BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 21.04.02

Film: BNP Film. Iain Watson looks at the fears that the far right British National Party could win some council seats in the local elections next month.

IAIN WATSON: The images from our worst nightmares can often be so vivid, they still haunt our waking hours. Since the events of last June, Burnley has been associated in the collective consciousness with disturbances and division. A cross-community task force has worked hard to find ways of preventing this from ever happening again. But there's one political party which still wants to exploit any underlying tensions even though victims of the rioting would rather build a better future. Now the BNP are standing for only sixty-eight council seats out of nearly six-thousand which are being contested across England. But they seem very keen to target the areas which saw disturbances last summer. In Oldham for example, they're putting up five candidates and here in Burnley they are contesting thirteen of the fifteen electoral wards. Now Labour are so keen that the BNP shouldn't be allowed to establish a bridgehead in any of Britain's town halls, that they have drafted in outside organisational expertise. But it's clear it'll take more than spin doctoring to see off the twin viruses of deprivation and resentment on which the BNP campaign hopes to build. Burnley is situated in a pleasant location near the Pennine hills, but it's clear it's still reeling from the collapse of many of its traditional industries. Forty per cent of households are claiming state benefits, and some pockets of poverty are amongst the worst in England. One ward is the eighth poorest in the country. It's the discontent that comes from deprivation which the BNP is trying to exploit. Their local organiser is making his way into town from his home in the nearby countryside. He polled eleven per cent of the vote as their parliamentary candidate last year. While the BNP say they are democrats, the prospect of direct action is never far from their thoughts. STEVE SMITH: There's a lot of resentment in this town, especially in regard to the imbalance of, of wealth distribution in Burnley. And fundamentally if that is not addressed and the frustrations and the anger addressed also, then we are going to see more of the kinds of, of division and conflict that we saw some months ago. WATSON: More riots? SMITH: Yes, you cannot expect a council that performs in the way that our council does and expect people to take it lying down. ACTUALITY: WATSON: Larry O'Hara is an academic who has written extensively about the BNP and the far right. LARRY O'HARA: What they want is to win one contested council seat anywhere in the country and they, and they think that the national publicity which would follow from that would help them onto their next plateau of growth. You know you're gonna get a small core minority of people in any area, including Burnley, what, whatever happens in the elections who would see themselves as racist but you will get a larger percentage of people who will see themselves as having been abandoned by traditional politicians. And they might think that a vote for the BNP could be a protest vote. WATSON: There's almost four-thousand empty homes in Burnley; some are awaiting demolition but others have to be boarded up as soon as a tenant leaves to prevent drug addicts breaking in to steal fixtures and fittings to pay for their habit. Doing more to combat crime in working class communities is territory the BNP are keen to occupy, but there may be some distance between their rhetoric and reality. Their organiser is certainly a conviction politician, though not in the conventional sense. He's just come out of prison after a three month sentence for electoral fraud. SMITH: That matter was, has been actually looked at by our party hierarchy and they have decided that what I did there was no more than a misdemeanour. WATSON: What credibility does your party have on law and order when one of your organisers was convicted of attacking police with a hammer, another organiser of the BNP was convicted of storing explosives and you yourself are just out of jail? SMITH: How, all I can tell you is that anyone connected with the British National Party, who is in breach of our national code of conduct, is expelled. WATSON Does it breach your code of conduct? SMITH: You would need to address that matter to the party hierarchy, I'm a branch organiser. WATSON: Attacking police with a hammer may not breach your code of conduct, is that what you're saying? SMITH: If you wanted to actually make a list or perhaps even write a book about the offences committed by people in the Labour party you couldn't actually produce a book thick enough. WATSON: The BNP attack Labour by saying the government isn't spending enough on Burnley; but they also insinuate that Asian voters are given an unequal share of an already small cake. Not all of Burnley's old terraced housing is boarded up or awaiting demolition. Here in the Daneshouse ward, there's an impressive programme of improvements already underway. But what the BNP are keen to point out is that this is predominantly an Asian part of town. But what they fail to point out is the reason that more cash, relatively speaking, is being spent in this area is because this ward is the most deprived in Burnley and one of the most deprived in the whole of Britain. So the way public money is spent in this town is being exploited for electoral reasons by the BNP. While the charges of unfairness coming from the BNP can be refuted, the Labour MP for Burnley thinks his own government could do more to overcome resentment. The funds to tackle deprivation are often awarded through special schemes tightly targeted on those areas with the greatest needs, so some people in neighbouring districts feel left out. PETER PIKE; One of the problems with programmes