If Michael Howard imagined that his pronouncements on immigration yesterday could help him to pinch wavering BNP voters in Burnley, then he would have been well advised to consider the Gary Bailey school of political thought.
Mr Bailey, 24, a labourer, lives in a ward represented by three Labour councillors, yet he remains convinced that Burnley has the BNP to thank for the spectacular new £1.25m primary school at the end of his street. "They are expressing what local people want to hear and they've built that [school]," he said. (It is being paid for by Lancashire County Council, 40 miles away in Preston.)
Mr Bailey believes the BNP, which holds seven seats in Burnley and is his party of choice, is "trying to take things a bit more upmarket" but it is their willingness to ensure that he gets "at least the same as the Pakis get" which seems to satisfy him most. "They want more of the Pakis out, and that's good as far as I'm concerned," he said.
Mr Bailey's faith in the BNP's racist ideals was seemingly in contrast to some of Burnley's BNP councillors, who are too ashamed to espouse them. Brian Turner, the BNP councillor, who was waiting for Mr Howard to leave the Burnleywood one-stop-shop community centre, denied that he believed in repatriation of Asians. He said: "Those are not the views of the Burnley party. That's not our policy. Anybody that calls me a Nazi, I want to know about; [they] will have me to answer to."
The councillor's reticence on such issues has something to do with the BNP's growing reputation for having nothing to say in Burnley. The Burnley Express newspaper was inundated with the local party's press releases when the first three BNP councillors were elected nearly three years ago but, these days, it gets next to none. Stuart Caddy, the Labour group leader, called them "the elected group of silence".
Mr Howard's arrival in the town handed the party's activists a good opportunity to kick-start the cause, and they certainly made the most of it. Brandishing dracula masks (a reference to the Tory leader's Transylvanian roots) and banners condemning the murder of a local white man, a group of about 100 supporters was busy dishing out its leaflets. One activist engaged in classic BNP rumour-mongering, claiming that the proposed reorganisation of Burnley schools would force whites to bus their children to Asian schools.
John Haffner, the local butcher, whose family has traded in the city for 110 years, shook his head as he watched the mêlée from his shop window. He said: "The BNP has made no difference politically but they're capitalising on the fact that there's no alternative to Labour. Nothing has changed since the riots [just under three years ago], but no one is going to vote Conservative in protest."
Kitty Ussher, Burnley's prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour, insisted the visit had damaged race relations and irritated locals tired of being labelled a society at the bottom of the pile. The Tory leader's arrival also elicited the first Combat 18 graffiti in months on local Asians' homes, she said.
But Peter Pike, the current MP, admits Labour has much work to do to convince the electorate that it has more to offer than the BNP. Labour's standing in the town has been hit by Burnley's recent failure to secure £150m-worth of funding for school improvements. Mr Pike said: "I can't say that I'm not disappointed. I'm seeing David Miliband [the School Standards minister] about it next week."
In Mr Bailey's street, Mr Howard was sparing no effort to make up ground lost since the days, 30 or more years ago, when the Tories ran Burnley. But some BNP voters would probably have been well beyond his political reach. Roxanne Nadin, 20, said: "The Asians in the corner shop are alright but others from out of the town came over one day recently and wrecked the shops," she said. "No, to be honest, I don't like Pakis."