THE victory of an avowedly racist right-wing candidate in a local government by-election in London's East End has sent shock waves through British national politics.
The Sept. 16 election victory for the British National Party (BNP) in the Millwall ward of Tower Hamlets, though at first blush an isolated event, has been condemned by mainstream political parties and church and police leaders.
By winning a council seat in a district where violent attacks on Jews were common before World War II, Derek Beackon, an unemployed truckdriver, has thrown doubt on the ability of mainstream parties to grapple with what Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey called ``the evil politics of race.''
It is the first time in more than half a century that racism has become a serious issue in this country's politics. Analysts say the ballot result reflects wider tensions in Britain's multiethnic society.
In a victory speech Mr. Beackon declared: ``The British people are no longer prepared to be treated as second-class citizens in their own country. They have had enough - we are going to take our country back.''
Beackon had earlier campaigned under the slogan ``rights for whites'' and said that, if elected, he would refuse to work on behalf of nonwhite residents.
Tower Hamlets is a community of 140,000 people near the banks of the River Thames. It is one of Britain's most deprived urban areas. Housing is in short supply and unemployment is high. Spread of racism
Claude Moraes, director of Britain's Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, believes these factors have helped fuel tensions between whites and the Asian and black minorities, which together account for 20 percent of the community.
``What has happened in Tower Hamlets could happen elsewhere in the country if the mainstream parties fail to address racial issues in a mature and fully informed way,'' Mr. Moraes says.
A week before Beackon captured the Millwall seat, a gang of white youths attacked a Bangladeshi student and beat him severly.
White residents who voted for Beackon, however, say they did so because he was against the local council's housing policies which, they argue, favor Asians at the expense of whites.
Tower Hamlets has a tradition of racist politics that goes back to Elizabethan times when the local English attacked refugees from France and Holland. Early this century the fascist British Brothers' League staged rallies in the district to oppose Jewish immigration. In the 1930s the area was the base for Sir Oswald Mosley and his pro-Hitler party of blackshirts.
In the last few years large numbers of white workers in what used to be a thriving docklands district have become unemployed as a result of the closure of large shipping terminals.
In a typical comment, a Millwall resident who used to work on the docks and admitted voting for Beackon says: ``The BNP say they will give white people more priority in housing. I am not against the Bangladeshis, but the council should not give them first choice.''
A Tower Hamlets council spokesman denies that Asians and blacks have been receiving preferential treatment in housing.
Paul Condon, London's police chief, acknowledges that his force will have to ``work hard'' to regain the confidence of many members of the Tower Hamlets community. Tensions flare
Asians and blacks in the area widely see the police as being sympathetic to whites. Last weekend anti-fascist groups staged a series of protest marches in Tower Hamlets and clashed with BNP supporters. Police arrested 33 people.
After Beackon's victory, supporters of other parties accused the Liberal Democrats, who control Tower Hamlets council, of having themselves distributed racist campaign literature in a bid to draw support away from the BNP candidate.
Conservative and Labour Party spokesmen have supported claims that in Millwall the Lib Dems used ``dirty tricks.''
Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dems' national leader, ordered an immediate inquiry into the allegation.
The investigation, headed by Lord Lester, a prominent civil rights lawyer, came at an awkward moment for Mr. Ashdown.
His party was staging its annual conference after a string of successes in parliamentary and local government by-elections in the last few months and is bidding to consolidate its gains nationwide.
If the party succeeds, it will be in a better position to challenge the Labour Party and either overtake it or force it to enter a Labour-Lib Dem partnership.
Ashdown's strategy has been to nurture support for the Lib Dems in local politics, then attempt to translate that support into success in parliamentary elections.
At their annual conference, the Lib Dems planned to launch a campaign to rebuild civic spirit, particularly between white Britons and the 2 1/2 million nonwhite minorities.
If it were proved that Lib Dem officials in Tower Hamlets played on ethnic fears among whites, a local party worker admitted, it would be ``bad for us nationally.''