Hodge blamed for increase in far-right's support

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Margaret Hodge, the Employment minister, was under fire yesterday for giving the BNP a pre-election shot in the arm by talking up its support. The criticism followed an opinion poll suggesting a rise in the number of voters who were prepared to consider voting for the BNP.

Ann Cryer, whose seat in Keighley, West Yorkshire, has been one of the BNP's main strongholds, attacked Mrs Hodge's comments as "very misguided". She feared they would be a morale booster for the BNP as the Labour Party appeared to have halted the rise of the BNP in Keighley.

"I don't mind people talking about the BNP so long as everything they say about them is negative," said Mrs Cryer. "What I thought was less than helpful was when Margaret suggested that 80 per cent of her voters might support them. This was a very misguided thing to say. I don't speak to the BNP so I don't know what they are thinking, but I expect that they were very demoralised in Keighley, and this was a great boost to their morale. I still hope that they are going to do so badly that they go away and never come back."

Mrs Hodge, who was out campaigning in her constituency yesterday, declined to comment. Last weekend she sent a shockwave through the Labour Party by saying that increasing numbers of white voters were proud to identify themselves as BNP supporters. She said: "When I knock on doors I say to people, 'Are you tempted to vote BNP?' and many, many, many - eight out of 10 of the white families - say 'Yes'. That's something we have never seen before, in all my years. Even when people voted BNP, they used to be ashamed to vote BNP. Now they are not."

A YouGov poll in yesterday's Daily Telegraph showed 7 per cent support for the BNP, with 24 per cent saying they had considered voting for them in the past or were considering it now. But analysts believe some of this may be a direct result of the publicity the BNP has received from Mrs Hodge and others who attack it.

Anthony King, professor of government at the University of Essex, said: "Margaret Hodge and others who have warned of the BNP threat have probably done it a favour by reminding voters of its existence."

The Labour MP Jon Cruddas, whose seat in Dagenham, east London, is also a target for the BNP, said: "We've been aware of this problem for years and we've been dealing with it, street by street."

The BNP currently holds 15 council seats across England, but is fielding more candidates than ever before - 356 - and hopes to bring its total up to 15 councillors. Last month, Labour won back a seat on Bradford council, which was previously thought to be the safest BNP seat in the country. In 2004, Angela Clark won Keighley West for the BNP with 51 per cent of the vote but resigned after arguing with other BNP members.