7 March 2008

Long Lawford and New Bilton ward by-election: another failure for the BNP

Since suffering the excision of large tracts of its administrative area in the local government reorganisation of 1974, the ancient Midland county of Warwickshire has had a distinctly odd and artificial appearance - there is nothing where Coventry, Solihull, Birmingham and their hinterlands should be.

Industrial Coventry marked something of a boundary between the two distinct parts of Warwickshire, anciently divided into Arden in the north and Feldon in the south. Coal-mining became a major (if not the major) industry of north Warwickshire, which also boasted a sprinkling of manufacturing towns such as Nuneaton and Bedworth. South Warwickshire remained largely agricultural, and is linked in the minds of most with Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare, and the beautiful rolling countryside that runs down to the Cotswolds.

East of Coventry lies Rugby, close to the borders of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire.

Apart from its famous school and large cement works, it's really quite difficult to find anything of interest to say about Rugby, which resembles the towns of the northern county more than it does those of the genteel south.

It is, though, one of those Midland towns undergoing demographic change, reflected in the fortunes of the major political parties. In 1999 the local borough council comprised 22 Labour councillors, 11 Conservatives, 7 Liberal Democrats, and 8 others, mostly independents. A steady annual decline in Labour support last year saw the Conservatives take control with 27 seats, against Labour with 11 and the Liberal Democrats on 7.

In the 1970's a small National Front group operated ineffectually in the town, allied with the larger but equally ineffectual Coventry branch. The Rugby group seems to have disappeared altogether in the NF's 1979/80 fragmentation, since when racist activity in the town has been barely detectable.

Racism has returned to Rugby twenty-eight years on in the form of the British National Party, which is running a candidate for the Long Lawford and New Bilton division of Warwickshire County Council in tonight's by-election.

New Bilton is a part of Rugby, while Long Lawford is a largish village-cum-suburb lying to the north of the main Coventry road.

New Bilton comprises a large proportion of late-Victorian terraced housing, and - though we don't have the latest figures - according to the 2001 census in occupational terms the inhabitants were roughly evenly split between those describing themselves as supervisory, management or professional and those describing themselves as skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled manual workers or similar. In 2001, census figures put the ethnic minority population at around 8% of the total, mostly comprising Asians, and the vast majority of those Hindus.

Long Lawford, for which we have no recent data (but some personal knowledge) is more obviously compartmentalised, a council estate and private developments growing around a not unattractive old village.

In the 2005 elections to Warwickshire County Council the Conservatives made some progress at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, overtaking Labour to become the largest party, but maintaining a long-standing situation in which no party has overall control.

In 2005 Long Lawford and New Bilton voted as follows (percentages in brackets):

Con 1191 (29.02)
Lab 1712 (41.72)
L-D 585 (14.25)
Ind 616 (15.01)

Safe-ish Labour territory on the surface, then, but the absence of an Independent and the intervention of the Greens and the BNP, together with government unpopularity, could well put a different complexion on matters for the defending party in the face of an aggressive Tory campaign.

Again we have a by-election falling close to general area where the BNP has obtained worryingly good results. Nuneaton and Bedworth are not far away, and it's not much further to Tamworth and the south Derbyshire/north-west Leicestershire districts that have proved so fertile for the racist party.

Long Lawford and New Bilton ward is untried turf for the BNP, but they should - given the location and its proximity to other BNP units - be capable of mounting a half-way decent campaign aimed at gaining 15-20% of the vote.

The BNP candidate is George Jones, who lives some distance away in Kenilworth, as he has done for the best part of three decades.

George has a long history in extreme right wing politics. In the late-1970's he was a member of the British Movement, then run by "Mad Milkman" Michael McLoughlin, but somehow became associated with former members of the National Party splinter group in Coventry and Warwick - notably with Michael Cole, the National Party's hyperactive (and not entirely trusted) Warwick organiser, and also with Robert Relf, the Leamington "race rebel" imprisoned for displaying a sign declaring his house for sale to "English people only".

Relf had long been associated with the British Movement and Colin Jordan (who lived in nearby Coventry), while Cole, who - like Relf - made no secret of his Nazi views, eventually found his way to Denmark to help in the running of a now forgotten Nazi organisation.

Jones, Cole and Relf were also close associates of the hardline elements within Coventry National Front, who followed John Tyndall into the BNP's New National Front predecessor.

Like most of the racists in the Coventry/Warwick area, keen rambler George had an abiding interest in all things Nazi. We feel pretty sure that if George's interest in such dubious matters is on-going then he may well have neglected to mention as much to the electors of Long Lawford and New Bilton - as he may well have neglected to mention the contents of a letter published by the Leamington Courier all those years ago, still existing as yellowed archival hard-copy, wherein George suggested that the release into the air on a favourable wind of a few grammes of a certain noxious substance would solve the problem of Third World overcrowding at a stroke.

Ho hum.

Long Lawford and New Bilton ward result:

Lab 724 (33.78)
Con 723 (33.74)
BNP 313 (14.61)
L-D 235 (10.97)
Grn 148 (6.91)

Total 2143

The result was declared following two recounts, and is clearly bad news for Labour, despite retaining the seat. On this occasion BNP intervention seems to have favoured the Tories, as much of Labour's almost 8% loss of vote share can be attributed to them (and, in smaller measure, to the Greens). There was no joy for the Liberal Democrats either, losing over 3% of their vote, while the glory days of the Greens would appear to be well and truly over.

The BNP share falls just below the bottom end of our expectations, but almost certainly very much below their own. This was an indifferent BNP performance, the only comfort for them being that of coming in ahead of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, neither of which had realistic hopes of making an impact in what for both parties is a difficult ward.

Long Lawford and New Bilton decisively rejected George Jones and the BNP, and if this result is even vaguely suggestive of the electoral possibilities open to the BNP in this area, then Rugby isn't going to go racist anytime soon.

Denise Garside

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