Burnley is home to some of the poorest wards in England and Wales. The former industrial town in Lancashire has been in steady decline for many years.
Areas such as Bank Hall and Daneshouse with Stoneyholme regularly top lists of the most deprived areas. Its town centre is carved up by busy arterial roads and the majority of the terraced housing is run down, with much of it damp.
Unemployment hovers around the national average, but this is only because huge numbers of people have left to look for work elsewhere.
The town’s population dropped by 4.5 percent between 2001 and 2010 and is continuing to fall. What work there is tends to be low paid jobs in supermarkets, the local hospital or one of the remaining factories.
Nazis have sought to gain by exploiting people’s misery.
Burnley saw the first electoral breakthroughs for the British National Party (BNP) under the leadership of Nick Griffin.
In 2002 three Nazis were voted onto the council. Their electoral victory came after riots in Burnley and neighbouring towns in 2001.
The riots started after racists rampaged through Burnley after clashing with Asian youth and viciously beating an Asian taxi driver.
Although the number of Nazis in Burnley was small, the BNP exploited a myth that Asians started the riots. It was helped by the right wing press and statements from the police.
A backlash against the Nazis by local anti-fascists ensured that soon their gains were being pushed back. Some 1,500 people marched against them in Burnley just weeks after they were voted in.
Sharon Wilkinson, the last remaining BNP councillor, was beaten in an election in 2012 and no fascist has been elected in Burnley since.
But lifelong Nazi Griffin hopes to be re-elected on 22 May as a member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the North West, which contains Burnley.
Most people are barely aware that he was elected in 2009. His ineffectual presence as an MEP has had little impact on people’s day-to-day lives.
Rebecca was sitting in one of the cafes on St James’s Street in Burnley which had its windows smashed by racists in 2001. She is angry with a leaflet the BNP has sent out ahead of the elections attacking Muslims.
“It’s just fear mongering, posting trash like that out,” she told Socialist Worker.
Rebecca comes from Blackburn, a town to the east of Burnley which shares much of the same levels of poverty and deprivation.
Blackburn topped a list of areas that have seen the largest drop in the average full time wage, according to a TUC report last year. Pay has fallen by 11.6 percent for those working a 40-hour week, meaning their pay packets are a massive £47.98 a week less than they were in 2007.
Workers throughout the North West have been hardest hit by wage cuts. It is this high poverty that Nick Griffin hopes to capitalise on by scapegoating migrants for driving down wages.
But Rebecca said, “I don’t know who I’m voting for in the European elections. I look at politicians and think ‘you’re a liar, you’re a cheat and you’re a hypocrite’.
“But I’m not voting for Nick Griffin because he’s a racist.”
Bina Hussain helped organise a protest against Nick Griffin when he turned up in Burnley after he was elected MEP. She told Socialist Worker, “I come from a mixed background, my family come from all over, so I find what they say disgusting.
“When he showed up in Burnley I texted all the people I knew and we surrounded him. In the end he just had to shuffle off.”
Unite Against Fascism (UAF) launched the Nick Griffin Must Go campaign in 2011 to ensure he is not re-elected on 22 May. In the North West the campaign has taken the form of leafleting working class areas to expose the fascist nature of the BNP.
Callum, aged 15, has been leafleting with UAF in Gannow ward, a poor area of Burnley and a former BNP stronghold. He hopes to campaign to raise awareness that the BNP do not offer an alternative to the poverty that most people face.
He told Socialist Worker, “There are three schools and one college in Burnley. A lot of my friends will drop out once school finishes. Most aren’t going to classes anyway, they don’t feel school will benefit them.
“I went to one school which was incredibly racist. Lads would just say racist things in a banter-like way. It’s because they were brought up with it at home, with their parents saying racist slang to them and they were never taught any different.
“People are packed into houses in run down areas like this and some feel resentment that the council aren’t doing anything for them. When people at school used to say racist things I just used to think it was quite sad, I didn’t understand it,” he said.
“I don’t think about the colour of people’s skin, I just think we should be all seen as equal. That’s why I am leafleting against Nick Griffin, because I want to help.”
Fiona, a resident in Burnley, is also part of a team who have been persistently campaigning to get Griffin out in the North West. She said, “When the BNP were voted in, there was a different feel to the town,”
“I know a lot of people who moved south to work and were ashamed to say they were from Burnley.”
