Mixenden is a Council estate on the outskirts of the industrial town of Halifax in the heart of the Pennines in West Yorkshire.
Like similar estates across Britain it has suffered years of neglect. In Mixenden’s case the neglect stems partly from the hung Calderdale District Council. It is years since Labour held sway in a district which should naturally be under its control.
Mixenden was the first Yorkshire Council ward to elect a British National Party (BNP) Councillor. That was three years ago. Today there are three BNP Councillors in Calderdale. It would be more but for the efforts of Calderdale Unity Against Racism and Fascism, and Calderdale Communities Against Racism - two organisations with political differences, but working for the same ends: the defeat of the BNP.
Both groups work closely with Searchlight, the organisation with an unequalled record of effective activity against the extreme and neo-Nazi right.
The local campaigners task is made no easier by Michael Howard’s decision to make asylum and immigration a major election issue, and Blair’s response which appears heavily influenced by the appalling coverage of the issue by the tabloid press, notably the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Star and The Sun.
Janet Oosterhuysen is a member of the steering committee of Calderdale Unity. ‘My own feeling is that the main parties have legitimised the BNP stance in quite an abhorrent way,’ she says.
‘It makes it very difficult to argue against because what were very right-wing ideas are now becoming more acceptable.’
She believes there is no real immigration problem ‘but because of the focus on immigration people begin to believe there is one. The number of asylum seekers in Calderdale is tiny, less than one-fifth of one per cent of the population. The BNP campaigns on the basis that there is a big local population of asylum seekers. Our leaflets tell people it’s a lie - we give them the true figures. Then along come Blair and Howard with statements suggesting asylum is an enormous problem needing tough measures, which give credibility to the BNP’s lies. It doesn’t help.’
In addition to the problems caused by the aggressive statements on asylum and immigration from Labour and Tory leaders, the Government’s actual treatment of asylum seekers is also causing growing concerns in West Yorkshire. In neighbouring Leeds, asylum seekers are being thrown onto the streets, quite literally. Once an asylum seeker has been refused permission to stay he or she is given two weeks to leave freely. After that they face enforced removal, but it can be weeks before this takes place. In the meantime the person’s benefits have been stopped, so the landlords, private or housing association, who are housing the asylum seeker receive no rent. They send in the bailiffs and the victim is homeless and penniless.
Evicted asylum seekers are turning to local churches for shelter. Witnessing the effects of Government policies on asylum seekers, leaders of the Anglican Church in Leeds organised an emergency debate of their Synod. It called for more humane treatment of asylum seekers by the Government.
‘Recent legislation has made it increasingly difficult for those seeking asylum to access appropriate legal services leading to poor decisions being made,’ said the Rev Canon Kathryn Fitzsimons, Urban Officer of the Church in Leeds. ‘As the General Election draws nearer it is vital that these vulnerable people are not used as a political football.’
The anti-BNP campaigners, meanwhile, are getting on with the job of combating the BNP in the wards and constituencies where the fascists are strongest, and threats and intimidation are constant.
Calderdale Labour Councillor Linda Riordan is Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary candidate in Halifax. ‘Campaigning in my ward, where we managed to defeat the BNP, quite often we will be followed round by BNP members shouting abuse at us and being told they will get us next time, so you're not dealing with your normal political parties,’ she said. ‘The main concerns residents are telling us they have is immigration - which in Calderdale is surprising to say the least - and crime, and again our crime figures are falling.’
Janet Oosterhuysen said: ‘In the wards where the BNP is most active, few people feel openly able to give anti-racist ideas any support. All know that there are BNP supporters in their neighbourhood who intimidate them on a daily basis and would do worse if it was known that they were against them. Two middle aged women leafleters for the Labour Party were followed around by a shouting mob in one ward.’ On another occasion, 20 anti-racism leafleters were confronted by 50 thugs (led by Calderdale BNP Councillor Adrian Marsden) who said they would prevent the anti-racists from delivering a single leaflet. Police observed from nearby, and did nothing.
The campaigners are undeterred. They have organised mass days of action in which anti-fascist groups from surrounding districts join forces and swamp areas where the BNP is strong. In one past effort in Calderdale 120 people turned out, delivering 18,000 copies of Searchlight’s tabloid newspaper in a single day. The operation was planned with precision, with a central headquarters sending out teams of never less than a dozen leafleters who were moved in by mini-bus and moved out minutes after the drop was completed. Half a dozen teams would be in operation at any one time. Another team staffed a kitchen. An Asian caterer donated food. Similar days of action are to be held across Yorkshire - and in every constituency where the BNP hopes to expand its support.
The BNP is standing candidates in over 100 constituencies nationwide. It has little, if any, hope of winning a seat, but that is not its declared intention. It is laying foundations for its next big electoral assault, the local elections in 2006.
BNP leader Nick Griffin is standing in nearby Keighley, which has a significant Asian community. The BNP there has made allegations that young Asian men have recruited young white girls for prostitution. It’s an issue which is being investigated, but for the BNP it’s just a golden opportunity to drive a wedge into the community and spread its racism.
Griffin gave a media conference on the Keighley issue before the local elections last year using a pub in Calderdale, ironically named The Friendly, for the event. Journalists were given a preview of an election video made by the BNP in Keighley, with interviews with ‘ordinary’ local people, expressing their concerns. The ordinary people were well-known to anti-fascist campaigners: they were experienced BNP activists and officers. Keighley is partly in the Bradford district. Four BNP candidates were elected to Bradford District Council in local elections last year, giving Griffin the foothold he wanted.
The anti-BNP campaigners face a tough battle. They need all the help they can get. For information on your nearest group, find their website by searching for stopthebnp.com