Leading article: Lies, distortions and the need to avoid panic in the face of the BNP

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The Independent Online

Depressingly, the lies and distortions of the BNP appear to be having an effect in certain parts of the country. Margaret Hodge, the MP for Barking, was the first to raise the alarm. She claimed last week that eight out of 10 people she had canvassed in her constituency are considering voting for the BNP in the forthcoming local elections. Others have since predicted a similar boost in support for the BNP in other boroughs around the country.

A simplistic explanation for this development has been offered up by a handful of politicians and commentators. Citing Barking as a case in point, they claim that the white working classes have been neglected and that asylum-seekers have been seen to receive preferential treatment in the provision of services such as social housing. This, we are told, has offended "the working-class sense of fairness" making an upsurge in support for the BNP inevitable.

The problem with this narrative is that it is utterly false. The idea that the white working classes have been neglected makes no sense. In its last three general election campaigns Labour has expended a great deal of effort appealing to "hard-working families" and currying favour with "Mondeo man". There is certainly an unhealthy fixation with marginal constituencies at election time - but the white working classes tend to be as well represented in these areas as other social groups. The idea that Labour has been falling over itself to help asylum-seekers also bears no relation to the truth. Since 1997 Labour has pushed through a series of measures apparently designed to make life harder for refugees.

We should note that the number of refugees in Barking is not especially large. The asylum-seeker population is tiny in comparison with the boroughs of inner-city London, or other comparable population centres in the north. As for Barking's foreign-born population, it is no larger than in neighbouring London boroughs. Local factors are more important in explaining Ms Hodge's disturbing findings. For a variety of reasons, Essex has always been more susceptible than other counties to race politics. The BNP won 17 per cent of the vote in Barking in the 2005 general election. What we are witnessing is a continuation of a trend, rather than an explosion of discontent.

The general tone of national politics also plays a part in the feared national fillip for the BNP. The present Tory leadership has now, rightly, turned its back on attempting to make political capital out of the asylum issue. The mooted BNP breakthrough might well be fuelled by those frustrated with Mr Cameron's new moderate stance. All this is probably amplified by a general disaffection with mainstream political parties. We have witnessed historically low election turnouts in recent years. In this atmosphere, fringe protest groups such as UKIP and the BNP, and even the Green Party, have all benefited.

It will be regrettable if the BNP, an unpleasant and malicious organisation, does well in Barking or anywhere else in the country in next month's election. But such a result must not be a cause for panic. Mr Cameron should not allow this to frighten him back into the asylum-seeker baiting of the last two Tory general election campaigns. The country as a whole is far better off with a liberal Tory party, rather than one that is prepared to pander to such distasteful attitudes.

As for the Government, it should not interpret BNP gains as a cue to get "tougher" on immigration. A knee-jerk reaction would only concede to the BNP that it has a point and that its foul deceits have some basis in truth. All civilised political parties should be falling over themselves to make it clear that the very opposite is the case.