The British National Party faces a test of its staying power today in three local council by-elections.
The threat of further gains by the extreme-right-wing party has forced Labour, the Liberal Democrats and trade unionsto join forces with anti-racist groups.
The BNP is defending a council seat in its stronghold of Burnley, Lancashire, after one councillor, a convicted football hooligan, was thrown out of the party for smashing a bottle into the face of another activist. It is also fighting seats in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, and Thanet in Kent where campaigns have centred on immigration and asylum issues.
If the mainstream parties fail to beat the BNP in Burnley, its opponents fear it could be on course to gain its first MP at the next election.
Labour and Liberal Democrat activists have been leafleting the Lanehead ward to stave off voter apathy. They say the BNP's campaign is less organised than in the May elections, after the resignation of its most active organiser Steve Smith who was jailed following "electoral irregularities".
Martin Salter MP, deputy leader of Labour's campaign team, said: "This by-election is absolutely crucial. This is the first opportunity to show the thuggish face of a neo-Nazi party."
The BNP holds 17 council seats across Britain and is the opposition in Labour-controlled Burnley council. It is also represented by a councillor on Tory-controlled Thanet council. The BNP already has two councillors on Calderdale council, where no party has control.
Yesterday a BNP spokesman said the party was "hopeful" of gaining both seats but said that Burnley could go either way. He denied the candidates' anti-immigration policies were racist. "The mainstream political parties don't seem to be concerned if they serve a multiracial or monoracial electorate. We represent the people of Britain. We are a racial nationalist party," he said. "Our policies aim to represent a predominantly white British population. I don't think asylum- seekers should be here."
The Liberal Democrats are pushing for victory in Burnley, where the council has been criticised, even by Labour MPs. Many Labour figures would privately be happy if the Lib Dems won the seat.