Splattered with paint and daubed with the words “Nazi scum”. . . an attack on a British National Party billboard in Carlisle shows emotions are running high ahead of European Parliament and county council elections.
Yet the far-right party, which has condemned the vandalism, insists it has received a positive response from voters across Cumbria as it canvasses for next Thursday’s ballots.
Some remain less enthusiastically inclined towards the BNP though. They are concerned a low turnout or an anti-establishment voting trend – in fury at the Westminster expenses scandal – could play right into the party’s hands and deliver the mass protest vote it has been hoping for. Those worries have triggered a campaign to limit any BNP gains.
Opinions about the BNP have rarely hit the middle ground since its formation in the early 1980s by John Tyndall, a former chairman of the National Front. He was a man photographed in Nazi uniform – without attending fancy dress parties – and who described Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf as his bible.
Other members have also been reported making extreme pro-Nazi, racist or homophobic comments over the years. Mark Collett, the BNP’s director of publicity, was made infamous by the 2002 television documentary Young, Nazi and Proud.
Former deputy leader Tony Lecomber was jailed for possessing explosives in 1985 and again in 1991 for assaulting a Jewish teacher.
Party chairman Nick Griffin, who visited Whitehaven on Saturday, has tried with limited success to rid the party of its racist image. But controversy continues to follow him. He denied the Holocaust ever happened in a party publication in 1996 and received a suspended jail sentence two years later for inciting racial hatred.
Mr Griffin – his party’s lead Euro election candidate for the north west – this week claimed the ‘controlled media’ had resorted to rehashing comments made a decade and a half ago to throw the BNP into a poor light.
“I have gone on record repeatedly as saying such things [Holocaust rejection] were immature politics and all of us have moved on,” he said.
Yet his insistence on having turned a corner has done little to wipe the slate clean of suspicions which still stalk the party. There was outrage last week at the prospect of Mr Griffin attending a garden party at Buckingham Palace. Yesterday he announced he would not be attending the garden party, in order not to embarrass the Queen.
And leading clergymen – including University of Cumbria chancellor Dr John Sentamu – have pleaded with the public not to let the Westminster expenses scandal convert into BNP votes, in protest against the three major parties.
Carlisle Against Racism has been a prominent campaign group against the BNP, which is standing in 42 of the 84 council seats. By the end of this week, it will have distributed 30,000 copies of its anti-BNP leaflets to homes including those in Carlisle, Longtown, Brampton, Penrith, Wigton, Silloth and Alston. Chairman Brent Kennedy believes the newly glossed image of the party – activists wearing suits proffering slick campaign leaflets – could lure many towards an alternative.
“They don’t know about the truth,” he said. “People just see the glossy leaflets – the false image they are physically putting out.”
He and other campaigners have been working to gather support for their work in Carlisle city centre. Mr Kennedy said: “We have had people saying they are going to vote BNP because they are racist. Some are people who are not racist but desperate because of the economic crisis and angry about MPs enriching themselves. On the other hand, a big majority were really supportive. They were thanking us for campaigning against the BNP, which the political parties are not doing.”
The anti-racism activist, who claims he has been attacked and intimidated while carrying out his work, has clear fears should the BNP taste electoral success.
“I’m worried there will be an increase of racist abuse and attacks on people and political opponents of theirs if they get a Euro MP elected. I have already contacted the police about that,” he revealed.
The church has also been drawn into the electioneering arena with Dr Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams urging people to use “great vigilance” when deciding who to vote for. They claimed some parties would exploit the current political situation if elected and said the BNP fostered “fear and division within communities, especially between people of different faiths or racial background”.
“This is not a moment for voting in favour of any political party whose core ideology is about sowing division in our communities and hostility on grounds of race, creed or colour,” they added. “It is an opportunity for renewing the vision of a community united by mutual respect, high ethical standards and the pursuit of justice and peace.”
BNP supporters in Cumbria are undoubtedly in a minority. But in the European elections – where a proportional representation voting system is used to ensure the number of MPs from each political party reflects the share of votes they received regionally – that could be enough to secure a seat. That is a factor which has mobilised trade unions. The Public and Commercial Services Union has launched a Make Your Vote Count campaign, backed by the Northern TUC, and will be in Carlisle on Saturday. May 30.
Regional co-ordinator Gordon Rowntree said: “Because the European elections use proportional representation there is a fear there. In the north west Nick Griffin could be elected. That’s why we’re working to get turnout higher because that would help the other political parties.”
Clive Jefferson, the BNP’s Cumbrian organiser, maintains his party has moved on and away from the racism linked to it in its early days. He said: “All of the opposition or people who would tar us with the same brush are using things from decades ago. It’s not relevant to the party today.”
The activist, who said his chairman did not encounter any aggression in Whitehaven on Saturday and criticised senior churchmen for their comments, vehemently denied his party was racist.
“It’s not racist, fascist or Nazi, as left-wing extremists dub us. I don’t think the majority of people think that now. What we’ve got are left-wing extremists, as I would call them, peddling this kind of rubbish,” he added.
Mr Jefferson also denied activists used any intimidation and said: “If anyone is telling you that, I would like them to tell me. It should be reported to police. This will not be tolerated. That’s not how we go about things. We are a political party.”
He described the vandal attacks on the poster in Caldewgate, Carlisle, as “nasty”.
Polling stations will be open between 7am and 10pm on Thursday, June 4. Cumbria County Council ballot papers will be counted the following day. The European count will be delayed until other countries have voted on June 6 and 7.
News and Star