How the BNP is gaining ground in Barking with a campaign of lies and distortions

Rose Thomson has lived happily next to the Longbridge Road campus buildings for 30 years. But now she wants to move. She said: "The asylum-seekers are coming. They're taking over. It's not British here any more."

Mrs Thomson, 67, echoed many who live near the complex outside Barking town centre who believe the site, now occupied by the University of East London, will soon be turned into housing for refugees.

It is not true. The campus is earmarked for a regeneration project that includes low-rent housing. But that has not stopped it being circulated on doorsteps on behalf of the British National Party as it tries to polarise opinion and win backing among the 165,000 voters in this docile and traditionally Labour-dominated corner of east London in next month's local elections.

The result is a game of political smoke and mirrors with the far-right party using shady tactics, including the apparent use of unoccupied addresses as candidates' homes, and questionable statistics to boost its support, with its chief opponents slinging back equally dodgy numbers.

Mrs Thomson, a grandmother and a retired bakery worker, said: "We had the BNP around the other week. I normally vote Labour but this chap made sense. The area has changed; lots more migrants. I'm in favour of helping a few but a whole centre for asylum-seekers, that's not on. What about houses for families who were born here?"

Housing is a hot topic these days in the borough of Barking and Dagenham. Or at least it has become one that the BNP has chosen as its chief electoral weapon on the area's vast red-brick estates as it seeks a breakthrough in the capital.

The BNP is fielding 13 candidates is seven of the borough's 17 wards, the far-right party's biggest electoral push in southern England. In last year's general election, the BNP polled 16.9 per cent in Barking and it aspires to obtaining five seats on 4 May.

Along with spreading falsehoods about the university campus, BNP supporters have been circulating another piece of pernicious tittle-tattle under the slogan "Africans for Essex", claiming immigrants are being given grants of £50,000 to buy houses in the borough. There are no such grants. But if Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking, is to be believed, they are rumours which are helping the BNP win wide support.

The MP said mainstream politicians had failed to address the local issues - such as a shortage of council housing - that were allowing racism to thrive, and prompting eight out of 10 of the white families in Barking to admit they were tempted to vote for the BNP.

Warning of an upsurge in open support for a party which warns of Britain turning into a "coffee-coloured" nation, she said: "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."

Over 25 years, the non-white population of Barking and Dagenham has increased from 9 per cent to 15 per cent. But its race-crime rate is average for London and, with a large stock of cheaper former council houses, it is experiencing a housing boom. One estate agent said prices had risen by 8 per cent since January.

Robert Ashfield, 46, was one of the few who confirmed he intended to back the party led by Nick Griffin, the Cambridge graduate who has masterminded the BNP's bid for respectability. Mr Ashfield said: "Labour's not done what it said it would for helping ordinary working people. Almost everyone I know will still vote for them but for me the BNP say they will do something and it sounds like they've got Labour bigwigs running scared."

Jamu Inder Singh, a Labour councillor who has twice successfully contested his seat against BNP opposition, said: "What Mrs Hodge said was completely irresponsible. It is making the BNP out to be a force that they are not. We must not be scared of them."

Yet Searchlight, the anti-fascist organisation, said its polling showed BNP support running at about 25 per cent in some of the wards it is contesting. And two of the BNP list for Barking and Dagenham, Richard Barnbrook and Robert William Bailey, are registered as living in a derelict maisonette above a shopping parade in Barking town centre. There was no answer yesterday at their steel gate.

Under election rules, candidates must live or work in the borough where they are standing. But Mr Barnbrook has an address in Blackheath, south London, and Mr Bailey in the borough of Havering. Neither wanted to comment but Phil Edwards, the BNP's national spokesman, said: "These are legitimate addresses. Sometimes candidates choose not to answer the door."

Borough profile

* Located in the east of London, north of the Thames, Barking and Dagenham is home to 67,300 people: 80.9 per cent are white Britons, 4.4 per cent are black Africans, 2.3 per cent are Indians, and 2.1 per cent are black Caribbeans.

* 39.5 per cent of 16- to 74-year-olds have no qualifications. Only 56 per cent of the same age range are employed. 19.9 per cent of the borough's population claim disability benefit.

Lone parent households with dependent children make up 10.4 per cent of households and people living alone make up 30 per cent of households.

* 69 per cent of residents are Christian, 4.4 per cent are Muslim, 2 per cent are Hindu or Sikh.