As gap-year activities go, canvassing for a far-right party is not on most teenagers' wish-list, but that's what George, 18, has volunteered to do. With his public-school quiff and Union Jack tie, and armed with a clipboard, he is spending Saturday afternoon working his way along a street of squat 1920s semis on the Becontree estate in Barking, Essex. He is joined by Phil, a 34-year-old mental health worker from Lincoln. They have both answered the British National Party's nationwide call for activists to help the party's leader, Nick Griffin, seize a Westminster seat on 6 May.
After winning two seats in the European Parliament last June (Griffin in the north-west and Andrew Brons in Yorkshire and Humber), the party is putting up a record number of parliamentary candidates - more than 200 at the last count. It may have little chance of winning outside Barking and Stoke Central (where Griffin's deputy, Simon Darby, is standing), but by campaigning it has been able to influence mainstream debate - not least on immigration. "The rhetoric of the Express and the Mail could come from one of our own newsletters," George tells me. "But then they have to say, 'Don't vote for those fascists!' It's ridiculous."
In a neat cul-de-sac, two men in their thirties are sitting on the front step of a house, drinking lager in the sun. "Is it true the BNP want to get rid of all the Gurkhas?" one of them asks, referring to the retired Nepalese soldiers who have been granted the right to settle in the UK. "No," George says. "In fact, our chairman Nick Griffin said he'd gladly replace 100,000 British-born Muslims with 100,000 loyal Gurkhas who fought for this country." The man looks impressed. "Yeah, I'd go for that."
Back on the main road, George and Phil are given a shout of support from a man across the street: "You're doing a good job, boys! Get rid of all those niggers." A black mother and her two daughters who are walking past at that moment quicken their pace. George and Phil exchange an awkward look. "He's probably had a bit too much to drink," George says.
Barking has become the heart of perhaps the most bitter battle of this year's election. Located on the eastern fringes of London, its high street is a mix of shops run by black, white and Asian people; you hear eastern European languages as you walk through the market crowds. Yet immigration has increased more recently here than elsewhere, and it has become a source of resentment among the white population.
The BNP has won support by exploiting local concerns. In 2006, it published two leaflets that claimed "various Labour councils are giving Africans grants of up to £50,000 to buy houses under a scheme known as 'Africans for Essex'". It wasn't true, but the BNP now has 12 seats on Barking and Dagenham Council and there are fears that the party may take control here in May's local elections. Anti-fascist groups and local Labour activists are making frantic efforts to ensure it doesn't win the 14 extra seats it needs to make that happen. The Hope not Hate campaign has temporarily moved its base of operations to a warehouse in Dagenham.
There was a time when Labour was so dominant in the area that it barely needed to canvass. When the Barking MP Margaret Hodge was first elected in 1994, she won with 72 per cent of the vote; in last year's European elections, Labour's share across Barking and Dagenham was 31 per cent. This mirrors a drop in Labour support nationally, but because neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems have ever had much presence here, the BNP has stepped in to fill the vacuum.
In an attempt to regain support, Hodge is hosting a question-and-answer session in a school hall with the former EastEnders actor Ross Kemp. But despite the star guest, there is little enthusiasm for Labour in the audience. Ann Steward, a member of a Becontree tenants' association, tells Hodge: "The only politician who attends our meetings is Richard Barnbrook [a BNP councillor] and that's why the BNP do so well. They come round and trim our hedges. Now the elections are looming we see Labour, but where have you been? We need your presence."
Steward, like many of her neighbours, has lived in Becontree her whole life. "I still have my mum's old rent book from the 1930s," she says. "For two weeks, she paid 8s and 6d." A vast estate built for skilled workers who were moved from the East End slums after the First World War, Becontree remains the largest such development in Europe. People here have never been wealthy, but they could once count on at least one certainty: a home provided by the council.
Since the Conservative government's Right to Buy scheme began in the 1980s, however, the number of homes provided by the council has been in decline - from 26,969 in 1990 to 19,303 today. Many former council houses have been sold on and the plentiful supply of properties has made Barking one of the cheapest places to rent or buy in London. As a result, it has become an attractive destination not just for immigrants, but for people across the capital pushed eastwards by rising house prices.
