In Britain, a Far-Right Push Threatens Tony Blair ; Thursday's Vote for Local Councils Will Gauge Views on Labour Party's Government and Immigration Policy

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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 winning votes."

"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 premises.

"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. …


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