It's lunchtime in the Ace of Diamonds, and it could be any working man's pub in Britain: darts trophies, Guinness on tap, Queen's "We Are the Champions" on the jukebox and a landlord indignant about the Gurkhas. "You have got people there who have, as far as I'm concerned, an absolute right to stay in this country," says Derek Adams. "They've served this country in the armed forces and they're told they can't stay here! It's absolutely outrageous."
But this is no ordinary pub, and Adams is no ordinary landlord. He is a British National Party activist. And when a Labour government is tacking to the right of the BNP over an immigration decision, there is either something very wrong in Downing Street or something very complex happening in politics.
Adams stood as a BNP candidate last month in council byelections in Moston, a rundown district of north Manchester. It was the first time the party had contested the ward and it came second to Labour.
But when the north-west region votes in next month's European elections, the BNP doesn't need to win: under a system using proportional representation, its candidate and chairman Nick Griffin needs just 8% of the vote - fractionally more than its 6.5% last time - to secure a historic first European parliament seat for the British far right.
On a low turnout, that means about 80,000 votes - a hundred times what Adams got in Moston - across a vast area from rural Cumbria to the Mersey, from Manchester to the Lancashire mill towns. If they string together enough Mostons, enough pockets of anger and fear, the BNP can make a giant leap.
This is the story of a battle, far from the infighting at Westminster, over who stands for modern Britain on the international stage.
Adams's views are mostly predictable: Britain has been "flooded with mass immigration", the police hamstrung by political correctness, schoolchildren held back by foreigners who don't speak English. We have "imported an awful lot" of crime via immigrants, he says.
The familiar BNP posters promising "British jobs for British workers" now include a dig at Gordon Brown's use of the phrase, pledging "when we say it, we mean it!" - although how exactly they mean it is vague. Adams cannot explain how immigrants would be denied jobs except by "pulling out of the EU".
But what is new is the billboard by the pub featuring two besuited pigs fighting over a pile of cash. The "punish the pigs" advert reflects the risk that the party benefiting when mainstream politicians squabble over expenses, and when public trust melts away, is the one outside the system. As Hazel Blears, communities secretary and a Salford MP, puts it: "The BNP have got into 'anti-politics', which taps into a very resonant public mood."
That mood, coupled with recession, gives the BNP an unprecedented opportunity next month for a victory that would transform its finances and public standing. It would also tell black and Asian Britons that a sizeable minority of their north-western neighbours do not want them here. That, says Manchester's Labour council leader Richard Leese, makes him "sick to my stomach".
What Westminster does now can help to defuse this bomb or detonate it. Which explains why many Labour MPs now want Brown to turn things around - or stand aside for someone who can.
Brown's triumphant G20 meeting was supposed to be the springboard for a comeback in June's local and European elections. Yet, four weeks later, disaster piles on disaster - the humiliating retreat over expenses, defeat over the Gurkhas, growing doubts over the budget.
Unhappy MPs are now huddling in corners at Westminster. Steven Byers, who broke ranks to urge the scrapping of ID cards, has been spotted chatting to Siobhan McDonagh, a ringleader of last autumn's failed coup against Brown; Charles Clarke, who says he is "ashamed" of his party, is omnipresent. Today the unease spreads to the cabinet.
A bad election result, says one ex-minister, will be "our last chance to draw breath" and change leaders before the general election: tearoom talk is of stalking horses. "I have been approached by several colleagues," says one MP. "The message is not to go public until after the June elections, but then we should act and have a plan in place."
John McDonnell, the backbencher who challenged Brown for the leadership in 2007, said the party was in a "truly depressing" state: "You can't move in the Commons for plots with people thinking what to do after the June elections."
But even he thinks that while there may be another attempted coup, it might not work. The more likely scenarios are either a cabinet delegation to tell Brown he has lost the country's confidence and should go - making way for Alan Johnson or Jack Straw - or Brown himself, more improbably, deciding to quit.
"Brown has never taken on a fight unless he was certain he was going to win. It is not how he behaves," says one Scottish former minister. "He would hate losing to [David] Cameron, all the more because he has no respect for Cameron."