Yet it is also one of the most deprived places in the country, and the growing population puts an extra strain on public services. The problem is compounded by other London councils being allowed to place their own tenants and homeless people in private rented accommodation in the area. Even Tory-controlled Westminster - located on the other side of London and with some of Britain's most expensive streets - has placed 56 families here.
There are 11,695 families on Barking and Dagenham's housing list and local anger has been directed at the new faces they see down the street. As I follow Hodge canvassing, complaints about housing crop up again and again. We hear tales of families that have had to wait three, five or even more years to get a home. One man has spent eight years living in a one-bedroom flat with his wife and four children. Hodge and her team patiently explain that this is because of the Right to Buy, but few seem convinced. Many seem to have accepted the BNP's line that immigrants are the problem. A young mother says she's considering voting BNP because she likes the party's insistence that "local people get local housing". She adds hurriedly: "I'm not racist, though - half my family are black."
Hodge, who has been dashing between doorstep conversations with a bright "Hello, I'm your MP", turns to me and grimaces, as if to say: "You see what we're up against?" Hodge has made an effort to turn around Labour's fortunes in the borough. She has moved her office here from Westminster and last year oversaw moves to rejuvenate the local party and boost recruitment. Several councillors were deselected and the party has taken on a wave of younger, ethnically diverse members.
But is Hodge dealing with a problem partly of her own making? In 2006, shortly before that year's local elections, she told the Daily Telegraph that eight out of ten of her constituents were considering voting for the BNP. "They see black and ethnic-minority communities moving in and they are angry," she said. "They can't get a home for their children."
The BNP went on to win 12 seats on the council and the GMB trade union called for Hodge to resign. A year later, she said British families had "a legitimate sense of entitlement" to housing. The then education secretary, Alan Johnson, said her words were "grist to the mill" for the BNP. In February this year, Hodge argued that migrants should be made to wait up to 12 months before they could get access to the benefits system.
“The left don't like what I've been saying," she concedes. "But I think you can puncture racism by dealing with the feeling of unfairness that people have." But don't her statements - particularly given the dominance of anti-immigration newspapers - simply encourage racism? "Politicians always shy away from talking about immigration and the difficult issues that are associated with it. If we don't address those issues, we allow that territory to be captured by the extreme right."
This talk of "capturing territory" is a reminder of Hodge's intimate role in the New Labour project (in 1994, she co-nominated her Islington neighbour Tony Blair for the party leadership). Over the past 13 years, senior Labour figures from David Blunkett to Gordon Brown - with his speech on "British jobs for British workers" - have tried to sound tough on immigration in an attempt to head off criticism from the right. The 2010 Labour manifesto even carries a section titled "Crime and Immigration", as if the connection was obvious.
Yet none of this has stopped support for the party ebbing away in its former heartlands. Under pressure from figures on the left of the party, including the Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas, Labour has in recent months begun to address the lack of affordable housing. But is it too little too late? "Both main political parties should have invested far more in affordable social housing much sooner," Hodge admits. "But social housing is not universal, it is something that has to be rationed, and socialism has always been about the language of priorities."
Her team knocks at another door. The white-haired man in his fifties who answers says he'll vote "for whoever is going to stop all this
immigration. I drive a bus, and no one on it speaks English any more."
“Well, they all should speak English," Hodge replies.
In her 2006 interview, Hodge claimed that Barking had undergone "the most rapid transformation of a community we have ever witnessed", and she echoes that view during our conversation. But Ludi Simpson, a leading social statistician based at Manchester University, observes that between the 1991 census and the one in 2001, Barking and Dagenham's boundaries were redrawn to include 9,200 people, mainly from nearby Redbridge. So the "rapid" change is partly a statistical anomaly.
Simpson points to the most recent evidence, the 2008 School Census, which indicates that Barking and Dagenham still has a lower proportion of ethnic-minority pupils than most other London boroughs. "Hodge is wrong," Simpson tells me, "if she suggests that her constituents' local services, community spirit and jobs will be raised by restricting immigration or by diminishing immigrants' rights as citizens."
Josephine Channer, a 31-year-old small business owner, is one of the Londoners who have been attracted to Barking by its cheap property prices. She is also a Labour council candidate, but sees things differently to Hodge. "With a lot of the white community, I think support for the BNP is just plain racism," she says.
