The far right is in position to prosper if Labour fails to address its traditional supporters' grievances, says Mike Ion.
According to the Labour MP Jon Cruddas, the far-right BNP is busy exploiting the present economic crisis and could easily end up winning seats in the European parliament next year.
Jon has long pointed out that one reason for the BNP's growing support has been its ability to respond to and exploit genuine local grievances. The credit crunch will only end up exacerbating these and could help turn more people toward the far right. One way to prevent this is to address some of the underlying problems that have resulted in many traditional Labour supporters taking refuge in the policies of the far right.
The BNP is keen to take advantage of issues such as the end of funding for housing projects in predominantly white areas, and targets those wards with large numbers of disadvantaged white working-class families and where the local secondary schools are seen to be underperforming. It is often successful in what we might describe as "forgotten" white areas, where many traditional Labour supporters say they feel alienated from modern political discourse and have long been of the view that no one in the Labour party is listening to them, let alone concerned about them.
Historically, far-right parties have increased their support in the context of significant problems: high unemployment, economic deprivation, lack of educational achievement, high crime rates, drugs, and people of different ethnic backgrounds living apparently separate lives, which encourages the growth of myths and rumour.
One leaflet used in last May's local elections in Dagenham asked voters: "Are you concerned about the growth of Islam in Britain? Make May 4 referendum day." It added: "Defend Our Christian Culture."
It is sobering to remember that, in recent local elections, the BNP has continued to gain seats in east London and Stoke-on-Trent and picked up enough elsewhere to hold 46 council seats in England.
This follows 2002's dramatic local election successes in the north of England and a 4.9% showing in the 2004 European elections. For the first time ever in Britain, an openly racist party has sustained the support of more than one in 20 voters over several contests.
I believe the BNP is evidence of a new challenge in British politics. In the past the battleground (sometimes literally) of left v right politics centred on our inner cities. This is no longer the case.
The BNP has begun to develop a network of suburban supporters, people who are openly willing to admit not only to supporting a racist and bigoted political party but to doing so with pride and patriotic fervour.
If the trends of the past few years continue, the BNP may well make the type of breakthrough that Jon Cruddas is signalling and it will then be far more difficult to reverse than to stop it before it occurs.
Mike Ion was Labour's PPC for Shrewsbury in 2005. He blogs at mike-ion.blogspot.com
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