For now, Johnson remains preoccupied by swine flu - although his failure to answer the Times directly yesterday about whether he might rise to the party's hour of need will be noted. Some rebel MPs even argue for Brown to stay and be roundly defeated: "What would be awful would be for Brown to go and then for a caretaker to fare no better. Then the Brownites would say 'we would have turned it around'."
At Labour's grassroots, exasperation with Westminster is palpable. Theresa Griffin, one of Labour's north-west MEPs, says that when she heard about the smear emails sent by Damian McBride "I thought, 'well that's immediately lost me 2,000 votes'". She struggles to defend MPs' expenses on the stump to people earning the minimum wage.
Lucy Powell, Labour's candidate for the target parliamentary seat of Manchester Withington, says the best thing the government could do for her would be to tackle mistrust, plus "trying to get a bit more of a grip on how we are communicating things. We are getting absolutely trounced in the media".
Even John Prescott, who spent Friday in Liverpool defending Brown for "getting the big questions right" while being heckled over expenses, admits the message needs sharpening. His four-day tour of the north, taking to his soapbox to defend Labour in town squares, seems born of frustration at the government's failure to stand its ground.
So for now the divide is not between rival candidates but between those - like Prescott, Alistair Campbell, Blears and David Blunkett - launching their own last fight for survival and those apparently giving up. But simply blaming a floundering government for the resurgent BNP is to misread the runes. As Labour's deputy leader on Manchester council, Jim Battle, points out, while the Labour vote dipped last month in Moston, it was the Conservative vote that collapsed: the BNP now seems to be attracting working-class Tories. Which makes them Cameron's problem too.
The anonymous Manchester blogger, the Moston Martyr, divides local opinion. Some suspect him of having links to the BNP; he insists he is just an angry ex-Labour voter. But the video he uploaded to YouTube last summer has had a dramatic impact. The camera pans slowly down streets of boarded-up homes and shops, their windows shuttered blankly in steel: a community where nobody lives, much of it since demolished under slum clearance.
It is a lament for a lost way of life, what its author - speaking on condition of anonymity - remembers as a thriving community where people looked out for each other. Nostalgia is a rightwing staple, but he insists his memories are not rose-tinted: "It was always a rough working-class area. But you knew who the baddies were and most people were decent."
His film attacks a council which, he argues, thought regeneration meant building a "shiny new leisure centre", but failed to stop housing being snapped up cheaply by private landlords and rented out to problem tenants. Those residents who could get out, he says, sold their houses for as little as £3,000.
But the way his film brackets together asylum seekers with "druggies and antisocial families", while dwelling on shots of young black men on street corners, was a godsend to the BNP. He reflects, at the least, an intimate understanding of what drove their supporters.
The Moston Martyr says he made the film because nobody was listening: "How can speaking up for a working-class community that has been displaced by socialists be fascist? The Africans coming into Moston are for the most part decent, hard-working people. I've got no qualms about that. What I have got qualms about is the powers that be have not listened to local people, just decided that Moston can be an African area."
He says he would rather spoil a ballot paper than vote BNP "because I like to think I've a bit of intelligence" but can understand why others do: "The chattering classes get upset - they've not had to live with the changes."
Yet things in Moston are not so simple. The blogger himself says the serious downward spiral started three years ago, but that the immigrants began coming a decade ago: and he admits the traditionally white Irish area was probably "in decline" then. Nor are the class issues straightforward. Research suggests the BNP attracts not the poorest, but those struggling just above them: owner-occupiers, not council tenants. Labour research shows the groups likeliest to vote BNP are southern "white van men" - skilled manual workers - and northern "Coronation Street couples" in terraced houses, not tower blocks.
Manchester councillors have attacked the Moston Martyr's "skewed" film. But some Labour politicians concede the millions spent regenerating inner cities were not always well targeted. "What we have failed to do is regenerate the people," says Joe Anderson, leader of the Labour group on Liverpool council.
Blears argues politicians must combat the BNP's new brand of practical politics - they now campaign on issues such as broken lifts in sheltered housing, taking up grievances unsolved by mainstream councillors - by diligently pursuing casework. The Tories, meanwhile, have appointed a full-time anti-BNP official: young "Cameroons" are now volunteering for the anti-fascist group Searchlight in recognition of the changing threat.
