At the ESWA sports club in Birkenhead, north-west England, Thursday night is “race night”, with punters crowding round to place bets on virtual horses.
Down in the basement an altogether different kind of race event is taking place. The anti-immigration British National party is holding a party meeting to whip up local support for the European parliamentary elections on Thursday.
The BNP is confident it can ride a wave of popular disgust towards politicians in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal, and win its first seat in the European parliament. North-west England is the party’s number one target constituency, with Nick Griffin, the far right party’s leader set to win a seat if the BNP attracts more than 8.5 per cent of the vote.
The party’s confidence has worried mainstream politicians. David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservatives, has described BNP members as “nazi thugs” in suits and Jack Straw, justice minister in the Labour government, said it would be “very damaging” for the country if they win any seats.
In a further cause for worry, Mr Griffin’s party has held talks to affiliate with other European far-right parties – such as the Freedom Party in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front Nationale in France and Vlaams Belang of Flanders – amid fears such groups could gain a firm foothold as voters across the continent express their disapproval of mainstream politics after the banking crisis.
Mr Griffin’s address mixes “anti-politics” rhetoric – arguing that Labour, the Conservatives and opposition Liberal Democrats are “three factions of the same establishment party”– and the theme of “charity begins at home”. Mr Griffin decries the allocation of a £7bn foreign aid budget while “British old age pensioners die of the cold”.
The speech is received rapturously by the few dozen people in the audience, made up largely of pensioners, former servicemen, some young shaven-headed men in suits and a smattering of middle aged women.
In Wallasey, a nearby town, the response among white shoppers to BNP activists ran from apathy to morbid curiosity. But one man shouted, “You’ll do well this time lads,” a view shared by several others. Another man in his 20s shouted, “Don’t listen to them; they’re all . . . nazis”. A respectable-looking middle aged woman then screwed up a leaflet and threw it back at an activist, saying: “You’re not wanted in this town; it’s totally unchristian.”
Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Griffin conceded that the north Wirrall area was not a typical BNP heartland because it has large numbers of unemployed people, who tend to opt out of voting, rather than the disgruntled manual workers who make up the party base. Given the “perfect storm” for the BNP of disdain for the political class, rising unemployment, low voter turnout and the fact that people often use European elections to protest, one party worked admitted, however, that “if we don’t win now, we never will”.
But in spite of the party’s largely polite public demeanour and Mr Griffin’s awareness that the British public would not vote for a party that “marches in jackboots and burns down shops”, there are unpalatable views below the surface. Mr Griffin says he has “nothing against Sikhs and Hindus” – even though they cannot join the party and he will offer large sums to encourage them to voluntarily repatriate – but is avowedly “anti-Islam”.