FIFTY yellow-bibbed observers who manned polling stations in Millwall, east London, yesterday were making history. For the first time in Britain, independent monitors were judged necessary to ensure the right to vote without fear of intimidation.
Members of the civil rights group Liberty stood outside every polling station in the Millwall ward of Tower Hamlets where the far-right British National Party won its first council seat by just seven votes in a by-election last September. This time the BNP is contesting two more seats to try to win control of the Isle of Dogs' pounds 23m budget.
After allegations that Bengali voters were put off voting by gangs of skinheads in September, safety in numbers was offered yesterday with mini-buses and walking groups organised by local churches and Bengali community organisations.
'We expect to bring 300 Bengali voters down here today to vote for Labour,' said Shafique Choudhury, standing in a group of sari-clad women outside St Edmund's polling station. 'People are frightened but we are encouraging everyone to come out and vote.'
Churches reported a low take-up of their 'bus to vote' offer, however. With policemen on polling station gates and foot and horse patrols in the streets of the former docks community, perhaps Asian confidence was higher.
At Saunders Ness Road polling station, Derek Beackon, the successful BNP by-election candidate, was canvassing white voters, flanked by two supporters in suits. Greetings were warm for this champion of forced repatriation of ethnic minorities. Between the endless calls on his mobile phone there was no shortage of back-slapping. 'How's it going Derek mate? Just voted for you.'
One BNP sympathiser seemed bemused by the new dress code. 'What the bleedin' hell is this then - going to a wedding?' he asked one of the BNP 'suits', whose Union Jack tattoo peeped out from his white shirt collar.
A short distance away on either side stood four more BNP members with shorter hair and no suits. At nearby St Edmund's polling station it was the same story. The BNP candidate, in brown cords and tweed jacket, stood outside the station while cropped-haired party supporters were placed further down the road to comply with election rules.
Just a few hundred yards away at Christ Church, 60 people from five denominations, sporting rainbow 'peace' ribbons, held a prayer vigil. 'The most important thing to achieve is a high turn-out at the polls,' said Sue Mayo, employed as a shared church support worker after the BNP victory.
'There was plenty of evidence that people were frightened last time. BNP supporters would whisper 'Paki, Paki, Paki' at people as they went past to vote. We have put pressure on the police to tighten up the rules this time and ensure that no more than three BNP supporters are close to the polling station at any time,' she said.
Ms Mayo was delighted that the East London Advertiser, the newspaper that serves a large section of the white-working class population, had 'at last' decided to take a stand against the BNP in a front-page
Father Jim Hynes, until recently the Roman Catholic priest for St Edmund's parish, said that Catholics who voted BNP deserved to be 'excommunicated'.
'Local people, whether members of the church or not, want scapegoats rather than reasons for their problems. Rather than looking to the people in power like the London Docklands Development Corporation, they look to the weakest in the community to blame. Despite the facts, they believe all the local housing is going to Bangladeshis,' he said.
Liberty reported some observers' claims that BNP supporters had videoed and photographed Asian voters as they entered polling stations. One of Mr Deackon's supporters dismissed the claim as part of the propaganda against people who wanted to keep the Isle of Dogs white, as local residents wanted it.