Real proof it's a wake-up call

LAST night a jagged new faultline opened up across Calder-dale's political landscape. The aftershocks will surely last for years.

The British National Party has proved Adrian Marsden's by-election win wasn't just an aberrant fluke of protest vote and clumsy campaigning by the major parties. It is clearly tapping into some powerful forces.

The party may have only won one more seat on Calderdale council - Richard Mulhall took Illingworth with a 56 vote majority over Labour - but the sheer mass of BNP votes won't be wished away by their enemies.

In the eight wards where they fielded candidates, the BNP collected almost 6,000 votes. They won a seat, came second in four other wards and averaged well over 600 votes in each of the remainder. In North Bridge Leisure Centre a shellshocked Bob Metcalfe - for 24 years a Labour councillor for Mixenden - was elbowed into third place by the Lib-Dems and the BNP. It was a humiliating experience.

But for veteran Labour activist Barry Collins, a Mixenden school governor, watching all this was a sobering wake-up call. It underlined how far the BNP had been underestimated and how urgent the threat now is.

Far right politics in the BNP mould isn't new to Calderdale. In Calderdale's second council elections in 1975, the National Front contested Mixenden. A Mr Granville Ellis garnered a piffling 67 votes.

In 1976, 1978, 1979 and 1980 a succession of NF candidates stood in Mixenden, St John's and other wards. But the party peaked in 1978 when its six candidates polled an unimpressive total of 566 votes.

Even the party's best performer, Barry Wadsworth, just missed the 300 mark when he stood - very provocatively - in the predominantly Asian ward of St John's. They weren't exactly run out of town, just ignored.

Barry Collins believes there are lessons to be learned from the way the party failed to get political traction in Calderdale. "It was very different then, the NF were perceived as an absolutely extreme party," he says.

Many of the NF activists were outsiders, carpetbaggers. They didn't have a local base. Plus they were under attack on two fronts: The leftists of the Anti-Nazi League tackled them head on, confrontationally.

"And there was the locally based Calderdale Action Committee Against Racism. This had support across the parties and churches were involved too and there were really big marches against the National Front," he recalls.

The committee, which he chaired, used a non-violent, softly, softly approach to nullify the NF campaigns. A telephone tree would alert committee activists whenever the party came into Halifax town centre to recruit.

"When anyone was approached by the National Front we'd talk to the person afterwards, hand over our own leaflets and quietly, non-violently contest the NF. Over a period of time it did work. It's very different now," says Collins.

Today it is the BNP using a softly, softly approach, selecting local candidates and picking up on very specific local issues. And, says Collins, this new-style soft sell of the hard right requires a different antidote.

"The British National Party is taking over local issues, talking in a language people understand and can relate to. And if they say it's now a democratic party, people will take them at their word. Until they act otherwise."

It's no good the mainstream parties "bellyaching" about protest votes for the BNP, he adds.

They've got to address the issues they are exploiting and learn new ways of engaging a disillusioned electorate.

"I'm not saying the BNP is not important and serious and dangerous. It's all those things. Its success is a sign of something new and has to be tackled in new ways. There's a new mood among voters."

It is a big mistake, he adds, for the mainstream parties - and the media - to keep lecturing the voters and telling them they are being conned by the BNP. That simply alienates people, says Collins.

"Calling local people who vote for the party - on the basis of what the BNP puts through their letter box and what they say on their leaflets - to call them fascists is completely absurd. And insulting."