Why did the BNP find favour with voters?
As the far right gains a foothold in north-west Leicestershire, Lee Marlow surveys the fall-out of its shock election victory.
On the morning of Friday, June 5, Coalville county councillor John Legrys walked into the election count at Whitwick's Hermitage Leisure Centre with a heavy heart.
It was a grim end to a depressing campaign and he suspected his four years as county councillor for the ward of Coalville were over.
It had been, he admitted, a frustrating election. On the doorsteps, all people wanted to talk about was a new Asda in Coalville, free car parking and, more often than not, greedy MPs with their snouts in the trough.
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Which was fine, he shrugged.
"I'd happily talk to people about that," he said. But he couldn't do anything about any of them. They were not county council issues.
Mr Legrys, a former Green Party activist who joined the Labour Party in the mid-90s, admitted he walked into the count fully expecting to lose his seat to the Conservative candidate, Paula Purver.
Ms Purver, 40, is a Coalville district councillor. After six weeks of successful canvassing, she was quietly confident she'd done enough, too.
After all, the prediction nationwide was that Labour was going to lose, and lose big.
And at first, it appeared that Coalville was no different to countless former Labour strongholds all over the UK.
At the Coalville count, box after ballot box spilled with voting papers marked with a Tory X.
And then, suddenly, it all seemed to change when boxes arrived from an area of Coalville, says Mr Legrys.
He said: "It's an area that has changed in recent years – areas of terraced houses bought by buy-to-let landlords, new families with three, four cars to each household, the street full of parked cars...
"I don't know. I'm not making excuses. I'm just trying to tell you how it is."
It was here, Mr Legrys now reckons, that the BNP did remarkably well.
Shortly before 2pm, returning officer Christine Fisher announced the results.
Labour was in the curious position of knowing it had lost in Coalville – but hoping, instead, that the Tories had won.
They hadn't. The BNP won by a majority of 86. Their supporters cheered loudly.
Labour supporters, Lib Dems, Tories all booed. Even some of the counters looked shell-shocked.
That night and the following day, this former mining town in north-west Leicestershire made national headlines as one of only three county council seats in the country to be won by the BNP.
For all those that didn't vote BNP – 62 per cent of the Coalville electorate who stayed at home and the 73 per cent of the people who did vote but voted for someone else – it was a dark day in the town's proud history; their town, now synonymous with a party whose leader denied the Holocaust took place (he seems to have changed his mind on this now) and who won't allow any people with a different colour skin to join their gang.
A week on, as the news has sunk in, both Labour and Conservatives admit they simply didn't take the BNP seriously.
"In all honesty, I underestimated them," admits Ms Purver. "I concentrated on beating the sitting Labour candidate.
"John Legrys had done a good job in Coalville and that's where the real battle was for me.
"It's a sad day. I'm not a born and bred Coalville girl, I came here 23 years ago. There are decent people here, people who deserve better.
"I don't think they've had a great deal to be proud of in recent years. And I can't see that this, unfortunately, will really make things any better."
Coalville and the north-west of the county is politically unique in Leicestershire, reckons De Montfort University politics lecturer Alistair Jones.
In a county that is largely well-off and Tory, this is the only traditional Labour area.
"There are pockets of Loughborough, parts of Wigston, bits of Hinckley perhaps, which are Labour, but this is the party's heartland."
But is it? It was, once upon a time, but maybe not now.
The local district council, which 10 years earlier was resolutely Labour, is now run by the Tories. The NWL Conservative Association, disorganised for so long, is now resurgent.
For the first time in at least 20 years, they have picked a local candidate to fight the forthcoming General Election. For two years running, they can boast – and are doing so, shamelessly – the lowest council tax rise in Leicestershire.
The Tories, suddenly, feel buoyant about north-west Leicestershire.
Labour, conversely, is at an all time low.
Their MP, the well-respected David Taylor, stands down at the next election.
At a local level, there are now no Labour county councillors in north-west Leicestershire and just four Labour councillors on the district council.
A decade ago, Labour held 36 of the district's 40 seats.
Their majority was so overwhelming that opposition and scrutiny came not from the Tories, who had just three seats and were rarely seen, but from rival factions inside the ruling Labour group and the media.
It was at a time when the town, through no fault of its own, was on its knees following the death of the mining industry.
Six collieries – Snibston, Desford, Whitwick, Ellistown, South Leicester and Bagworth – closed in and around Coalville in an eight-year period from 1983-1991. About 5,000 men – men with well-paid, proud jobs – were put on the dole.
Shops and pubs and businesses which relied on that industry and all that it provided went to the wall.
A community which thrived on the commodity which gave it its name was economically and then socially bereft.
From the unlikeliest of sources came a lifeline.
