapsed, despite the high unemployment of the early 1980s.

Experts warns against an easy correlation, saying that even if the economy slumps and far-right support increases, it has always been the case historically that the rise is intermittent, geographically patchy and does not last long.

"Although there tends to be a bit of moral panic about it, it's never really happened in a way that, in any sense, threatens the domination of the political scene by the main parties" Professor Colin Rallings, from Plymouth University, says.

But Councillor Alby Walker is eyeing up the other seats in Stoke's council chamber and sees political potential in the coming economic problems.

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