The British National Party is poised to win control of its first council in Britain to add to its success in the European elections earlier this year.
The Labour Party high command has been told that activists in east London believe Barking and Dagenham Council may well fall to the neo-fascist party in local elections next year.
The BNP’s leader has already announced he will stand against Labour minister Margaret Hodge in next year’s general election, and senior party figures now fear a “double-whammy” in the BNP’s heartland. It won 17 per cent of the vote in the 2005 general election.
The party, which has a long history of antisemitism, already holds 12 of the council’s 51 seats but only fielded 13 candidates at the last local elections. Labour, which controls the council, fears that a full slate of candidates could sweep the board and benefit from the carnival surrounding Nick Griffin.
BNP councillors in Barking include Richard Barnbrook, who also represents the party in the London Assembly.
Mrs Hodge, the daughter of Jewish refugees, is already raising money for a war chest to fight off the threat. Such is the parlous state of Labour finances that funds for staff for the campaign will have to be raised privately. Her supporters estimate she will need at least £100,000 to build a team that includes an experienced campaign manager and a dedicated press officer. The Minister for Culture and Tourism is likely to be making a direct appeal to high-value donors from the Jewish community.
She is likely to run a campaign based on her own high profile locally, recognising that the party and Gordon Brown are unpopular in Barking. Local activists will look to shore up her support by concentrating on the anti-BNP vote rather than attempting to win back Labour voters who have defected to the BNP. She will also have to deal with the fact that six per cent of BNP voters in her constituency are non-white.
One source close to the Labour MP said: “In the general election we will be selling the Margaret Hodge brand, but there could well be a BNP-controlled council.”
In 2006, Mrs Hodge said that 80 per cent of her constituents were tempted to vote BNP. She was criticised for boosting the extremist vote when the party became the largest after Labour in council elections later that year.
She said: “I have spent my life fighting racism and that’s as a result of experiencing antisemitism as a child as a first generation immigrant and the daughter of Jewish refugees. But I never thought I would have to take on the leader of a fascist party.
“I have spent three years exposing the true nature of BNP councillors in Barking and I am determined to expel them.
“But I need the community’s help. The BNP will be pouring resources into Barking. I want to turn this threat into an opportunity to destroy their credibility, not just in my constituency, but nationally.”