Under grey skies at Oldham Athletic football ground, a group of schoolkids stands on the steps of our 1964 double-decker anti-racism bus, wearing Hope Not Hate T-shirts. All except one boy, a pale-faced 11-year-old in an ill-fitting school uniform, who is standing at the back of the bus studying the floor.
“Come on, lad!” his teacher calls out. The boy stamps his feet one after the other. His expression says he wishes he were invisible. In big letters behind him, a sign reads: “Celebrating Modern Britain”.
“Come on, J!” His friends are calling him. He drags off his hoodie and pulls on a yellow Hope Not Hate T-shirt over his white school shirt. He takes his place on the steps of the bus for the photograph. J turns out to have a lovely smile.
“That’s a big step for him,” one of the mums says. “His family are all BNP. It’s more than 40 per cent on our estate voted for BNP in the last election.” When I ask her why, she shrugs. “Because there’s nowhere else to go,” she says, in a matter-of-fact way. “Not really, when you think about it. Working families feel let down by Labour. It’s like it’s a London party for southerners. It’s all about spin. There’s Iraq and all that. Local lads dying out there from the regiments round here – cannon fodder.” And why isn’t she voting for them? “Because they aren’t a proper party, that’s what people don’t realise. They’re not like the other parties. They’re extremists as bad as the ones in the mosques.”
On 3 May, the British National Party will contest a record number of seats in the local elections. A total of 827 across England and Scotland, and more than twice the number the party has ever fielded before. The Hope Not Hate battle bus – which took a 1,700-mile drunk’s scribble of a journey from London to Glasgow organised by the Daily Mirror and Searchlight – was an attempt to engage with those parts of the country most likely to connect with a far-right message.
It also turns out to be a tour of an angry, alienated Britain – the estates and shopping centres and market towns mainstream politics is no longer reaching. On estate after city centre, supermarket after community hall, we meet the same feeling that there is no longer any party left to speak for the working man or his wife or children, or his elderly parents.
At times our trip on a 1964 Leyland Titan with a grindingly slow top speed of 38mph (downhill and in fair winds), without such mod cons as heating or a petrol gauge, feels like a journey into a vacuum, the ground vacated by the political parties as they rush to the milk-and-honey heartland of Middle England. Every day brings its own surreal hybrid of celebrity visits to soap opera sets, interviews with pop stars, tea on sink estates and leafleting of supermarket car parks.
We meet people left on council waiting lists for housing, whose estates are no-go at night because of antisocial behaviour, and whose schools are failing and knife-ridden. People whose experience of the NHS is distressing and whose home is between two burnt-out properties.
One day in the West Midlands we spend a morning with white working-class shoppers, followed by Sugababes, and then an evening eating baltis and drinking Guinness at a Sikh-Irish pub.
In Thurrock, in Essex, a man tells us proudly that the local BNP candidate is a young woman in her twenties. “Not a thug with a pit bull,” he says. I find this strangely shocking, as if women shouldn’t be fascists, or at least young people should be idealists.
He looks at me curiously. “Maybe she is an idealist. Have you thought of that?”
It is too easy to believe that everyone voting for the BNP is a racist or a fool, when in fact it is no coincidence that the party is flourishing in old industrial areas where jobs are scarce and hope is thin on the ground.
In the BNP heartland of Dagenham, where the car industry has been ravaged, BNP leaflets are fresh in the doorways of the estates, and the party’s presence is strong in the old mill towns and the once-proud Potteries. In the multiply disadvantaged Sandwell, the BNP 4×4 follows us at a distance, watching the kids come and take the badges and balloons.
In the towns where Tory recession and abandonment have bled into the disinterest of the national Labour Party, nationalism is both listening and offering a voice to quiet, bottled-up rage.
As we trundle through Leicester and Lincoln, Nottingham and Sheffield, we meet the same faces again and again – men and women who feel ignored, put upon, let down. These are the communities spitefully mocked by the middle classes, who prefer to caricature the “chav” underclass as feckless, ignorant and thuggish. Yet if you ask them they’ll tell you it is Westminster that isn’t “bovvered”.
In Yorkshire, we meet Andy Sykes, a former BNP organiser turned anti-racist, who tells us why he joined the party in 2002. “I started going to meetings because I was afraid,” he explains. “I started believing the stuff they were pushing through my letter box about paedophiles and rapists and murderers.”
The BNP understands that people are feeling frightened and abandoned. It is slipping into the vacuum left by mainstream politics and setting out its stall, countered only by handfuls of local activists and MPs.
They don’t tell people that they didn’t support England in the World Cup because of its black players, or that their constitution states that a black or Asian person can never be British. They raise valid issues and then exploit them with dizzying distortions, a bombardment of half-truths and semi-facts, all in a language littered with buzzwords designed to inflame feelings of outrage and paranoia: paedophilia, jobs, Islam, 7/7, immigration. They find a tiny blister and then they rub and rub until it is a running sore.
They will tell you it is because of asylum-seekers that your grandmother’s heart operation is being delayed – when in fact the amount given to asylum-seekers is less than 1 per cent of what is spent on the National Health Service each year. They will say these people are bringing tuberculosis into the country and that they are criminals, when the British Medical Association refutes any claim about TB and the Association of Chief Police Officers confirms there is no higher rate of criminality among asylum-seekers (and that, in fact, asylum-seekers are far more likely to become victims than perpetrators of crime).
They speak to people’s perception that crime – especially violent crime – is on the rise and that eventually all the jobs they can do (and it’s all right for Middle Englanders in their gated communities, plugging in by laptop to a global job market) will have gone abroad, and they’ll wake up one day and everyone will be speaking Hindi or in that homogenised black-white patois common to inner-city youth.
And all the while, the same language is being whispered by extremist Muslim leaders to young black and Asian youths in our young offenders’ institutions, sink estates and prisons: “No one is listening to you, except us. You are nothing, nobody to anyone but us.”
We met some towering heroes on our tour: the boxing legend Brendan Ingle – trainer of Prince Naseem, Herol “Bomber” Graham and, now, a generation of white and Asian Sheffield kids; Chris Keen on the deprived Stoops Estate in Burnley, a great big ex-rugby player of a community worker; Joe Sargonis, a Nottingham Forest football coach offering teenagers alternatives to gun culture.
But if I could have taken the alienated voters of Dagenham anywhere, it would have been to Oliver’s Gym, a sweat-soaked, old-fashioned boxing club on a Salford industrial estate.
Here is J the schoolboy’s biggest idol, effortlessly jumping rope – a 5ft 10in British Pakistani Olympic boxing hero. “Look at that gym in there,” Amir Khan says, taking a breather. “English, Jamaican, Pakistani, Irish, we all train together. We’re all treated equal and we all treat each other the same.”
According to the BNP, Khan shouldn’t be allowed to represent Great Britain. And, with more candidates than the National Front contested at its peak during the Seventies – as the BNP website boasts – there is a real danger that it will increase its foothold in some groups on 3 May.
Some, of course, are only paper candidates, but the party is standing full slates of regional candidates in areas such as Stoke, Leeds, Thurrock and Sunderland, as well as Scotland and Wales. Once elected, these candidates acquire no track record of doing anything to help communities. In fact, it rather suits them if alienation worsens, because they already have their scapegoats in place.
Still, Khan, at least, is optimistic.
“I think racism’s going to die out,” he says, jumping up into the driving seat of our bus. “It’s got to, right? ‘Cos in the end, what’s the colour of your skin got to do with anything?”
Ros Wynne-Jones is senior feature writer for the Daily Mirror. http://www.mirror.co.uk/hopenothate