For decades, the tiny city of Stoke-on-Trent in central England has been a stronghold for the country's left-leaning Labour Party, but disillusionment among poorer white residents and tensions with their Muslim neighbors is pushing the city to the far right.
The whites-only, anti-immigration British National Party (BNP), has gone from being a fringe group to gaining a 15 percent stake in Stoke-on-Trent's governing council. Many observers now believe the group could win enough votes to control the council by 2011.
Some mainstream politicians are now voicing concerns that BNP is poised to make nationwide gains. While white Britons have lived in relative harmony with immigrants for years, the nation's deepening recession is raising concerns of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment, and is sparking support for the far right, says Jon Cruddas, a parliamentarian who represents the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.
"History suggests that the far right tends to do well in times of economic trouble," says Mr. Cruddas, who was appointed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to spearhead a campaign against the far right.
Of the roughly 8,000 town council members scattered across England, only 50 or so are members of the BNP. But during June elections, the BNP is expected to make significant gains and could win up to three of England's 59 seats in the European Parliament, according to experts. Such results would also indicate a chance for the party to potentially capture two seats in the United Kingdom's national parliament.
Although the BNP has attempted to distance itself from more militant sections of the far right, such as skinheads, mainstream politicians still regard the party's true colors as inherently fascist, and point to its leader's 1998 conviction for incitement to racial hatred using material denying the Holocaust. Other members have convictions for various types of racial violence. One former activist brought havoc to London in 1999 in a nail-bombing campaign, which killed three people. He later told police he wanted to ignite a race war. The party has links with far right groups and individuals abroad, including former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke, and the National Alliance, one of the foremost white separatist groups in the US.
BNP's popularity might be growing, but that doesn't mean the group has gone mainstream – membership in the group remains grounds for firing for police officers, for instance. A stir was created Monday when BNP's entire membership list was posted on the Internet, identifying thousands of supporters and exposing some to the risk of being fired. The party blamed a former member for leaking the list of around 13,500 names.
Phil Woolas, the newly appointed minister of state for borders and immigration, and a Labour Party member, sparked controversy with comments that the number of immigrants allowed into the UK may have to be reduced because of the economic crisis. He says the government should not allow the population, presently 61 million, to surpass 70 million people.
Alienated working-class whites in urban areas are now being lured away from the Labour and Conservative parties by the BNP in several low-income urban areas, says Jill Rutter, of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank with ties to the Labour Party. In working-class Barking and Dagenham, for instance, the BNP is now the second largest party in the town hall. The main street in the borough of 170,000 has changed significantly in recent years – on the local high street, Afro-Caribbean eateries now stand beside traditional pubs and pie-and-mashed potato cafes.
"The population has never been comfortable with immigration, whether it was the Jews in the 19th century or the immigration of post-war years. [Woolas's] comments are a continuation of the view of migrants that has not always been positive," Ms. Rutter says.
Even without the economic crisis, continental Europe has witnessed a marked increase in far right sentiment.
In Austria, the rise of the extreme right over the past decade culminated in September when two such parties captured 29 percent of the vote in national elections. Germany's neo-Nazi National Democratic Party has made steady gains in regional elections since the country's reunification in 1989. Italy's National Alliance party, which was formed from the roots of the country's neo-fascist movement, is a partner in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's governing coalition. Far right movements also appear to be thriving in France and Belgium.
Still, until recently Britain has not mirrored its neighbors' politics, says Cruddas. "There has always been an exceptionalism about the UK, but I'm not sure that's the case any more."
Inside the BNP's office in London's City Hall, Richard Barnbrook says his party's gains are just starting. "We expect an economic collapse similar to the 1920s and 30s," says Mr. Barnbrook, the party's first and only representative on the 25-member London Assembly. Forecasting a subsequent outbreak of racial and ethnic conflict, he predicts the BNP will then step into the breach as the party of choice for what he calls "indigenous" Britons.
Others, such as Habib Rahman, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, are confident such a scenario is unlikely, though he worries mainstream politicians are pandering to "myths" about immigration to gain "cheap votes."
Says Mr. Rahman, "We will have to pull together to get out of a recession, and I think one positive thing will be that new ideas and the hard work of migrants will be part of that."