Far-right harks on violence to win votes

BNP is stoking up racism in a London Docklands by-election. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online
THE SPRING bunting is out on the Isle of Dogs. The appearance of Union flags hanging from the balconies and tower block windows is a signal that local elections are once more pending in Millwall.

The ward where Derek Beackon became the first British National Party councillor four years ago, is once again the focus for the far-right's attempts to fuel racial disharmony. The BNP is basing its new campaign on a claim that the white community in east London is being terrorised by gangs of Asian youths in what it recklessly describes as "something near to civil war".

In particular, the party has sought to capitalise on a horrific attack on a 14-year-old Maltese boy by a large gang of young Asians. Paul Sammut was badly beaten and one of his fingers almost severed by a knife wound in February. The incident brought angry protests from a section of the white community who claimed the police were slow to respond.

The victim's father, also called Paul, said the attack would generate votes for the BNP. "I think everyone will be behind them more than 100 per cent," he said, adding that he personally was not interested in politics and would not vote for the BNP. "We have totally had enough of it. We want rights for ourselves," he explained.

The Bengali community on the island later helped police with their inquiries and eight youths have been charged in connection with the incident. But a fortnight ago, up to 200 Asian youngsters from different gangs clashed with baseball bats, knives and machetes at nearby Poplar Park, east London. Three youths were taken to hospital and, although none of the victims was white, the incident provided more political capital for the far-right.

Edwin Lewis, who runs the multicultural St Andrews Youth Project on the island, admits: "At the moment, the BNP don't have to do any work because the kids are doing it for them." He said the BNP had adopted more subtle electioneering tactics. "They have realised that the mob rule and shaven-headed approach didn't work," he said.

Yet, despite concerns over some isolated yet serious incidents, race relations on the Isle of Dogs are clearly improving. Curtis Francois, 35, a black council caretaker, recalled: "This area used to be a no-go area. It was sprayed on the walls `Isle of Dogs for whites only'. Things have definitely quietened down."

Marianna Norris, mixed race and 26, looks out at the union flags from the kitchen of her eighth-floor flat. Another flag hangs in the window next door. But as a race-harassment worker for Victim Support she has not seen an increase in racially motivated attacks.

"We have not had many incidents and things do seem to be getting better," she said. "I cannot see the BNP getting in because the ethnic community is starting to speak up and they will now go out and vote."

People who have moved on to the island more recently seemed to be unaware of its far-right connections. Michael Alford, 58, a ship's purser, asked: "BNP?... which is?" He said that he would be voting Labour.

In 1994, the election of Mr Beackon was at least effective in putting a community that had felt forgotten into the limelight of national interest. But the shock card has been played and former BNP voters said they now felt the party could do little to improve their living conditions.

Jason Wright, 20, out walking his pit bull, should be prime BNP material. Having voted for the far-right party in the past he regards the ruling Labour council as "a load of crap". Yet, he said: "This election, I can't really be bothered. Nothing is going to change."

On the doorsteps, however, some Labour canvassers have been concerned that BNP supporters have been less coy about identifying themselves than in the past. Living in the shadow of the Canary Wharf tower, the people of the Isle of Dogs are made only too well aware of their economic disadvantage.

Tower Hamlets council argues that in six months it has helped to find jobs for 600 local people amid the waterside restaurants, financial institutions and designer clothing outlets of the booming complex. But many locals are unhappy with the new landscape. There are concerns that a proposed luxury apartment development on a lead-smelting site could cause environmental problems without providing homes or jobs for islanders. The extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Lewisham will temporarily close Millwall Park.

The Labour-run council is only too well aware that it must address such grievances and fully mobilise its vote next month if the Isle of Dogs is not again to become a symbol of racial division and the subject of national contempt. One of the sitting Labour councillors in Millwall, Martin Young, admitted: "People have a clear choice between us and the BNP."