Mark Seddon: The BNP is mining a rich seam in our former coalfields

There are towns in the area that have not recovered from the 80s job losses
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The Independent Online

Newark in Nottinghamshire likes to claim that it is the birthplace of British democracy. It was here that the English Civil War climaxed, and that King Charles was handed over to the Scottish Army, and to eventual execution.

This small, attractive market town also stood at the edge of a more recent conflict that began 25 years ago this week. The miners' strike was at its most bitter in the old Nottinghamshire coalfield, as working and striking miners turned on each other. And today, Newark find itself at the centre of yet another conflict, as unemployed construction workers, some draped in the Union Flag, march to the sound of an altogether different drum

I watched last week as a few hundred wended their way with their home-made banners to the old market square, protesting that contractors at a local power station had bought their own workers with them – and that local workers need not apply. Their progress through the town was marked by cries from shoppers of "Foreigners out!" The joint leader of the Unite union, Derek Simpson, took to the podium to reject this call and others like it, but to many of the unemployed workers gathered before him, he seemed as remote as the Labour Party they have traditionally voted for in these parts. He was heckled loudly. Many are on the cusp, if not of actually voting for the British National Party, then believing that their union is powerless and that the Government is no longer interested in their plight.

This is fertile territory for the far right. The BNP is on the march too and aiming to make big gains in the European elections in June. The East Midlands, which includes the old coalfield, is one of their main target areas. The senior Labour MEP and veteran anti-fascist campaigner Glyn Ford believes that the BNP could win up to half a dozen Euro seats and that it is possible that only the north-east and south-west of England could be without a BNP MEP after election night. His grim prognosis is echoed by other MPs in the East Midlands, who believe that the collapse in support for the UK Independence Party will see more votes heading towards the hard Right.

Back in the 1990s, and for very different reasons, the Green Party finally broke the mould, winning Euro-seats. And a quarter of a century on it is easy to see how the BNP is honing its appeal to disillusioned Labour voters. The BNP like to present itself as something like the old worker friendly Labour Party, and then it throws in added xenophobia and racism. Their demand for "British jobs for British workers" is designed to appeal to marching unemployed construction workers who can't find work at the new Staythorpe Power station near Newark. It is a potent, if dangerous message, and the Westminster political class suddenly seems at a loss as to know what to do about it.

To the north of Newark, former mining towns such as Ollerton have never fully recovered from the jobs haemorrhage of that time. A mining workforce of tens of thousands has been reduced to a couple of thousand men at Thoresby and Welbeck collieries, although there are hopes that the mothballed pit at Harworth might soon be re-opened.

Back in 1984, the bulk of Nottinghamshire's miners refused to go on strike without a ballot, and the dispute staggered on for a whole year before collapsing in recrimination. Margaret Thatcher's reward for the working miners was pit closure after pit closure, and the service jobs that have replaced them are disappearing as rapidly as they came.

Elsewhere – in the north-east, for instance – jobs are disappearing at four times the rate they are in London and the South East. Many of these jobs were in any event non-unionised, and with the sharp decline of the traditional industries and the tight-knit communities that went with them, old tribal ties to the Labour Party in particular, were already in decline. Under the twin phenomena of global recession and New Labour old loyalties are fast disappearing.

Politics abhors a vacuum. Back in the 1970s, the far-right National Front began to make inroads in the inner city as unemployment grew under a Labour Government. Now the BNP tries to portray a more moderate image, and now also the organisations that help see off the far right back then, are much, much weaker. Last week, the BNP took a previously safe Labour council seat in Sevenoaks, Kent. That, and what may be about to happen in June, should be a wake-up call.

Mark Seddon is a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee and a former editor of 'Tribune'