Last month the BNP rallied for a fallen member in Stoke-on-Trent, but, the party was really launching its bid for power
The British National Party conducted its largest single leafleting session when 300 people campaigned in Stoke-on-Trent last month. Publicly they were there to draw attention to what they considered was the lenient sentence handed down to a man found guilty of the manslaughter of a local BNP member, but in truth they were launching their campaign for control of the city.
The BNP activists, drawn by a ratio of more than four to one from outside the city, spent a few hours leafleting and then met up again for a shambolic rally in car park. As usual Griffin was surrounded by thuggish henchmen and the so-called truth truck – known more accurately as the lie lorry.
Habib Khan had received an eight-year sentence in August after being convicted in May of the manslaughter of his neighbour Keith Brown, a BNP member.
The pair had been involved in a long-running dispute over land and Khan had been the subject of a sustained racial campaign by Brown, his family and friends. The two men had previously worked together at H & R Johnson Tiles quite amicably but things turned nasty after Khan bought the house next to Brown and applied for planning permission to demolish his two houses to build one new one.
“I took him [Mr Brown] inside the house and I said ‘it’s so dangerous’,” Khan told the court. “‘I have a family, in my position what would you do? He said ‘my house is old, your house is new, I don’t like it’. From that day he never cooperated.”
Brown blocked access to the builders and is alleged even to have tried to smash down some of the new building. The Khans were regularly called “Paki”, had their windows put in frequently and even had a panic button installed by the police because of their fear of attack. Last year Brown’s son, Ashley Barker, was convicted of assaulting Khan, an incident that left Khan unconsciousness.
The court heard how Khan acted to defend his son who was being attacked by Barker outside his home. Khan, described in court as a “mild and calm-mannered family man”, had intended to use the knife to threaten Mr Brown, who had hold of one of his sons.
Judge Simon Tonking said Khan had acted “in the honest belief that he needed to protect his son” but in doing so had killed Mr Brown.
The jury, consisting of 11 white people, found Khan not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. In passing sentence, the Judge took into account the abuse and attacks on Khan.
“What became obvious as the evidence unfolded, however,” said Judge Tonking, “is that from time to time, despite denials to the contrary, both Mr Brown and his son Ashley Barker were involved in acts of racial aggression towards members of Mr Khan’s family. It should be said that the jury’s verdict was entirely respectable and understandable on the evidence.”
The real issue
The BNP and Brown’s family were furious and claimed that this was another example of anti-white prejudice and so a rally was organised. However, raising opposition to Khan’s sentence was simply the pretext. It was left to the party’s deputy leader to spell out the real purpose of the day. Simon Darby told the rally that the party’s next target would be to take control of the city of Stoke-on-Trent through the election of a BNP mayor.
“If there is a mayoral election then we are confident that we will win that election,” he added.
The BNP currently has nine councillors in the city and averaged 24% in the wards it contested in May’s local elections. While this is less than one sixth of the total councillors, their influence extends far beyond what the figure suggests.
Labour has the largest group on the council, but at 17 it is not that much bigger than the BNP group. In May the Labour Party polled 25% of the vote across the city, only fractionally more than the BNP. Indeed, in the ten wards where the BNP and Labour went head to head the BNP was in front in all but two.
More worryingly, the BNP councillors sit and regularly vote with a larger group of independents, making a group of 29 in total. Opposing them is a coalition of 31 Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
This is all a far cry from the mid-1990s when Labour held all 60 seats on the council, most with huge majorities. Since then Labour has collapsed. Internal wrangling, incompetence and a general swing against the national government has seen Labour’s grip on the city weaken.
A directly elected mayor was introduced in the city in 2002 but unlike in other local authority areas with mayors, Stoke-on-Trent was unique in that it gave total power to the mayor and the council’s Chief Executive. This created resentment and hostility in the city and particularly from the councillors who became increasingly redundant in the decision making process. Their disquiet often became open opposition, which added to the political instability in the city.
The first mayoral contest was won by an independent (who was a former Labour Party member), with the BNP only just failing to go through to the second round by 1,500 votes. Each voter has two votes and the result is determined after the two leading candidates in the first round are allocated the second preferences of the others.
In 2005 Labour won it back, largely because the contest was held on the same day as the general election, which had brought the Labour vote out. The BNP was further behind, though its candidate still took 18% of the vote.
In the face of mounting hostility to mayoral government the current mayor introduced a cabinet system in a bid to involve the councillors. However, this has done little to improve the standing of the council in the eyes of the population.
The BNP scents victory next year and certainly has the momentum behind it. Its confidence was evident by a recent letter from the party’s councillors to other councillors in which they boasted of running the council before long. These councillors were invited to join them.
However, it is not certain that there will even be a mayoral election next year, as the legislation that introduced the elected mayor only provided for two terms. Later this month the people of Stoke-on-Trent will decide whether to keep the mayoral system or replace it with a traditional leader/cabinet authority. It is not clear which they will choose.
Most parties appear split, though the councillors of the three main parties seem keen to revert to the more traditional method of selecting the council leader from within the council chamber.
The BNP however, precisely because it believes it can win a contest, is campaigning to retain the mayor. The party is joined by a group of individuals who have launched a campaign called People’s Choice.
Its leader Paul Breeze told the local paper: “The reason we voted for a directly elected mayor system in the first place was because our existing governance arrangements of a leader and cabinet had resulted in our city becoming stagnant, bereft of ideas, and lacking in vision and true leadership.
“We are still paying the price today for the years of drift we had under the old system. Our city needs stability, someone given a clear mandate from the people, to push forward with changes.”
However, in a sign that chaos will reign, the anti-mayoral campaign is also called People’s Choice!
If a mayoral contest does take place it would seem that the BNP, Labour and the former independent mayor Mick Wolff will be fighting it out for the top two places. Any one of these could win.
Given the danger of a BNP victory, it might seem logical for anti-fascists to hope the mayor is abolished. However, not only is this merely delaying a problem, it could in fact create a bigger one in a year or two.
If the people go against the mayoral system, the city will be in a state of flux, which will only intensify the stagnation and demand for real change. By law, the current mayor leaves office next May, so who would run the council? A Governance Report into Stoke-on-Trent recommended a reduction in the number of councillors in the city so we are likely to face all-out elections in either 2010 or 2011. With chaos and confusion likely to overshadow the intervening period the BNP could continue to grow locally and so dominate those elections. It might be easier for the BNP to win enough wards to take control of the city council, albeit with the support of some independents, than win a mayoral election outright.
Either way Stoke-on-Trent is where we currently face the most serious threat. With a real danger of the BNP winning control of a city of 250,000 people, the energies of the anti-fascist movement must be focused here. Likewise, the main political parties and the trade unions must also redouble their efforts.
A multi-track approach is needed. Anti-fascists and trade unions need to develop a coherent and sensible campaign that highlights the threat of the BNP and its true nature, but recognises that the BNP has planted deep roots in local communities and that undermining the BNP’s councillors locally is vital. At the same time a turnout campaign needs to be built, especially if there is a mayoral election, which can identify and mobilise anti-BNP voters. Wider mood events are important but in a winner-takes-all election our priority has to be winning the election.
The mainstream political parties need to get their act together and find a way to engage with voters locally. Nationally, the government still needs to do more to address the deep-rooted economic problems that beset the area.
Searchlight is currently making representations to the main parties, unions and government to make sure that everyone is doing their utmost to help in Stoke-on-Trent. Anything less and the BNP will next time be organising a victory rally.