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.
“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.”
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.”
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.’ ”