Behind all the flag-waving, former activists tell of tensions and splits

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Indy Politics

With 400 standard-bearers in next month's council and European elections, the British National Party (BNP) is trumpeting a record number of candidates.

With 400 standard-bearers in next month's council and European elections, the British National Party (BNP) is trumpeting a record number of candidates.

But behind the grand boasts - and the optimistic claims it can secure its first seats in the European Parliament and the London Assembly - it faces the same tensions and splits that have bedevilled the extreme Right for decades.

Indeed, the BNP owes its very creation to the near-collapse of the National Front in the 1990s. Both parties also face a separate challenge from former believers who have either taken up arms against their hardline messages or are feeding information to the organisations working to undermine them.

Others, such as the reformed NF activist who set up a multi-cultural youth club in south-east London, are attempting to do penance in a more low-key style. Matthew Collins, a former BNP activist who was forced to flee to Australia after blowing the whistle on the activities of the extreme Right, said: "The BNP offers a counter-culture for people who feel rejected and isolated. These people are often devoid of relationships. Young offenders' institutions are full of their supporters. The important thing is people engage with them."

He added: "As a rule, these organisations haven't changed. [Tory leader] Michael Howard summed it up when he said they were 'thugs in suits'. The BNP is a fascist party and what is doing is no different from what the National Front and the Mosleyites did in the 1930s."

Today Mr Collins runs Operation Wedge, which aims to counter the influence of groups such as the BNP on impressionable youngsters. It advises police and probation officers on how to reach out to disaffected white teenagers and steer them away from racially-motivated crime.

Maureen Stowe, 65, who was elected to Burnley council on a BNP ticket last May but quit to become an Independent three months ago, said she had been fooled by BNP activists into standing on local issues and could not tolerate the anti-Muslim message she gradually discovered.

When she was in her twenties, Mrs Stowe adopted a baby of mixed white/Asian extraction and watched him face daily racism in the schoolyard. "Their ideas aren't what we're after in this town. I know that now," she said.

Gerry Gable, publisher of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight , said: "There are a lot of people we have encouraged to come out. If they want to do something constructive, we tell them to take some time to find their feet and do it gradually."

He said some channel their energies into mainstream political activities while others turn to religion.

The turmoil behind the scenes is reflected in the rapid turnover of the roster of BNP candidates. The party has also faced the embarrassment of the resignation of Burnley councillor Luke Smith for fighting at its summer festival last year.

And its only Blackburn councillor Robin Evans has quit in protest against the "back-stabbing" he endured from former comrades, setting up his own rival party, the British National Socialist Party.

Meanwhile, John Martin, the former leader of the BNP in Sunderland, a key target for the party, has turned his back on the BNP and launched a strong attack on his former comrades.