Local Council Elections 1994: Race splits politicians and people in East End: British National Party challenge causes disarray in London boroughs as Labour seeks to wrongfoot Conservatives over health

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STANDING BY the gate of her council house, Pat, 49, does not mince her words. Loud enough for her black neighbour to hear, she explains she will vote British National Party on 5 May because 'there are too many bleeding coons and Asians'.

Three of her immediate neighbours in the working-class Beckton ward of Newham, east London, will be voting BNP for similar reasons. Apparent support for the ultra-right party, which promises repatriation of those Pat believes are 'sucking this country dry', taking white men's jobs and preventing her pregnant daughter getting a house, has the borough's main parties worried.

Five BNP candidates are standing in Beckton and the neighbouring Custom House wards. In an area which boasts one of the highest levels of racial attacks in the country, race is dominating the election and dividing politicians. Spurred by the prospect of the BNP in the council chamber, Newham's Labour-controlled council is churning out anti-racism leaflets.

Meanwhile, 14 candidates, including Fred Jones, a councillor and former leader of the Labour group, are standing as independents, many complaining that 'over-zealous' implementation of race policies is discriminating against the white population. In the two wards targeted by the BNP, the decision by Tory candidates to stand as Conservatives Against Labour's Unfair Ethnic Policies has prompted complaints of racism to Conservative Party headquarters and the Commission for Racial Equality. 'The Tories are trying to steal our supporters,' Stephen O'Connell, 29, the BNP organiser, laughed.

After securing its first council seat in the Millwall by-election on the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets, Newham's next-door borough, last October, the BNP is fielding 33 candidates nationally. But the greatest concentration is in Newham and in Tower Hamlets, where it has eight candidates and is determined to retain Millwall, win two others and gain control of the pounds 23m Isle of Dogs budget.

Custom House and Beckton, like Millwall, are run-down dockland communities boasting deep-rooted racial hatred. In 1978 the National Front got 18 per cent of the vote in a Newham ward. Like Millwall, the Newham wards are 'whiter' than other wards in the borough, but residents are convinced 'multiracial hell' is just around the corner.

Last year, the publication of a council document which proposed increasing the ethnic minority population of the two wards to reflect the make-up of the borough caused a storm. The BNP does not miss an opportunity to remind angry residents. 'I think they call that gerrymandering,' Mr O'Connell said. Out canvassing, there is certainly sympathy for the BNP. On the roof of one home, Derek, a staunch supporter, is flying a St George's flag.

Mick Davidson, 33 and single, is the Beckton BNP candidate. The disillusioned Labour supporter repeats a crude message on every doorstep: multiracialism is a failure and all mainstream politicians are corrupt. 'The elite accuse us of racism, but they don't have to live among these people,' he tells one middle-aged woman who nods vigorously. 'You won't find many negroes living near John Major.'

Mr O'Connell and Mr Davidson, both unemployed, insist they are not racists. 'We are nationalists,' Mr O'Connell said. 'We don't want to exterminate them. We are talking about humane repatriation with resettlement grants. I think we are being more than generous.' He gives a chipped-toothed smile when asked what happens to those who do not want to 'go home'.

Mr Jones said Labour must take the blame if the BNP wins. He helped formulate Newham's race policies as Labour leader, but believes the implementation is flawed. People, he claimed, were afraid to complain about black or Asian neighbours because they would be accused of racism. Because complaints were not properly investigated, ethnic minority families had made false claims to improve their chances of securing homes.

Paul Clark, one of four Tory councillors, insisted the decision by candidates in Beckton and Custom House to stand as Conservatives Against Labour's Unfair Ethnic Policies was 'purely coincidental'.

In Beckton, BNP sympathisers talk the language of war. 'The Pakis stick together but not the white people. It's time they did,' Pat said.

Andrew Marr, page 19

(Photograph omitted)