Vote Tory to stop the rise of the BNP, says race watchdog

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Trevor Phillips, the Labour-supporting chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, backed tactical voting for the Tories yesterday to halt the advance of the British National Party.

He also called on the Conservatives to make a concerted effort to win back their former supporters to combat the growing electoral success of the extreme right.

Mr Phillips will tell the conference tomorrow that the decline of the white working- class Tory vote in such areas as Lancashire and West Yorkshire has created an opening for the BNP. He will also raise worries that, by not fielding council candidates or mounting lacklustre campaigns where they have little chance of winning, the Tories are inadvertently letting the BNP in by the back door.

"It seems to me that the Conservatives, both for their own sakes but also to reduce the BNP threat, have to pay attention to this," he told The Independent.

"Sometimes the best way to frustrate the BNP is for everybody who feels able, to vote Conservative. But that means the Conservatives have got to make an effort. Because of the way the electoral arithmetic works, there's more responsibility to fight some seats which they appear to have abandoned in the past." Mr Phillips said the BNP had a twin strategy ­ to "beat Labour and also displace the Conservatives from second place in wards". By finishing as runner-up, the BNP would gain legitimacy as a party of opposition to Labour, he said.

Mr Phillips will spell out his warning about Tory complacency at a fringe event and in a meeting with Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary.

CRE research has established that many of its new supporters are men aged under 35 and the party is spreading its base into the lower middle-class voters who switched from Tory to Labour in 1997. It holds 17 council seats, breaking out of its heartland in Lancashire to West Yorkshire, the West Midlands, Hertfordshire and Essex. Ministers fear that the party will gain its first Euro seat next year in North-west England, where Nick Griffin, the party's leader, is standing.

David Davis, the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, conceded the Tories had to step up their efforts to take on the BNP. "It is up to all mainstream political parties, including ourselves, to raise our game to help squeeze out the BNP," he said.

¿ Several "ethnic whites" ­ possibly representing Jews, Irish people and gypsies ­ are expected to replace blacks and Asians on the CRE's governing board. Six commissioners will be replaced at the end of the year by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary.