Paul Golding was in a sunny mood yesterday. The 27-year-old unemployed lorry driver got dressed in his sharpest suit, donned an astonishingly bright British National Party rosette and took a tour around the streets of Swanley that he now represents as a councillor. Walking through the ward of St Mary’s, the town’s newest representative was relishing the limelight brought by his surprise victory in Thursday’s council by-election.
Not even a passing motorist rolling down his window to shout the word “wanker” put him off his stride. “You know why we won this area?” he said. “Because people round here are sick to death of the mainstream parties. Labour have held this area for 40 years but they treat the people like second-class citizens. This is not about racism – we never campaigned on race issues here – it is just about putting British people first.”
Gary Hillier, 56, was one of several locals in Swanley’s high street who took the time to congratulate their new councillor on his victory. “I swear on my life this is the first time I’ve ever voted,” he said. “I’m not racist by a long shot, but we’ve got to start looking out for our own. People wait for years on the housing list round here, but as soon as a foreigner comes along they get sent straight to the front of the queue.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, both Mr Golding and the BNP leadership were keen to portray their victory in Swanley this week as proof that their party can offer an alternative to mainstream politics without having to resort to race.
Andy McBride, the BNP’s regional director for the South-east, said he believed voters in in Swanley were drawn to the party because of the economic situation. “We have been predicting this recession for years and people called us scaremongers,” he added. “Now they are starting to see we were right and they trust us.”
But regardless of the official line, it was all too clear that race, and fear of immigrants, played a key part in ensuring that the predominantly white, working-class voters of Swanley backed a party that, to its critics, is a byword for racism. The suburb of St Mary’s lies on the western edge of Swanley, a former rail town of traditionally Labour voters, just across the M25 from the Tory-leaning commutercopia of Sevenoaks.
Swanley’s estates are formed of rows of 1930s semi-detached houses, populated by families who either hail from the area or moved out of the bomb-damaged East End of London after the Second World War. The area even has a large community of settled traveller families, who clearly feel they have been there long enough to vote for a party which, in other areas of Britain, often campaigns on an anti-traveller platform.
But in recent years the predominantly white ethnic make-up of the town has begun to change as black and Asian Londoners also move out of the city towards the suburbs.
“Two years ago there were very few black faces in the congregation,” said a church official yesterday, speaking on condition on anonymity. “Now there is a much more ethnically mixed crowd. Personally I think that’s a fantastic thing but it’s no secret that some people are upset about that.”
For Lesley Dyball, the former Labour councillor whose resignation last November sparked this election, that underlying current of racial tension was all too clear to see when locals headed to the polling booth just off St. Mary's Road.
The 52 year-old claimed that a group of people who walked out of the building, holding what she believed to be a BNP leaflet, were laughing and shouting “blacks out”. I saw them coming out – it was very distressing to witness something like that in a local election. I just feel sorry for any black people who might have heard or seen that – it was shocking and disgusting.”
Lynn Taylor, who was out shopping in Aldi with her two children, made no attempt to hide the fact that the Government’s apparently “soft” treatment of immigrants was what made her vote for Mr Golding. “I was on the list for six years before I got a house and yet the council round here will happily give accommodation to foreigners all the time,” she said.
“They look at people like us as something on the sole of their shoes. People like Mr Golding will stick up for people like me.” Voter apathy might also have played a large part in securing the BNP their first victory in the South. Turnout for the elections was just under 31 per cent, allowing the BNP to concentrate on winning over those who might be more easily attracted to the party’s policies without having to worry about a mass mobilisation against them. Many locals said BNP volunteers began canvassing the area long before the Labour and Tory flyers came through their doors.
If the same thing happens later this year during the European elections, which the BNP are mobilising heavily for because proportional representation favours parties that benefit from a low turnout, then many fear there will almost certainly be a BNP MEP come the summer.
All of which is little consolation for people like 53-year-old John Leon, one of Swanley’s black residents that many BNP voters appeared to show a dislike for. He spent most of his life in Greenwich but moved out to Swanley because he wanted to get away from the higher crime rates in the capital. Yesterday he woke up in a town that had voted BNP. “I’m absolutely shocked and very unhappy about it,” he said. “This town is a really welcoming place, I never even thought there were any racial tensions and I’ve never had any problems. It make you wonder where else they might win.”
The turning tide: Recent results
Sevenoaks District – Swanley St Mary’s:
(May 2007 – Two seats Lab 462, 420, C 208, 197, Ukip 165)
North West Leicestershire District – Thringstone:
Lib Dem 76
Lab 59 (May 2007 – Two seats Lab 634, 564, C 501, 376, Lib Dem 355, 331).
Lewisham London Borough – Downham: (Two seats)
Lib Dem 1,067
Green 63 (May 2006 – 3 seats Lib Dem 1,130, 1,117, 1,106, Lab 590, 586, 554, C 403, 330, 326, Green 153, 149, 137).
Harrogate Borough – Bilton:
Lib Dem 902
Lab 51 (May 2007 – Lib Dem 974, C 877, BNP 122).