Backroom racists plot to win over Oldham

The race card » Asian leaders fear the far-right BNP will make gains at May's local elections in our tense, divided northern towns
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Indy Politics

At discreet meetings in pub back rooms, racists are spreading rumours among Oldham's white residents. Asians get jobs because of their colour, and the town's mosques have been paid for by the council, they lie.

The aim of the insidious whispering campaign is to ensure that in the local elections on 2 May, the British National Party gains its first political foothold since Derek Beackon infamously won a council seat in Millwall, east London, almost 10 years ago.

With Labour expected to lose hundreds of seats nationally, the BNP pose a real threat in northern, racially divided towns such as Oldham.The climate is one of mistrust, resentment and fear between Asian and white residents – an ideal climate for the BNP to exploit.

"It's more than racism," says Shoukat Khawaja, a Muslim community leader. "The BNP is plumbing the depths of illegality because creating hate between communities is a crime." The irony is that both white and Asian communities share the same grievances: unemployment, poor housing and a fear of crime.

But segregated housing means that mutual mistrust persists, despite efforts to bring communities together. Oldham's Alexandra ward is a predominantly white area where the BNP believes it stands a good chance of winning a seat. However, at its edge runs Waterloo Street where the residents are predominantly Asian.

Mohammed Saddique, 40, is the manager of the Kashmir Superstore. The area has now been stigmatised by last year's riots and business has been badly affected, he says. "Before the riots people used to come here from outside Oldham for shopping," he says. "I want these friends to come back."

Further down the street is a barbershop. In a back room with a Union Jack pinned to the wall is the headquarters of the Oldham branch of the British Muslim Welfare Association. Mirza Nazir, its chairman, divides his time between trimming beards and advising Muslims. He says outlawing the BNP would only make things worse: "If you let the BNP go underground there will be more trouble. The majority of people are sensible." He admits there are large problems in the Asian community. As a known drug dealer walks past, Mr Nazir says he is symptomatic of growing lawlessness within the Asian community: "He has a wife and children but he won't get a job when he can make £1,000 dealing drugs. Young Asians and whites need more discipline."

Community leaders, the local MP, Michael Meacher, Judith Hesmondhaigh, a Coronation Street actress and Earl Barratt, a former Oldham Athletic footballer, took part in a "Unite to Stop the BNP" rally yesterday.

But the urgent, anti-BNP activism may have come too late. There are deep-seated racial tensions among whites who do not fit the traditional skinhead image. "They [Asians] are getting paid for bugger all," says Frank Reilly, 72, on his way home from the pub. He is considering voting for the BNP.

Across the road is the Live and Let Live pub. This is where a group of Asian boys burst in last May and started attacking everyone. The resulting street violence was the worst for a decade. Regulars have no sympathy for the BNP nor for lawless Asian youths.

Beverley Bernard, the deputy chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, is optimistic that Asian and white communities can eventually live together. "Both communities are suffering from the same issues, but they are locked in separate enclaves," she says. "The message is for them to pull together not apart."

On 2 May the citizens of Oldham will decide which way they really do want to go.