WASHINGTON, April 17 (UPI) -- The British political scene has just been gripped by a mood of near-panic over the ominous rise of the extreme-right British National Party, after some stunning new opinion surveys and reports that suggest the party could make a breakthrough in next month's local elections.
The BNP, founded by a British Nazi supporter and traditionally the home of a racist fringe and skinheads, has recently gone through a makeover under the leadership of a Cambridge University graduate who has recruited Jewish members in the hope of building a less neo-Nazi and more acceptable image.
A new report by the prestigious Rowntree Charitable Trust, based on a nation-wide survey, says that up to 25 percent of voters now say they are prepared to vote for the BNP, largely because of anger and disappointment with the existing mainstream parties.
A shocked Margaret Hedge, Employment Minister in Tony Blair's government, claimed over the weekend that after canvassing voters in her own East London constituency of Barking she found as many as eight out of ten white voters said they were tempted to vote for the BNP next month.
"That's something we have never seen before, in all my years. Even when people voted BNP, they used to be ashamed to vote BNP. Now they are not," Hodge told Britain's Daily Telegraph.
She suggested that disillusioned white, working class voters were deserting Labour for the BNP because the pace of immigration and social change had alarmed local people.
"They can't get a home for their children, they see black and ethnic minority communities moving in and they are angry," Hodge added. "What has happened in Barking and Dagenham is the most rapid transformation of a community we have ever witnessed."
The Labour Member of Parliament for Dagenham, Jon Cruddas, has echoed Ms. Hodge's fears, adding that the Blair government's attempt to win and hold "Middle England" (British political shorthand for the middle class and middle ground voter) had left its traditional white working class base feeling abandoned.
"The BNP is on the verge of a major political breakthrough," Cruddas, a former adviser to Tony Blair, told the BBC Monday.
BNP spokesman Phil Edwards claimed the Rowntree report reflected his party's own warnings on voters' alarm at Britain's shift towards a multicultural society, saying Britain had changed from a "racially homogeneous society into one where the cultures are quite alien. That does add quite a lot of tensions and stresses. What we are trying to do is preserve the traditional culture and identity of Britain."
The BNP was founded in the 1970s by John Tyndall, a former National Socialist who dressed in paramilitary uniform and in his youth traveled to Germany to buy his first pair of genuine jackboots. But in 1999, he was ousted in an internal coup by Cambridge graduate Nick Griffin, son of a wealthy Conservative party official, who has exploited anti-Islamic sentiment since 9/11 and last year's London bombings to widen the party's appeal.
"On current demographic trends, we, the native British people, will be an ethnic minority in our own country within sixty years," Griffin writes in his regular column on the BNP website. "The European intifada riots in France show that events are moving far more quickly than even we predicted a few years ago. The future of European civilization rests on a knife-edge, and the balance is tipping against us all the time. Why? In part because of continued mass immigration and the high Muslim birthrate, coupled with our own suicidal low one."
Senior Labour Party figures are becoming alarmed about the BNP's prospects in next month's local elections, when 4,360 council seats are in play, including London's 32 boroughs and 36 of the biggest towns and cities. The BNP is fielding candidates for 356 seats, more than it has ever contested before. It currently holds 15 council seats across Britain, including six in the depressed northern town of Burnley which has a large immigrant population.
In the 2004 local elections the BNP received around 800,000 votes, not much in a country of 60 million, but enough to sound alarm bells, particularly as it forged links with similar anti-immigrant parties abroad like France's Front National and the Belgian Vlaams Blok.
In the last European Parliament elections, the BNP won 4.9 percent of the vote. It tends to do well in elections where people can easily cast 'protest' votes, but its support has usually fallen away in general elections. Launching the BNP election campaign on Friday, the party said it was "standing for local freedom, security, identity, democracy and putting Britain first."
Its campaign manifesto is aimed at white parents, stressing that immigrant children should not be taught with native English speakers until they are competent in the language, that state-funded schools should not have to teach in Asian languages, and that teachers should be allowed to spank children, despite the ban on all corporate punishment by the European Union -- which the BNP wants to leave.
Instead of its former insistence on compulsory repatriation of immigrants, the BNP is now campaigning for an instant ban on all further immigration, compulsory repatriation of all illegal immigrants or those who commit a crime, and then the use of Britain's foreign aid budget to encourage 'voluntary repatriation' of the rest. It would also ban all affirmative action for ethnic minorities.
The Blair government's Home Office minister Andy Burnham said Monday he believed support for the BNP was highly localized and was often a "protest vote." Areas with high immigrant and refugee populations, and suffering fast economic change, are seen as vulnerable. In Dagenham, home of the giant Ford auto plant where jobs have been slashed from 25,000 to 3,000 in recent years, the BNP campaign says, "We stand up for jobs for British workers."
"Can you just sit there and watch as our country is being ripped apart by the forces of multiculturalism? You are not alone," says its new local campaign for the local elections. "Many good people, just like yourself are afraid to make too many comments publicly because it is seen as a sin to make mention of one's fears and concerns."