Cloak-and-dagger day with the BNP – a party in crisis

Deserted manifesto launch signals election disaster

The low-key launch of the BNP's English manifesto in a deserted Stoke-on-Trent shopping street yesterday was in marked contrast to previous events held by the group in the area. In 2008 the city played host to a 300-strong BNP rally; only around 30 members turned up yesterday.

With three volunteers holding up modest Union flag backdrops to ensure they did not blow over during the speech by the deputy leader Simon Darby, and press interviews held in the corner of a giant retail centre car park, the event was notably different from last year's general election campaign launch. Then, a man dressed as St George appeared with the leader Nick Griffin in Stoke to begin the party's ill-fated push for a Westminster seat. Mr Griffin was unable to attend this time due to poor health, leaving the floor – or rather pavement – for Mr Darby to address his small gaggle of followers.

He called the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband an "alien", a "reptile" and a thoroughly "odd-looking bloke", and accused Labour of gerrymandering the council ward boundaries to reduce the BNP's presence.

Michael Coleman, one of five BNP councillors in Stoke, said its nine-page policy document was intended to stop an "invasion and occupation by a foreign body of people", lauding it as "exciting, positive and uplifting".

All members present denied they were racist, but anti-Islamic rhetoric dominated the short affair, with Mr Coleman claiming white folk will flee the area because they are intimidated by the building of a mosque. "They've got no right to be in this country and everybody knows it," he said.

Mr Darby portrayed the BNP as the underdogs and claimed some of its supporters faced prison for their beliefs. He professed his delight to be out campaigning on a "sunny English day", but it appeared yesterday that the BNP's moment in the sun could be coming to an end.

It is expected to field about 200 candidates in next month's elections, compared with more than 700 in the comparable campaign in 2007, and faces losing all the seats that it is defending. Following its relatively poor general election showing, the BNP has been riven by internal strife, including a failed challenge to Mr Griffin's leadership. Some disaffected former BNP members have defected to the English Democrats, while others have set up a breakaway party, British Freedom.

Matthew Goodwin, of Nottingham University, an analyst of far-right politics said "Their situation is very grave. Even in their core areas, the BNP are struggling to find candidates."