On UK campaign trail, Labour MP battles appeal of far-right British National Party
On the UK campaign trail ahead of the May 6 general election, Labour MP Margaret Hodge is fighting a fierce challenge from Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party who hopes to win the BNP's first-ever parliamentary seat. The challenge is a sign of the anti-incumbent fever sweeping the UK.
Three doors into a recent campaign visit to a run-down east London street, ruling Labour Party Member of Parliament Margaret Hodge comes face-to-face with the reason she may need a new job after Britain’s general election on May 6.Skip to next paragraph
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“Clear off! We’re voting BNP!” shouts the wife of a man who answers her knock, leaving Ms. Hodge beating a hasty retreat, a posse of journalists in tow.
“You know they’ll only bring trouble,” shrugs the former government minister over her shoulder just before the door slams shut.
"They" in this case is the British National Party (BNP), a far-right anti-immigration group. The party is not expected to do anywhere near as well as the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, whose fortunes have surged since their leader Nick Clegg was widely judged to have won Britain's first US-style leaders' debate on April 16. But the BNP's modest increase in support is a reminder of the difficulties facing incumbents this year – and of the chance that the general election may lead to a hung parliament.
Hodge, the parliamentarian for a once solidly Labour constituency, is on the frontlines of a battle to prevent the BNP from claiming the far right’s first seat in Westminster. After causing a stir by winning two seats in last year's elections for the European Parliament, its first major success in a nationwide vote and one that brought increased access to funding and the public airwaves, the BNP is seeking to tap into further support in some predominantly poor, white, working-class areas.
The constituency of Barking, where Hodge is up against the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has already proved to be fertile ground for his anti-immigrant vitriol. The collapse of the area’s traditional manufacturing base, along with high levels of immigration and employment and a major shortage of public housing, have transformed the area into the BNP’s leading national target.
“We have not listened to the fears and frustrations of people,” admits Hodge.
The BNP is already the second-largest party on the local council that has a budget of £200 million ($310 million) and oversees the running of Barking and neighboring Dagenham. Taking outright control in local elections held on the same day as the national poll remains the party’s real goal here.
Experts warn that the depth of support for the BNP has been underestimated in the United Kingdom, where the electorate has traditionally been repelled by the type of populist extreme-right parties that have made major gains in Europe over the past decade.
“One of the things that is becoming clear is that BNP voters are pretty loyal. The argument that they are a flash in the pan is wrong,” says Matthew Goodwin, author of "The New Extremism in 21st Century Britain." “The bigger picture is that there is a significant underlying reserve of latent support for the far right. We underestimate the fact that far-right policies potentially appeal to 15-20 percent of the electorate.”