Over the years the BNP have attempted to paint themselves as the voice of the poor and working class against mainstream parties who don’t care.
Fiona said, “I was part of a canvassing team that asked people why they voted a certain way, and you got the feeling that many felt mainstream parties didn’t represent them.”
The Tories and the right wing press have created a climate of racism. They jump on to sensationalist stories about Muslims and migrants to their own end.
But shamefully rather than countering the racist myths, the local Labour Party in Burnley have mounted a hue and cry over “illegal” immigrants in recent years.
An election leaflet sent out two years ago on behalf of Julie Cooper, who is now council leader, said, “If you don’t vote, or vote for any other party than Labour—you’ll risk getting more illegal immigrants in Burnley.”
But this attitude of the Labour Party has fed a disaffection which sees many people not bothering to vote. The feeling is not just restricted to areas like Burnley.
The low voter turnout is what enabled Griffin to get in as an MEP. Getting people to use their vote to stop him has been a key feature of UAF’s Nick Griffin Must Go campaign.
“I used to think, ‘why are immigrants coming over here and taking out jobs?’” Samantha, a mature student in Lancaster, told Socialist Worker.
“But people have to realise that Ukip and the BNP are looking for scapegoats and people that they think that they can blame.”
Lancaster cuts a very different picture to that of other North West towns with its busy high street and picturesque stone-clad buildings.
It has been described as the “citadel” by the BNP in previous years for its success in keeping the fascists out. But there are also high levels of poverty.
“I don’t really have a lot of time for politics,” said Samantha. “But people around here are struggling.
The decline of the BNP’s fortunes is down to the way they have been exposed by the campaigning of UAF in showing them for what they are—a Nazi party.
One woman from Padiham, a small town outside of Burnley told Socialist Worker, “When the BNP got elected, people came out against them and things they did started to become unacceptable.
“Before people would say racist things in an almost casual way. After the BNP got in and the backlash they faced, people were forced to think twice.”
Robert McCafferty is 89 and a former shipyard and railway worker who lives in Lancaster.
He grew up in the Gorbals area of Glasgow and rubbished the idea of a large British white working class who voted BNP out of their own interest. “We have neighbours from Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Irish people” he told Socialist Worker.
Robert explained the necessity of getting the vote out against Nick Griffin on the 22 May.
“There was a chalk board in a pub around here a few years ago where people could write their own slogans and someone put, ‘Don’t vote, you’ll only get government’.
“Well, if you don’t vote, you’ll also get Nick Griffin too.”
‘Our campaigning can kick Nick Griffin out’
Nazi Nick Griffin only needs around 7 percent of the vote in the Euro elections to stay on as an MEP for the North West. In the 2009 elections Griffin was elected on 132,000 votes, 8 percent of the total on a 32 percent turnout.
Unite Against Fascism (UAF) launched the Nick Griffin Must Go campaign in 2011 to campaign throughout the North West to expose the BNP leader as a Nazi.
As the final few weeks approach before the elections, UAF has stepped up the campaign. Manchester UAF has long kept up regular leafleting of stations, but last week it leafleted Manchester railway stations every day.
Last Saturday activists leafleted in towns including Wigan, Rochdale, Crewe, Blackburn, Barrow, Lancaster, Burnley and Preston.
A joint day of action with the National Union of Teachers took place in Manchester on the same day. Union member and Labour MEP candidate Steve Carter participated.
TUC president Mohammad Taj took part in the joint Unite and UAF day of action in Liverpool. He said, “I’m very proud to work with Unite Against Fascism. It’s great work that they do.
“Everyone needs to use their vote on 22 May to stop Nick Griffin from being re-elected.”
Defeats have weakened the BNP, but Paul Jenkins, UAF North West Regional Organiser, urged people to not be complacent.
He said, “In 2009, two weeks before the European elections, some pollsters predicted that the BNP was not going to win any seats.
"We need to keep campaigning. We cannot let complacency allow Nick Griffin to win the small percentage he needs. Get involved in UAF’s campaign. What you do will make a crucial difference.”
Saturday 14 June, 9.30am to 5pm
TUC Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS
£12 / £6 (students and concs)