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Is the BNP becoming Cumbria’s cup of tea?

2009 February 28
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by Paul Vallely

Alistair Barbour is out canvassing in Carlisle city centre and he is being pretty well-received on the doorstep. In one sense there is nothing surprising about that. The 43-year-old gas-fitter is a local man. With two teenage kids and two step-children, his background is similar to those of the people on whose doors he is knocking. And he has a rough-edged charm and a good sense of when to make an easy joke, or a swift political jibe – or a diplomatic retreat when the door is opened by a bleary-eyed woman in a pink dressing gown who announces: “I’m on nights.”

One door is slammed in his face as soon as the woman who opens it catches a glimpse of his rosette bearing the words British National Party. And another voter refuses to take the election envelope he proffers, saying: “I work for the NHS.” But most doors are opened and Mr Barbour is given a friendly reception.

For the past six weeks, he has been pounding the streets full-time, talking to the ward’s 3,500 voters ahead of a by-election this Thursday. His agenda is restoring weekly bin collections, repairing broken streetlights, filling potholes in the road, tackling litter in the street and cleaning up the dog dirt. But of those who are pleased to see him, almost all want to talk about something else: the BNP’s policy of housing British people before immigrants and giving pensioners priority on hospital waiting lists.

“I’ve always voted Labour,” says Winifred Elliott, 80, opening the door of her terraced house on Wigton Road, “but look at the state of the country. Immigration is the main thing and Labour have made that worse. I’ll definitely vote for you.”

“We’re too small a country to take this number of immigrants,” says Thomas Brecken, 85, “and as for the EU we definitely want to be out of it.”

“It’s really great that you are giving the area so much attention,” says Amanda Fisher, 25, a programme support manager in the NHS, who sports a curved bar through her lower lip. “No one else bothers to come round. With all my piercings, I know about stereotypes and it’s clear that what you stand for is nothing like the stereotype people have of you.”

These are far from isolated views. At the last election in west Cumbria two months ago, the BNP came within 16 votes of overturning a majority of more than 1,000 in what used to be one of the safest Labour county council seats in the region, in the Kells and Sandwith ward of Whitehaven. Revealingly, the party drew support from both the massive run-down council estate of Kells and the village of Sandwith, a previously Tory area.

The BNP’s electoral success there is part of a nationwide shift in fortunes. Earlier this month, the party captured a Labour council seat in Sevenoaks in Kent and had a near miss in the London borough of Bexley. It took 28 per cent of the vote at Thringstone in Leicestershire. And it is now beefing up its electoral machine across the country ahead of the local elections in June.

Most significantly, its national chairman, Nick Griffin, has a realistic chance of becoming the BNP’s first MEP in the European elections the same day in June. He is standing in the North West region, which includes Cumbria but stretches down through Liverpool and Manchester to Chester. The BNP polled 6.8 per cent there last time. Under the proportional representation system, an increase to just 8 per cent could secure him a seat. The party, which got 40 per cent of the vote in Kells, could well achieve the breakthrough that would give it access to £250,000 from the public purse in salaries, resources and office costs. It could gain an MEP in the Yorkshire and Humberside region too. An extra 40 voters in every ward could be sufficient.

So what has brought about this change in the fortunes of the BNP, which was once regarded as an electoral no-hoper?

“Just three or four years ago when we gave out anti-immigration leaflets people wouldn’t take them or just ripped them up,” admits Clive Jefferson, the party’s North West elections officer. “But we have offered the electorate a viable alternative, common-sense policies and candidates who are normal people who live amongst them. They can see that we’re not tattooed skinhead thugs. And a lot of people agree with what we’re saying.”

The evidence on the streets of Carlisle seems to bear out that contention. At one point, Mr Barbour was stopped across the road from the Cumberland Infirmary by a middle-aged woman. “Until recently I thought the BNP were just a bunch of racist swine,” Mandy Foster, 42, an office systems administrator told me. “But I knew Alistair, who lives locally, and knew he was a good bloke and thought if he had got involved it was worth taking a look at. When you look at the way people can’t get jobs, everything is crime-ridden and there is nothing for the kids on the street to do, the BNP are the only party who are honest about all that. I think the party has really changed.”

But has it? The night before I had travelled to Whitehaven to a gathering of BNP supporters in a pub in the ward in which the party’s candidate, Simon Nicholson, 35, in December recorded the highest percentage ever polled by the BNP.

His agenda too had been resolutely local. “I stood because I was fed up of the way Labour had treated us because they had always got 80 per cent of the vote in Kells,” he says. “It is a sink estate and yet it never got the attention they gave to marginals. It was 20 years since anyone knocked on my door and the kids’ swings were getting wrecked, there were potholes in the road, dog shit everywhere and anti-social kids hanging around with no one doing anything about them. And there were other issues like paedophiles.” About 20 of his supporters had gathered in the pub. What other issues, I asked, and set off a cataract of indignation from the assembled company: “British jobs going to immigrants”;; “My dad is a Normandy veteran; I want the borders back that he fought for”; “The teddy bear called Mohamed”; “My wife was spat at at a bus-stop in an Asian area”; “The higher birth-rates of Asian families are putting stress on maternity services”.

The emphasis was more on what they are against rather than what they are for, though they were keen on capital punishment for murderers of children and policemen. A 94-year-old ex-paratrooper called Gordon Savage, who had fought at Arnhem, wanted the EU “to give our fishing industry back to our fishermen”.

One of the things they were most against was Islam. Preachers of hate, veiled women, and the dual allegiance of British Muslims like the “Leeds lads who bombed London” drew particular criticism as did the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement that the advent of some sharia law in Britain was inevitable: “The Church of England is all Marxist rubbish with no traditional values left in it”; “I’m not really a religious person but the fact that we can’t celebrate our own religion in our own country annoys me.”

But most scorn was reserved for the Labour Government: “Gordon Brown is throwing billions at the banks but can’t help the old people dying in Whitehaven because they can’t afford to heat their houses”; “HBOS was worth £240bn but they can’t find £2,000 a month for my mate’s cancer drugs.”; “Brown is just a Conservative, protecting the banks and privatising the Post Office.”

“And they’ve just spent £160,000 on a private jet to bring that bloody black over here,” says one supporter referring to the repatriation of Binyam Mohamed, the British resident recently released from Guantanamo Bay. “That’s enough of that language,” admonishes Mr Jefferson. “You’re right in what you say but be careful of your language when there’s a journalist here.”

But if attitudes remain unchanged, the tactics are not. Next day, back in Carlisle, Mr Jefferson teams up with Mr Barbour and two other BNP activists. “In 2006, when we first stood in Cumbria, we got 88 votes in a county council seat,” he says. “At the last by-election we got 40.2 per cent of the vote – the largest percentage we’ve ever had. We are learning fast.”

The change is down to Mr Griffin. “He has modernised the party and made it electable,” he says. “We have shifted from marches and protests, which are merely expressions of anger and frustration, to elections through which we can actually achieve change. We’re organised; we’re committed; we believe in what we’re doing.”

Mr Barbour is so committed that he has taken six weeks off work to canvas Castle ward in Carlisle. By voting day, each home will have received 10 BNP leaflets or newspapers. It is paying dividends. At the end of Wigton Road a middle-aged woman opens her door. “My old dad always said to have nothing to do with the BNP,” Maureen McArthur told him. “But I’ve read all your stuff and I have to say I agree with a lot of it. I’ll definitely think about voting for you.”

Those for whom the idea of the British National Party as a part of mainstream politics has always been unthinkable would do well to start thinking about it.


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