In the five years she has lived in Barking, Channer has seen her estate change from being largely white to a more typical urban mix. "Barking and Dagenham is experiencing what the rest of London experienced 50 years ago. I'm of West Indian origin and my mum had all this rubbish when she first moved to Britain. People say they're worried about housing and jobs, but they don't like to see a black face around here." She claims to have encountered prejudice within the Labour Party. "One councillor who was deselected said that they would run as an independent if they were going to be replaced by a black candidate."
Such attitudes would not have helped build support for Labour among Barking's black and Asian communities. In particular, Hodge has had difficulty winning over the area's African residents, even though they have been victimised by the BNP. Pastors in Barking's Pentecostal churches have been urging their congregations to vote for the fundamentalist Christian Party, whose leader, George Hargreaves, is also standing for parliament.
Hodge acknowledges this may split the anti-BNP vote, but plays down the threat. "I'm getting a mixed response. But I think the Christian Party is not about what I've done locally, it's about my attitude to abortion and stem-cell research." Channer takes a bleaker view: "We've pissed off the white community, the black community, the Asian community, and now we've got to try and mend it in four weeks."
In the garden of a Barking pub called the Cherry Tree, Nick Griffin is launching his party's campaign. Standing by the party's advertising bus - they call it the "Truth Truck" - he is giving interviews to television crews and wilting a little in the warm spring sunshine. He has been busy of late: aside from his duties as MEP for England's north-west (for which he receives a salary of £82,000), he has been trying to keep the lid on a crisis in his own party.
On 5 April, an urgent meeting was called to discuss an attempt at a "palace coup" by the party's publicity director Mark Collett. Police also took statements relating to an alleged threat to kill Griffin. The dispute is reported to have centred on money. An investigation by the anti-fascist Searchlight magazine this year found that many party members are unhappy about the extent to which the party's fundraising consultant Jim Dowson, a hardline Protestant Northern Irish businessman and anti-abortionist, now "practically owns" the party.
When we speak, however, Griffin tells me morale is "excellent", and he is bullish about his party's chances. "We're going to give Margaret Hodge the fight of her life. We want to win this seat, and we want to take control of the council." He seems to have borrowed some of Hodge's language, saying that the BNP offers "fair play for local people" and that "the key issue is housing". He tells me that a BNP council in Barking would build 5,000 new homes for "sons and daughters of local people". Presumably, for a party whose constitution commits it to restoring "the overwhelmingly white make-up of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948", this would mean housing for white locals. "Not at all," Griffin says. "We've had West Indians who have been here 25, 30 years, why should they be at the back of the housing queue?"
In fact, what BNP councillors in Barking and Dagenham have already proposed is to place people in urgent need of housing on a brownfield site "equipped with previously used caravans". ("That's a temporary measure," Griffin says, irritably.) Party election material promises to cut "politically correct projects" and translation services, while the party's 2009 county council manifesto declared that mixing white and non-white children was "destroying perfectly good local secondary schools".
Yet Griffin is adamant that the party has left its racist past behind. "The British National Party has changed already over the last ten years. We're here in the modern world, we listen to what people say. And the simple fact is that people who've come here and assimilated into our society and our communities aren't a problem; it's the recent incomers and those who want to change our country in some way foreign, that's the trouble."
Alby Walker, a former BNP councillor in Stoke-on-Trent, tells a different story. He describes to me the racist atmosphere that existed behind closed doors. "When you went to a social occasion, you'd get a feeling of what they truly believed. You'd have to be very careful how you talked about football, for example - you couldn't praise black players. I support Stoke City and they've got a good Jamaican forward, Ricardo Fuller. You couldn't say ,'Did you see that great goal Fuller scored at the weekend?'"
Walker is dismissive of Griffin's claim to have modernised the party. "He says that publicly, but when we stood for the Euro elections last year, we were given media training on how to avoid questions about the Holocaust.
“I realised then that it [Holocaust denial] went up a little bit higher in the party than I'd previously seen." Griffin says Walker's claims are "lies". But I press him on the issue of media training. Does it include the Holocaust?
“That subject does come up, yes."
I am hurried away by one of Griffin's bodyguards. In the pub garden, as the leader's wife collects empties and jokes with supporters, it is tempting to dismiss the BNP's campaign as a mere sideshow to the election. But now that British politicians across the board are talking about immigration as a threat, lasting damage has been done.