Labour U-turn over confronting BNP in 'Question Time' debate

Party may field Cabinet heavyweight to challenge far-right leader

A senior Labour figure will go head to head in a debate with Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, after the party dropped its opposition to sharing a platform with the far-Right.

Its change of tack emerged after BBC1 signalled it was preparing to invite Mr Griffin onto Question Time for the first time this autumn. Explaining the move, the broadcaster said it was bound by rules requiring it to treat all properly-registered political parties with "due impartiality".

Its decision left Labour with a dilemma as it has traditionally refused to appear alongside the BNP on the grounds it would give legitimacy to the party's views on race. However, there is a growing feeling within senior Labour ranks that simply ignoring the BNP has enabled it to portray itself outside the traditional political system. Many of the areas where the BNP has broken through, such as Burnley, Stoke and Barking, had been previously dominated by Labour.

Labour yesterday announced it was reviewing its policy of not engaging with the BNP – but made clear it would field a representative if Mr Griffin appeared on Question Time. A party source said there would be no question of Labour being represented by an "empty chair" under those circumstances.

Labour is likely to want a party heavyweight, such as a Cabinet Minister, to appear, but said it would not force anyone to sit alongside Mr Griffin if they objected. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have said they would debate with the BNP leader on the basis that his views have to be taken on. The Tories maintain there is evidence that the BNP fares less well in areas where its policies are challenged by mainstream parties.

Question Time has been wrestling with whether to invite the party on to the programme since June, when two BNP candidates, including Mr Griffin, were elected to the European Parliament. It also has a member on the Greater London Assembly and this year also won its first seats on county councils. Representatives of other minority parties, such as the Greens, Ukip and Respect, have regularly appeared on Question Time.

Mr Griffin – whose party won 6.3 per cent at the European elections – has already been interviewed on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show and Radio 4's Today programme. Ric Bailey, the BBC's chief political adviser, said: "We are in talks with the parties on Question Time which could feature Nick Griffin. It is worth noting that we often have discussions with people about who else is on the panel, but no parties can dictate who should or shouldn't be included."

The invitation is understood to have been approved by Mark Byford, the BBC's deputy director-general.

A BBC spokesman said: "Due impartiality is achieved both by ensuring appropriate scrutiny for each party and by the appearances of a range of politicians across a series of programmes.

"Our audiences – and the electorate – will make up their own minds about the different policies offered by elected politicians."