By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 4, 2006
LONDON, May 3 -- Paula Mitchell, cutting fresh flowers in the Gale Street Florist shop in east London, said she's voting for candidates of the British National Party in local elections on Thursday -- but she hopes they lose.
"If they got in, I'd be absolutely horrified," said Mitchell, 38, who described her planned ballot for the vehemently anti-immigration BNP as a protest against what she sees as out-of-control immigration to Britain.
"We're against people coming in and taking our jobs, taking our school places, getting priority in housing," said Mitchell. "Everyone is fed up, and we want to make our feelings known."
The BNP declares itself "wholly opposed to any form of racial integration between British and non-European peoples." It seeks to restore the overwhelmingly white makeup of Britain before 1948; its leader has called Islam a "wicked, vicious faith." Support from people like Mitchell, a white mother of three whose political views otherwise appear generally mainstream, illustrates rising anti-immigration sentiment in Britain and across Europe.
Parties long dismissed by many as the racist fringe have become increasingly popular as governments that once freely accepted immigrants question how many more their nations can take.
"It should be a worry for all Western democracies," said Nick Lowles of Searchlight, an anti-racist group that publishes a magazine in Britain. Lowles said many voters were turning to extremist parties to vent anger at their political leaders. "People are shouting out," he said, "and they want to be heard."
In France, a public opinion poll last month showed that more than a third of respondents believed the anti-immigrant National Front, led by the outspoken Jean-Marie Le Pen, was in line with "the concerns of French people." Numbers like that could make the party a power in presidential elections next year.
The anti-immigration Danish People's Party in Denmark and Progress Party in Norway, meanwhile, both reached record levels of the vote -- 13 and 22 percent, respectively -- in elections last year.
A British study this month concluded that up to a fourth of British voters were considering supporting the BNP. Their country now has an estimated 7 million people of various minority groups. "The BNP's message is simple and seductive," Lowles said. "It's always nice to be able to blame someone else for your problems."
The BNP's appeal "stems not so much from crude racism, but from disillusionment with the government," said Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at Oxford University. He and other analysts said immigrants are often blamed for tough economic times, and many voters fault the Labor Party government of Prime Minister Tony Blair for not doing enough to control immigration.
Blair's government has been rocked by scandals recently, including the disclosure that more than 1,000 foreigners convicted of crimes including murder and rape had been released from prison instead of being deported, and many are still unaccounted for. On Wednesday, Blair told Parliament that he was drafting a plan to automatically deport foreigners convicted of serious crimes.
Public anger over the scandal deepened Wednesday when the government disclosed that the prime suspect in November's shooting death of a female police officer was a Somali immigrant who had not been deported despite multiple criminal convictions and prison terms in Britain.
"The BNP have become the protest vote for people who don't like the government for any number of reasons," Bogdanor said.
Despite that "combustible" anger, Bogdanor said, mainstream voters still might not back the BNP, which has never won a seat in Parliament and holds only 21 local offices. Opinion polls published last weekend showed the party had only about 4 or 5 percent support nationally, but 30 percent or more in some urban areas.
Jon Cruddas, a Labor Party member of Parliament who represents the working-class east London borough where Mitchell's flower shop is located, said the BNP had made "a conscious strategy to work into areas of white working-class disillusionment," such as his district.
The party is fielding a record 357 candidates out of 4,000 total candidates nationally, including 13 in Cruddas's district of 180,000 people, where unemployment is rampant. The area, which was 85 percent white in the 2001 census, has some of the city's least-expensive housing and has been a magnet for immigrants, with the black African population growing by 3 to 4 percent a year, Cruddas said.
In recent interviews with people on the street and in shops in the neighborhood, nearly every person expressed agreement with the BNP's arguments about immigration, and several said they planned to vote for the party.
"The issue in this city is immigration," said Jackie Odger, who works in Toddy's Unisex Hair Salon. "People don't like it when people come here and claim benefits they're not entitled to."
Odger said she was concerned about the BNP's "racist side," but added that she feels she "might vote for them and not tell anyone."
The neighborhood has drawn attention recently because the government employment minister, Margaret Hodge, a Labor Party member of Parliament who represents the area, said publicly that 80 percent of the voters she met in the borough were considering voting for the BNP.
Richard Barnbrook, a BNP candidate for the local council, was so delighted, he said, that he sent Hodge 10 flowers, including eight white lilies pointedly representing BNP voters.
Barnbrook, 45, a special-needs teacher, ran against Hodge in the most recent election, finishing with about 4,950 votes to her 14,000. He said he's tired of "P.C., wishy-washy subjects" taught in schools -- world history instead of British history, for example. He said he favors chemical castration for pedophiles and serial rapists and wants more government support for the "indigenous peoples" of Britain.
Dressed in a tan suit, Barnbrook walked around the neighborhood, slipping copies of a BNP publication promoting the party as "the voice of the silent majority" through front-door mail slots. Featured on the cover is a photo taken in 1953 on the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, showing a large group of white women and girls attending a party. Below are two more-recent photos of the neighborhood, showing black men and Muslim women in head scarves and veils. Large bold letters ask, "Is this what you really want?"
Barnbrook said the flier simply shows the area's "traditional identity" and how it has changed over the years.
" 'Racist' is the right word to use," said Sunday Ogunyemi, 31, a Nigerian immigrant who has lived in the borough for six years. "Their views do not represent what most British people say. Britain is a country that welcomes people from other countries."
Special correspondent Alexandra Topping contributed to this report.