But while debate continues over the causes of BNP support, the mainstream parties have more urgent battles to fight.
Down at the end of Liverpool's Northumberland Street, the grey waters of the Mersey sparkle in the evening light as local councillor Joe Hanson argues patiently on the doorstep with a man who wants Brown removed "for someone with good social ideas". Hanson ducks this one and suggests that not voting Labour in June is as good as voting BNP. "I see your point," the man sighs. "What's the alternative?"
On this largely white Liverpool estate Labour is still broadly welcome. Critically, the only people mentioning the BNP here are the canvassers. "The BNP are standing and we really need you to vote Labour," Theresa Griffin says, on doorstep after doorstep. Such tactics would backfire in some areas, she says, but in others - even where unemployment is high, as it is here - the revulsion the BNP still creates can work to Labour's advantage.
She says activist numbers are up: even party workers loath to defend their government will turn out to fight the far right. Which matters, because the key tactic for all mainstream parties is maximising turnout. In a proportional voting system, the actual number of voters the BNP needs rises sharply the more voters go to the polls. Hence the message from Searchlight and from Hope Not Hate - a coalition of churches, gay groups, trade unions and celebrities - is just to vote: vote for anyone but the BNP.
And it is not just about targeting inner cities. The genteel south Manchester suburb of Didsbury is stuffed with what the software on Labour computers labels "Mosaic E" voters. "Guardian readers, basically," explains Lucy Powell, whose prospective seat covers the area.
Typically public sector workers, they hated the Iraq war - helping to swing the seat to the Liberal Democrats in 2005. They will be heavily targeted next month because they are naturally inclined to vote, but may not see the need. The message will be that under PR, every vote counts, so the liberal middle classes must do their bit. "Every vote cast here is one more vote the BNP have got to get from somewhere else," says Powell.
Nonetheless, the fear is that principles will be forgotten in the rush to protest. Which is why mainstream politicians are turning to outsiders such as the comedian Eddie Izzard, who hosted a gig in Manchester last week for Hope Not Hate. The elections would be held two days before the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Izzard told the crowd: "This is our D-day. I am going to be there on the Normandy beaches with the veterans: that was when our boys and our women went in to fight the fascists. Now the fascists are trying to get elected. We have six weeks until D-day."
There are signs that BNP support is shallow, lacking resources and manpower. Leaked BNP documents obtained by Searchlight show it has already scaled back its ambitions to focus on two regions, the north-west and the west Midlands, where it has made much of the killing of a BNP activist by his Asian neighbour in Stoke.
Nonetheless, 4 June remains not just D-day for Brown. It may also be D-day for deciding what kind of society Britain will become. For once, a cross in a ballot box really could change history. And not voting might mean living with the consequences.
The far right's changing face
- The original British National party emerged during the second world war as an offshoot of the British Union of Fascists, but later changed its name. A second version appeared in 1960 before merging with the National Front. The current BNP emerged from the breakaway New National Front in the 1980s under former NF chairman John Tyndall.
- Nick Griffin the current leader, took over in 1999 and began repositioning the party by toning down its more extremist public statements. Breakthroughs at council level followed three years later when it gained three seats in Burnley. In 2006, Griffin was acquitted on charges of stirring up racial hatred after being caught on camera accusing Muslims of turning Britain into a "multiracial hellhole".
- Under Griffin, members have been instructed to cover tattoos before canvassing and dress smartly. Bulletins issued to supporters ahead of this June's elections instruct organisers to observe "a period of zero tolerance towards any member making careless extremist remarks" to prevent "adverse publicity".
- The BNP'S biggest breakthrough at these elections has come from using new media - blogging, YouTube, Twittering and social networking sites such as Facebook - to get around "no platform" policies observed by the traditional media and civil society, designed to deny it the oxygen of publicity. It calls on members "to spread the truth of who we are", and to use proper spelling and grammar.
- At its electoral peak in 2007, the party held 47 council seats nationwide after doubling its gains in the 2006 local elections. It has since slipped back due to a series of resignations and expulsions but it still has a London Assembly member, Richard Barnbrook, left. The party still struggles to compete in terms of manpower and resources with mainstream parties in larger-scale elections.
The Guardian via UTV