In Britain, a far-right push threatens Tony Blair

Thursday's vote for local councils will gauge views on Labour Party's government and immigration policy.

By , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to local elections in Britain, most people usually look the other way. Town hall votes are often low-key affairs, thrilling only to political junkies and voters passionate about speed limits, garbage collection, and street lights.

Not so this year. Thursday's vote has taken on far broader significance than usual because of two major developments: the deepening woes of Tony Blair's Labour government and the sudden emergence of the far-right British National Party (BNP) threatening an electoral breakthrough.

The results of votes for more than 4,000 councillors in 176 districts will be scrutinized more closely than usual. Will voters, dismayed at a sequence ofgovernment blunders, desert Labour en masse, putting pressure on Mr. Blair to advance his long-promised retirement? Will the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, make his mark in his first election at the helm?

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And will the BNP, like other anti-immigration parties elsewhere in Europe, achieve a historically high vote?

"I can't see there being a good result for us on Thursday night," says Ian Gibson, a Labour member of parliament (MP). "People are very edgy about the whole thing, about minority parties like the BNP winning votes."

"Local elections are regarded as a test of the popularity of the major parties, and this time the government has struggled to spin its way out of its troubles," adds John Curtice, a politics professor at Strathclyde University.

Those troubles have involved charges of incompetence and scandal that have stalked Blair's government in recent weeks. After a row over allegations that his party rewarded its donors with seats in the House of Lords, Blair's government is now struggling to explain why, despite talking tough on law and order, it allowed more than 1,000 foreign criminals to remain on Britain's streets, instead of deporting them after they were released from prison.

The admission has threatened to cost Home Secretary Charles Clarke his job. A second senior minister, John Prescott, is also under fire for conducting an extra-marital affair on government premises.

"If Labour does worse than it did in 2004, when it had its worst local elections in living memory, then that is a sign of trouble," says Mr. Curtice.

One party hoping to cash in on the disarray is the BNP. One Labour MP from east London, Margaret Hodge, admitted recently that the party was making big inroads in her constituency, where it won 17 percent in last year's general election.

"When I knock on doors I say to people, 'are you tempted to vote BNP?' and many, many, many - 8 out of 10 of the white families - say 'yes,' " she told The Daily Telegraph.

"The BNP is now doing far better than any previous far-right party," says Stuart Weir, co-author of a recent report "The BNP: The Roots Of Its Appeal."

"The idea that Britons are inoculated against far-right parties by some sort of tolerance gene is very complacent."

Across Europe similar parties have achieved widespread electoral success by appealing to working class concerns, winning votes for calling for more affordable housing, castigating the European Union, and playing on fears of growing extremism among Europe's ever-expanding Muslim populations.

"The problem for right-wing parties is that it's very easy for their opponents to paint them as 'the next Hitler,' " says Paul Whiteley, a professor of government at the University of Essex. "But at the same time for the younger generation 1930s fascism is now ancient history."

Richard Barnbrook, the BNP's London election coordinator, said voters were now no longer embarrassed about declaring their allegiance. "Three to four years ago voters didn't like to say that they might vote BNP," he says. "But now people are happy to say they vote BNP and they don't care who knows it."

Political analysts caution that it will take more than a good result in Thursday's vote to confirm the BNP's ascendancy.

"The far-right has always been a minor player in the UK so what's happening is a historic change," says Mr. Whiteley. "But the question is whether these new BNP supporters will become regular, long-term supporters of the party or is this just a one-off protest vote?"

It's the protest vote that Blair is wary of as well. Two years ago, local polls produced the poorest showing for Labour - barely a quarter of the vote - and notably led to Blair having a "wobble" about whether to stay in office.

Four months later he announced he would step down after another term. He has since admitted this pre-announcement of his retirement was a mistake, as it has resulted in febrile speculation as to when exactly he will step aside.

Some Labour MPs feel that he should go sooner rather than later to give his successor, presumed to be finance chief Gordon Brown, plenty of time to prepare for the next general election in 2009.

Dr. Gibson says a poor result Thursday will multiply calls for a speedy handover. "There will be many people [who] will be pressing for a date to be finalized, a program of succession to the throne," says Gibson. "Depending on [the] result there could be some very harsh words. I'd like the handover date to be this September. We need a rebranding of the party in things like health, education, and pensions before the next election."

But John Rentoul, a biographer of Tony Blair and political commentator, cautioned that many MPs, however disgruntled, see little point in changing horses.

"It's not the same as 1990, when Margaret Thatcher has some bad local election results and was out of office within months, because she was patently leading her party to defeat in a general election. That's not the case with Blair.

"I don't think the government has lost the will to live," he adds. "Blair is still very energetic and irrepressible."

That was certainly the case in parliament Wednesday when Blair fended off attacks about the prisoner scandal and defended his record by listing his achievements over nine years: a solid economy, low unemployment and inflation, a minimum wage, and higher benefits for pensioners and poor families. "Many people in this country are grateful for the progress that has been made," he said.

Just how grateful remains to be seen.

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