JUST A week ago, it seemed that while the far right might do well in France, it was incapable of crossing the English Channel. But after the BNP won no fewer than three seats in Thursday's local elections in Burnley, the far right appears to be on the rise here too.
Unique local circumstances undoubtedly played their part in the BNP's success in Burnley - not just the existence of two ethnically divided and relatively poor communities but also a peculiar pattern of split voting that allowed the BNP to capture one of three seats in each of three wards despite not winning as much as a third of the vote in any of them. But even so, it would be a mistake to dismiss the BNP's success as just a little local difficulty in one Pennine town.
For the BNP did not just do well in Burnley. In several other places it achieved double-digit scores - winning on average 16 per cent of the vote on a sample of wards outside Burnley whose detailed voting figures were collected by the BBC, in places such as Oldham, Gateshead and Dudley. The BNP vote on Thursday was simply the best far-right performance in English local elections since the heyday of the National Front in the late 1970s.
The challenge posed by the BNP should not be dismissed out of hand. And simplistic answers about how the BNP's rise might be reversed are best avoided too. One such simple answer is to blame the Conservatives for not fighting all the seats in Burnley. The candidate shortage may have helped the BNP in Burnley, but the double-digit scores secured elsewhere were won against Tory as well as Labour and Liberal Democratic opposition.
Moreover, the experience of the past 10 days raises doubts about the wisdom of a united anti-BNP front between all three main parties. Frightened last week by the success of Le Pen in France, it was just such an impromptu and de facto front that gave the BNP the oxygen of publicity. How little collective hold Britain's mainstream political parties now have over the electorate was revealed in Hartlepool, where 56 per cent voted for one of two independent candidates and the town's former football mascot secured election as Mayor, and in Middlesbrough, where nearly two-thirds backed another independent Mayor, Ray Mallon.
It is probably unwise also to assume that the BNP's support is solely the result of racist antipathy towards "immigrants". The party's nationalism potentially enables it to appeal a wider audience - to those who are unsure about Britain's place in a world subject to growing globalisation, a feeling that we cannot assume is only a minority taste in a country that clearly still has a rich vein of Euroscepticism.
The lesson to be taken from Burnley is that voters are looking for a choice. Faced with a clear contest between the BNP and its opponents, turn-out in many of Burnley's wards proved to be far higher than the average of about 35 per cent where the traditional party battle predominated. A fierce debate over the next 12 months between Labour and the Conservatives about such issues as the euro as well as immigration would do far more to persuade voters that they need not flirt with the BNP than would the formation of any "united front". …