is it looks at ward boundaries and indeed ward boundaries that haven't existed now for a number of years. Now poverty and deprivation doesn't end neatly at a line on a map and certainly councils need more flexibility to be able to use their resources. Another thing that has been a problem for Burnley is that their main core funding is now less in real terms than it was in ten years. Now we all know that the Labour government is going to change the structure of local government within the next twelve months. And one of the things that it has got to do is be much more positive to councils like Burnley to give them the freedom to be able to tackle the problems that clearly exist here. WATSON: The call for more cash was echoed by representatives of the ethnic minority communities at this meeting with the TUC SHER ALI MIAH: Successive governments have failed Burnley Burnley has severe problem in the form of housing, deprivation, overcrowding, poor health -Burnley need massive injections of money WATSON: The BNP say that more public money would come to Burnley if they do well in the forthcoming council elections. That's because, as they put it, the Labour government would try to 'bribe' voters not to support the BNP in future. But they make no mention of the potential effect they might have on private investments. We spoke to the CBI in the region and they told us there could be an adverse effect on business confidence if the town became associated with BNP activity, but many of their members were just too worried to speak out. However, the chairman of this company wasn't too afraid to tell us what he thought about the BNP. This is a specialist engineering firm serving an international market. Its chairman supports Labour but he says the reason he wants to keep the BNP out of the town hall owes as much to economics as politics. DEREK GILL: It would be the ultimate disaster - I'm quite sure we would lose markets; I mean I've have been in Malaysia , we've been in China, we've been in Japan -and we would lose markets. It is very difficult as it is on a price basis but if we were associated with racism as well, it would be the end of businesses like this PETER DOYLE: I would prefer them not to be a legal party. With the type of policies that they are putting forward nationally, we do not want to be involved in that. I mean my father fought people that were putting forward similar policies many, many, years ago. And as locally, the policies are - shall we say - watered down, and in my view they are just trying to hoodwink the people. WATSON: Why no mention of your national policy on banning mixed marriages? SMITH: That is a policy that I am not aware of. WATSON: It's national policy, I mean it's on the website? SMITH: Yeah well I've been extremely busy just recently running the Burnley campaign and unfortunately I haven't had sufficient time or opportunity to, to examine that particular policy. WATSON: Are you a racist? SMITH: I don't actually recognise that word. I believe it was a piece, it is a piece of propaganda which effectively makes it a sin for a person to protect their racial and cultural environment. WATSON: So who made the word up? SMITH: Trotsky in the 1930's, fact. WATSON: So racism is all a far left Trotskyist plot? SMITH: Correct. WATSON: The harsh reality is that the BNP are appealing to a certain section of the population. We'd even been told that this pub was displaying campaigning literature at a sensitive time before the local elections. Using a concealed camera, we were surprised at the prominence given to this example of blatant support for the British National Party. We contacted the owners of the pub, Thwaites brewery, to ask what action they intended to take against the landlord for allowing the poster to be put up. In a statement to On the Record, they said : "Daniel Thwaites brewery runs a compulsory in house tenants training course where all our tenants are advised to remain impartial and show no bias to any sector of the community. Immediately this particular matter came to our attention we sent a representative to the Bridge Inn and the poster was duly removed. A letter reinforcing the guidelines laid down in our training course has now been sent to every pub in our tenanted estate." However, they were unable to tell us if any action had been taken against the landlord for breaching the company's own guidelines on impartiality Mozaquir Ali, a Liberal Democrat councillor, is showing a colleague the progress being made on a new multicultural centre; but he warns that the wounds of last June may be reopened if the BNP do well at the ballot box COUNCILLOR MOZAQUIR ALI: We are basing a project which will bring children from all faiths into activities where they will meet each other and they will grow up together into a better more cohesive Burnley, and that's what we are aiming at. And that's the aim that the BNP are causing a threat to, to that aim; and I'm sure, and have full confidence, and I hope the people of Burnley will reject them in this election WATSON: But in Burnley, voters can to elect up to three candidates in each council ward, and there are fears that some of them may lodge a protest against the mainstream parties on their second or third vote. Labour says anyone who's fed up with them should avoid the BNP at all costs PIKE: If they are not for Labour then vote for the independents, Tories or Liberals but don't waste a vote for the BNP. All they will do is cause division and conflict WATSON: The main parties are warning that a protest vote for the BNP next month will stir up racial tensions and erect barriers between Burnley's communities. But curing the underlying disease of deprivation will mean the government will have to put up extra cash and be more flexible about how it's spent, if disillusionment and division are to be banished from Burnley.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.