The far-right BNP is exploiting the economic crisis and is close to winning seats in the European Parliament for the first time, Labour's Jon Cruddas warned today.
In his first interview since being appointed by Gordon Brown to lead Labour's campaign against the extremist fringe, he said there was a real danger of the BNP getting an MEP elected in next June's elections.
Speaking to the Evening Standard, the Dagenham MP said there was also a danger the BNP could make major gains in local elections on the back of public anxiety about the economy.
"They feed off a sense of alienation and exploit any policy vacuum," he said. "Their appeal is strongest whenever there is a sense of a scramble around limited resources. There is a real fear the credit crunch will bear down on jobs and pay, push up unemployment and intensify competition for scarce resources, and that that will create a more fertile ground for the BNP to operate in."
Mr Cruddas was so concerned about the BNP threat that he turned down a ministerial job offered to him by the Prime Minister on Saturday. His decision surprised some MPs and some have speculated that he is keeping his distance from Mr Brown in order to stand in future as a Labour leadership candidate. Asked if he could rule himself out of a leadership contest, he replied: "There was all sorts of speculation about leadership a few weeks ago but I think it has been put to bed now. The underlying theme after conference, and because of the economy, is unity. Any speculation is more unfounded than usual though no one can anticipate what will happen down the line."
Keeping his options firmly open, he added: "I think that speculation has gone away for quite a while."
Mr Cruddas also claimed the party was content with the reshuffle - including the return of Peter Mandelson. "I do not detect a great deal of hostility to Peter Mandelson coming in," he said. "He has a lot of experience and there's quite a lot of support for bringing back some of the old hands."
The weekend reshuffle was the second time he has turned down a frontbench job since coming third in last year's Labour deputy leadership contest.
Mr Cruddas has won the Prime Minister's backing for a campaign to fight back against the far-Right in areas such as his own where the BNP has made gains that culminated in Richard Barnbrook winning the first BNP seat on the London Assembly.
Mr Cruddas is this week meeting deputy leader Harriet Harman to discuss how Labour should react and is planning strategy talks with the trade unions. The regional list system introduced for the European elections give all smaller parties a bigger chance of winning seats, including the BNP.