Local authorities applied for and largely succeeded in getting millions of pounds worth of grants from the European Union.
The money – from strange sounding bodies with unwieldy acronyms such as RECHAR I, RECHAR II and later the Government's SRB (Single Regeneration Budget) funds – poured into the council coffers.
New schemes were announced. There were feasibility studies – expensive feasibility studies – into all sorts of fancy plans, which promised much, were excitedly reported but, ultimately, delivered very little.
For all the money that came in to Coalville, there was little material improvement in the town.
Some road humps that no-one really wanted were installed in Ashby Road, one of the main routes into the town.
The town's car park was pointlessly redesigned, seemingly by someone who had never learned to drive. That was 15 years ago. It's still the same today, except now, you have to pay to park your car there to visit a 1960s shopping centre that offers the town's residents little and is crying out for a revamp.
Mr Legrys, who is now Labour leader in north-west Leicestershire, concedes that previous Labour administrations in Coalville have "made some mistakes".
Areas such as Coalville – including the former mining towns in the north where the Labour vote also collapsed – provided a rich seam of disillusionment for the BNP, says politics expert Mr Jones.
"The BNP target white, working class areas with a degree of deprivation," says Mr Jones.
"Oldham, Burnley, Barnsley. Spiritually, if not geographically, Coalville fits quite neatly into that.
"Their politics are the politics of fear. It doesn't matter if their themes are true or not, it's the way they operate.
"There is a debate to be had on immigration. But is there a problem with immigration in Coalville? I don't think there is.
"Where there is a true story – the Italian workers employed by the British oil refinery, for instance – they jump on that and make it sound typical, when the truth is, it isn't."
So is it time for the mainstream politicians to take the BNP more seriously?
Across the border in Charnwood, long-standing Labour councillor Max Hunt, says it's not.
In Loughborough, Labour didn't just cling to power in the three seats it held – it won comfortably, beating the BNP into third and fourth place.
"I don't think you need to treat the BNP seriously," says Coun Hunt. "You ask me when did I start canvassing and I'll tell you I started four years ago; going to meetings, talking to residents. We didn't take the electorate for granted. We worked hard."
Labour "could have done more" door-to-door canvassing in Coalville, admits John Legrys. They preferred instead to canvass by phone and email. Maybe, he says, that was a mistake.
Coun Hunt is sure it is. "The Labour Party in Loughborough has regenerated itself. I'm not sure it has in Coalville," he says.
"I think they should have learned the lessons of two years ago when the BNP crept on to North-West Leicestershire District Council," he says.
"We did well in Loughborough because we stuck to local issues and we worked hard for four years. My advice to Labour in Coalville is to focus on their own policies – not the BNPs."
Mr Jones disagrees. He thinks in areas such as Coalville, the BNP need to be taken seriously.
"Locally, Labour has to reconnect – but it's hard to do that when, nationally, there is so much acrimony."
Mr Legrys says it was hard to persuade people that you're a united, credible political force when ministers are walking from the Government with a grin on their face and a brooch proactively proclaiming: "Rocking the boat".
National politics loomed large over this election. Every door knocked on revealed an angry, incredulous voter complaining about greedy MPs.
"I was out canvassing before the MPs expenses story broke," says Ms Purver. "Before that, people were happy to talk about local issues. After that, it became more about MPs with their noses in the trough. It was difficult."
Ultimately, it was this scandal – perhaps more than anything else – that gave the BNP their chance, reckons Mr Jones.
"I think if you are looking to blame someone here you should blame the 70 per cent of the Coalville electorate who stayed at home and didn't vote. They gifted this election to the BNP.
"Yes, this was a unique election and people were simply fed up with the main parties. Voters were angry with the main parties and they wanted to protest."
In the run up to the election, most national newspapers, including the Mercury, ran editorials advising their readers not to vote for the BNP.
In a unprecedented move, the NUT delivered leaflets in and around Coalville urging people not to vote BNP. It was a move which played right into the party's hands, argues Mr Jones.
"I think voting BNP at this election became the ultimate protest vote," he says.
"If you're angry at the system and the establishment and what you perceive to be the same establishment telling you how you should vote, you may well rebel."
There are now three BNP councillors in England – in Coalville, Burnley and Hertfordshire.
"They have a foot in the door of these communities and I think that is a worry," says Mr Jones.
"From here, my guess is that they will look to contest more seats.
"They will need every BNP councillor to be seen to be doing a good job, and nationally their track record is that they fail to do that.
"We may well, though, start seeing them target certain areas of Leicester. That, I am sure, will be their aim although I could be wrong.
"Unfortunately, I don't think I am."
*BNP county councillor Graham Partner will be interviewed in the Mercury on Saturday.