When it comes to local elections in Britain, most people usually
look the other way. Town hall votes are often low-key affairs,
thrilling only to political junkies and voters passionate about
speed limits, garbage collection, and street lights.
Not so this year. Thursday's vote has taken on far broader
significance than usual because of two major developments: the
deepening woes of Tony Blair's Labour government and the sudden
emergence of the far-right British National Party (BNP) threatening
an electoral breakthrough.
The results of votes for more than 4,000 councillors in 176
districts will be scrutinized more closely than usual. Will voters,
dismayed at a sequence ofgovernment blunders, desert Labour en
masse, putting pressure on Mr. Blair to advance his long-promised
retirement? Will the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, make
his mark in his first election at the helm?
And will the BNP, like other anti-immigration parties elsewhere
in Europe, achieve a historically high vote?
"I can't see there being a good result for us on Thursday night,"
says Ian Gibson, a Labour member of parliament (MP). "People are
very edgy about the whole thing, about minority parties like the BNP
"Local elections are regarded as a test of the popularity of the
major parties, and this time the government has struggled to spin
its way out of its troubles," adds John Curtice, a politics
professor at Strathclyde University.
Those troubles have involved charges of incompetence and scandal
that have stalked Blair's government in recent weeks. After a row
over allegations that his party rewarded its donors with seats in
the House of Lords, Blair's government is now struggling to explain
why, despite talking tough on law and order, it allowed more than
1,000 foreign criminals to remain on Britain's streets, instead of
deporting them after they were released from prison.
The admission has threatened to cost Home Secretary Charles
Clarke his job. A second senior minister, John Prescott, is also
under fire for conducting an extra-marital affair on government
"If Labour does worse than it did in 2004, when it had its worst
local elections in living memory, then that is a sign of trouble,"
says Mr. Curtice.
One party hoping to cash in on the disarray is the BNP. One
Labour MP from east London, Margaret Hodge, admitted recently that
the party was making big inroads in her constituency, where it won
17 percent in last year's general election.
"When I knock on doors I say to people, 'are you tempted to vote
BNP?' and many, many, many - 8 out of 10 of the white families - say
'yes,' " she told The Daily Telegraph.
"The BNP is now doing far better than any previous far-right
party," says Stuart Weir, co-author of a recent report "The BNP: The
Roots Of Its Appeal."
"The idea that Britons are inoculated against far-right parties
by some sort of tolerance gene is very complacent."
Across Europe similar parties have achieved widespread electoral
success by appealing to working class concerns, winning votes for
calling for more affordable housing, castigating the European Union,
and playing on fears of growing extremism among Europe's ever-
expanding Muslim populations. …