Until recently, Britain was almost the only country in Europe not having a significant far-right movement.
But last year, the far-right British National Party succeeded in winning five seats in local elections.
With a new round of municipal elections approaching, some observers here fear the party will further advance into mainstream politics.
A record 218 BNP candidates will stand in the May 1 elections throughout England and Wales, including in areas with significant ethnic populations.
At a time when war in Iraq, the terrorist threat from militant Islam and the issue of asylum seekers have led to ethnic tensions in some cities, the BNP has been accused of exacerbating the situation by playing on the fears of local populations.
Jewish officials say the BNP is run and supported by people who have made virulently anti-Semitic and racist comments, and at least one party leader has been convicted for attacking a Jewish teacher. Some party activists are known Holocaust deniers, and they generally blame nonwhites for Britain’s economic and social ills.
The party supports repatriation of asylum seekers and a “whites-first” employment and housing policy,
Yet some worry that, with Britons’ attention focused on extremists of another hue, the far right could expand its power base in the elections.
The BNP recently signaled its intention to openly play the race card when, for the first time, it presented a candidate for local elections last week in an area with a large Jewish population.
Postal worker Julian Leppert fished for Jewish votes by claiming that only the BNP was defending the Jewish community from supposed attacks by Muslims and asylum seekers. The tactic alarmed Jewish defense bodies and observers of the far-right scene, who say there is no evidence of such attacks and who considered the claims transparent pandering.
Local synagogues, mosques, churches and race-relations groups mounted a coordinated campaign to highlight the threat from the BNP.
The result in the northeast London ward of Barkingside was hardly in doubt: Leppert finished fourth out of six candidates and was believed to have received few Jewish votes, if any.
A spokesman for the Board of Deputies — the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews — was dismissive of Leppert’s outreach to the Jews.
The BNP’s “policy is one of historic hostility to all minorities, and they are certainly no friends of the Jewish community,” the spokesman said. “They may seek to persuade voters otherwise, but in reality they represent a major threat to our community” and seek to create “discord among others.”
The rise of the BNP as an electoral force has been closely watched by British investigative journalist Nick Ryan, whose recent book “Homeland: Into a World of Hate” describes his six-year odyssey into the heart of the BNP and European and American neo-Nazi groups.
Ryan is skeptical about BNP claims that the party expects to win ethnic votes.
“They’re looking for the shock headlines,” he said. “I would like to see them prove this. They once said they had great support from the Sikh community in one election, and it turned out to be one maverick Sikh guy.”
Ryan acknowledged, however, that there is anecdotal evidence of Jews in other parts of Europe voting for right-wing parties.
“I’ve heard from some of my contacts that a few Jews in Antwerp voted for the Vlaams Bloc,” a Belgium Flemish nationalist party, “because of the perceived militant Islamic threat of recently arrived North African immigrants,” he said.
But though the extreme right frequently uses the argument that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Ryan doesn’t expect to find Jews and other minorities voting for the BNP on election day.
The Board of Deputies’ spokesman was equally unconcerned.
“Who knows what way certain individuals vote in a secret ballot,” he said, but the claim that the party has significant Jewish support “is nothing but fanciful.”
Both Ryan and the Board of Deputies say voter apathy is far more likely than Jewish votes to produce seats for the BNP. Historically, local elections in Britain have seen very low levels of voter turnout: The average is a dismal 25 percent.
Mainstream British voters largely are uninvolved in local politics, a phenomenon that aids single-issue and protest parties.
The mainstream parties’ failure to mobilize their voters has allowed the BNP — whose predecessors, the National Front, saw minor electoral success in the 1970s — to win five seats on local councils in economically deprived, largely white towns and cities in England’s north.
With the BNP aggressively focusing on issues such as local housing and employment, which they claim the mainstream parties neglect, protest voters may mark their ballots for the BNP without realizing the ramifications of their vote.
“The BNP play on fear. They want people to think they are the only force that will stand up for them against asylum seekers, high crime, lack of housing and the failure of the major parties to address these issues,” Ryan said. “But what the protest voters often don’t realize is that underlying this all is the race card. A vote for the BNP is above all else a vote against black people, Asians and, of course, Jews.”
Before the local Barkingside election, the Community Security Trust, a communal defense body linked to the Board of Deputies, warned, “The BNP candidature has ramifications not just for the Jewish community, but also other minorities.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.