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Gary Younge
The Burnley offensive

But today it is more like a sclerotic vein. The mills are closed and the industry gone. The shells that remain symbolise Britain's economic precariousness, historical demise and soon, possibly, the racial division and political alienation that have taken root.

For it is across this faultline, linking Lancashire and Yorkshire, that the far-right British National party (BNP) stands the best chance of gaining seats in the forthcoming local elections in what they describe as their "biggest ever push". Apart from a handful of wards in London, they are targeting towns scarred last year by racial disturbances.

Burnley, where they have 13 candidates, is their best hope and illustrates how they are trying to reinvent themselves as a respectable, integral part of the political process. While Labour canvass principally by phone, the BNP go door-to-door in suits. They present themselves not as the crack troops of racial hatred but guardians of old-style, pavement politics. They address you with the names they have garnered from a copy of the electoral register, to which they are entitled. Suddenly the reality of a confident BNP making electoral inroads becomes all too apparent. They know where you live - not just Brown, Smith and Jones, but every Mohammed, Khan and Patel.

They talk, initially at least, not of repatriation but reclaiming council housing that is being sold off, or resisting the closure of old people's homes. Only later do they promise to solve the shortages by removing Muslims from the country. The intellectual focus of their campaign is not white supremacy but the protection of white cultural identity.

It is a slick, media-savvy operation that has paid off in much of Europe. Hard-right parties now support or participate in governments in Italy, Austria and Denmark and are making serious headway inthe Netherlands, Belgium and France. The BNP's efforts to acquire the same level of respectability needed to enter the political mainstream in this country may now be paying off.

For a party with neither a councillor nor an MP, when it comes to the media they punch way above their political weight. During the past year they have had the run of the airwaves on the Today programme and Newsnight. Their letters have appeared in mainstream newspapers, including this one. Their leaders are quoted on racial matters without context or critique.

This month the black style magazine, Untold, ran an article by the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, over two pages "in its entirety". Explaining why, in a commentary alongside, they argued: "In many ways the BNP populist argument, with its policies of nostalgia for non-alienating cultural practices, are essentially inwards, defensive and isolationist, [but they raise] themes which are subtly beginning to infiltrate the broader national discussion."

The argument for giving them a platform of this kind is that since they are part of the democratic process they must be engaged with. The truth is actually the reverse. Engaging with them in this way will help them become part of a political process from which they have so far been marginalised.

Their importance should not be exaggerated. The BNP is small and its influence localised. The threat they pose at the ballot box should not be confused with the far more prevalent and deeply ingrained racism from which they gain their legitimacy.

But their potential should not be underestimated either. To treat them like any other party suggests that they behave like any other party. They don't. No other party is led by people with convictions for violence and inciting racial hatred. Nor does any other party single out ethnic groups for attack.

The effect of their inclusion can be seen through most of Europe where, like arsenic in the water supply of political culture, their bigotry infects an entire process. Last year the far-right Danish People's party won 12% of the vote to become the third largest party in the Folketing. Last week Denmark's centre-right coalition was criticised by the United Nations over immigration plans which would, among other things, deny foreigners the legal right to join their spouses and ban immigrants under the age of 24 from bringing their spouses to Denmark.

But while the BNP should be isolated it should not be ignored, nor should those who support it be ostracised. If the BNP is going to be defeated, then the causes for their new-found resurgence must first be understood.

The reasons are complex and varied. Since the disturbances last spring Bradford, Oldham and Burnley have been understood as almost interchangeable In fact, the situation on the ground in each is quite different. In Bradford much of the BNP's activity is limited to one estate, Ravenscliffe, in a ward called Eccles Hill that is otherwise comfortable and in some places affluent. In Burnley, their influence is spread around the city. But all three towns share certain traits.

Each has a significant Pakistani/Bangladeshi population living a largely segregated experience from whites. Each is a town where the manufacturing base has been decimated and where there is chronic political disaffection.

One leaves each area with a sense of the profound alienation endemic among people of all races. Towns once dominated by one or two large industrial employers, active unions and strong local identities have been eviscerated. "What is Bradford for?" asked a white youth. "We've got no industry, the place is falling apart and if you want to do anything worthwhile then you have to go to Leeds." If the home secretary, David Blunkett, is sincere about citizenship classes, he could start with the white working class in these areas who feel abandoned by every institution - national, local, cultural, political or economic - that is supposed to represent them.

Blunkett was right to argue that: "The centre left must take this fight [against the far right] head on. We cannot face this challenge by ducking hard debate." That is precisely why the Labour party must re-engage with its core constituency, many of whom are now seeking desperate measures because they feel abandoned.

The coming local elections will be a test, not just for the durability of our multiracial society, but for the maturity of our political culture and the morality of our political class as well. Winning will undoubtedly strengthen the BNP's hand and shift the debate on race and immigration to the right. But even if they lose, the symptoms that their threat exemplifies will remain. Even if fascism is checked on May 2, the racism that gave birth to it and disaffection that nourished it will still be here on May 3.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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