Ed Balls has been accused of wooing the anti-immigrant vote in his new constituency as he fights to remain an MP in the face of a resurgent Conservative Party and one of the highest BNP memberships in the country.
The Tories have made defeating the Schools Secretary a priority, hoping for an upset similar to the ousting of Michael Portillo in 1997 on a 17.4 per cent swing to Labour. The Tories need a 12.3 per cent swing to take Morley and Outwood, which Mr Balls will fight after his current seat, Normanton, is abolished. They believe that they will be helped by declining Labour support over the past 15 years, Mr Balls’s “Marmite” character and improvements in their own campaign.
At the very least, they hope, their efforts will tie down Gordon Brown’s closest adviser during the campaign.
Mr Balls, who is expected to run for the Labour leadership if the party is defeated at the general election, is visiting the West Yorkshire constituency every week. The Unite and Unison unions are helping to fund his campaign and he is arranging ministerial visits to nearby schools, paid for by public money.
But the party arousing the most interest locally is the BNP. Figures, including Keith Robinson, the president of Morley Chamber of Commerce, said that they understand why the far-right candidate is popular.
In response, Mr Balls is taking on local immigration concerns. But he is risking accusations of “dogwhistle politics” for issuing “immigration surveys” to local residents and holding local meetings focused on the issue.
A visit to the constituency by The Times found widespread sympathy for the BNP, despite the small number of foreign immigrants in the area compared with neighbouring Dewsbury, Bradford and Leeds. Many were happy to speak about their admiration for the party’s local tactics.
“I think a lot of people see Chris Beverley (the Morley South BNP councillor running against Mr Balls) as an upright citizen who cares for the issues of the town,” said Mark Robinson, who runs Cucina Café, a bar and restaurant. “He never talks about race and has been very clever about assisting in the town — shopping for elderly people during the snow — which is what people like.” He did not say how he would vote, even though Mr Balls regularly eats in his restaurant.
Mr Balls’s immigration survey, similar to leaflets used by Labour in the West Midlands, works by promoting existing party policy in the form of a questionnaire.
“Do you support the updating of our immigration laws so that migrants who want to settle here must learn to speak English, YES or NO or NOT SURE”, it asks.
Or whether “a probationary period should be passed before they are able to claim state benefits” and if “the Australian points-based system will be good for our area”.
This is balanced with a question asking when immigration is acceptable. “Do you think that people with high levels of skills such as computer specialists, doctors, etc, should be able to come to this country if there are job vacancies that can’t be filled?”
BNP membership information, leaked in 2008, revealed that the Morley area had 90 members of the far-right party, the highest number of any constituency. Morley Town Council has two BNP members.
One senior Tory said that the leaflet was the sign of a “dogwhistle” campaign, comparing it with Michael Howard’s 2005 “Are you thinking what I’m thinking” election campaign.
But Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham, who leads the party’s campaigns against the BNP, defended Mr Balls’s tactics. “The ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking’ Tory campaign was pernicious because it simply called for an emotive reaction. The right way to campaign against the BNP is to talk about remedies, which this leaflet does,” he said.
“The idea that there are no-go areas, such as immigration, has to be lanced. People have to be reassured you are aware of the issue and you understand the sheer velocity of the change over the last decade.”
Mr Balls has a battle to take the seat, despite a notional majority of 9,784, according to UK Polling Report, after the Tories designated it a battleground seat and sent William Hague to the area for a poster launch.
At the local elections in 2008, Labour came fourth across the five wards in the new seat, trailing the BNP. The result in Stanley and Outwood East, which mostly falls in Normanton, was a particular shock since the Conservatives took the seat directly from Labour.
While plans are being drawn up for David Cameron to hold a “Cameron Direct” meeting, there is little sign of enthusiasm for his brand of conservatism in the area.
Karen Wilson, 45, a part-time waitress, received a call from Mr Cameron. She complained about the discrepancy between the education of her sons, 14 and 12, one of whom goes to a grammar school and the other to a comprehensive.
“He said that education was something they were looking at the moment. But I felt he was not really listening to what I was saying.” She said that she was unlikely to vote Tory again.
Mr Balls’s efficient local office, serving both his future and current constituents, has won plaudits. It is helped by £31,902 given in 2008 by Unison, and £5,000 given last year by Unite.
Michelle Austerfield, a charity helper, said a problem with her benefits was sorted “overnight” by his team.
Mr Balls has even made public spending pledges — promises to Morley businessmen that he will help to open doors with the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, for money towards a new nightlife development in the town centre.
But Philip Boyes, an electrician in Leeds who lives in Outwood, said that Mr Balls’s work was a stepping stone for his national ambitions. He was outraged at tales from his wife, who works at the local school, who reported that staff were discouraged from raising problems with Mr Balls, the Schools Secretary, when he visited.
“I will vote Tory because the country has been living beyond its means,” he said. However, he sympathised with those who turned to the BNP. “At the moment if they got in power it would be anarchy. But if they got rid of one or two of their extremist policies they would be electable.”
Mr Robinson, president of Morley Chamber of Commerce, said that he understood why people supported the BNP.
“Their ideas strike a chord in most people’s minds. Their candidate is a personable young chap. But it’s frustrating because you can look back to times when a similar situation (with growing far-right support) happened in Europe and look how that turned out.”