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.
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Shortly after Hodge's retreat from her constituents' doorstep, a black-tinted armored truck carrying Mr. Griffin arrived a few streets away for a press conference at a neighborhood pub.
Flanked by burly bodyguards with secret service-style earpieces, the BNP leader tells a large number of waiting journalists that his opponents had engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” not to talk about immigration until his party began making gains.
He says that in power, the BNP would allocate billions of pounds to “encouraging” those of “foreign descent” to return to their countries of origin.
As for his chances of winning the seat, he concedes that Hodge remains the favorite, but adds: “Nationally, if we get a string of second-place finishes, it will show we are making progress.... At the current rate, though, we will win here next time at least.”
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Griffin: Cambridge grad reinventing BNP's image
Griffin, a Cambridge University law graduate, has sought to reinvent the party, transforming its image from a party of bomber-jacket-wearing skinheads to one of suit-wearing, politically incorrect rebels against the "liberal" establishment.
At virtually every turn, however, he finds himself batting away assertions than beneath the surface, the BNP remains a racist organization run by politicians wedded to the principles of racial superiority and racial segregation. While the BNP maintains links with US white supremacists, the party was forced to begin admitting nonwhite members recently following a legal action by a state equalities watchdog.
Voters are also reminded of Griffin’s 1998 conviction for incitement to racial hatred through the distribution of material denying the Holocaust. Later, he adopted a pro-Israel position as the party sought to capitalize on anti-Muslim feelings in the wake of 9/11 and Britain’s own July 7 atrocities, when subway attacks by four British Muslims killed 52 people.
Dr. Goodwin of the University of Manchester describes next month’s election as a “watershed moment” for the party. If it fails to build on last year’s success, then Griffin will face serious questions from within.
By the same token, he adds that it is “not beyond the realms of possibility” that Griffin will be elected, or that the party’s deputy leader, Simon Darby, could win a Westminster seat in its other major target, the northern town of Stoke-on-Trent.
Another former Labour stronghold that has suffered from a collapse of traditional industry, Stoke-on-Trent is a place where the BNP’s strategy of capitalizing on the fears of alienated white working-class voters and tensions with Muslim neighbors has put it into contention to capture the town council.
Mr. Darby’s hopes were seriously dented last month when the BNP’s former leader in the town, Alby Walker, announced that he would be running as an independent candidate, telling the BBC: "There's a vein of Holocaust-denying within the BNP that I cannot identify myself with. They've still got senior members of the BNP who will be candidates in the general election that have Nazi, Nazi-esque sympathies."
At the same time, Labour is facing a split in its own ranks over the selection of a London-based historian, Tristram Hunt, to defend the seat.
Aside from Stoke and Barking, though, Goodwin says the BNP may be positioned to cause potential shocks, which would include coming second in other constituencies that are not necessarily target seats. “People might just might wake up on the morning after the election and say: ‘We did not see this coming.’ ”