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British Jobless Pose...
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Far-right politicians in Britain are ready to tap into the misery of millions forced into the ranks of the unemployed during the recession, and are learning new tactics from allies across Europe.
While many voices are raised in support of more left-wing social democracy to counter the unfettered capitalism blamed for the financial crisis, the paradox is that extreme far-right groups may be the beneficiary, as in the 1930s Depression years.
Immigration is rising up the political agenda in Britain, where energy workers staged protests earlier this year about the use of imported foreign labour.
Polls show opinion turning against foreigners who are seen as unwelcome competition for ever more scarce jobs, wages, and social services -- and the far-right British National Party (BNP) is poised to feed on any unrest.
"In terms of support for the far-right, recession is certainly a major factor," said Dr Matthew Goodwin, a research fellow in political science at Manchester University.
"This is an absolutely critical moment. We're in the midst of an economic recession, there are record levels of public concern over immigration, the mainstream parties are pretty much crowding each other out in the centre ground -- and that leaves a lot of space on the fringes of the political spectrum."
Experts say there is now greater cross-border cooperation between far-right parties in Europe which could boost those -- like the BNP -- who lag behind.
The BNP has no representation at national level but its local council strength is growing and it has one seat on the high-profile London Assembly government of the capital.
It now has its eye on elections in June for the European Parliament where its leader, Nick Griffin, and others hope to become its first elected members of the parliament -- a feat it may manage with times ripe for anti-immigration rhetoric.
The political risk posed by ever-decreasing employment opportunity was highlighted by a poll this week which showed that most people in major European countries believe unemployed immigrants should be asked to leave.
The FT/Harris poll published by the Financial Times showed more than three-quarters Britons want the government to send home any immigrants who do not have jobs.
Data this week showed unemployment soaring over 2 million, meaning 6.5 percent of the workforce has no job. Howard Archer, chief European economist at Global Insight in London, described the data as "truly awful" and predicted unemployment would "head up towards 3 million pretty rapidly over the coming months" as the recession deepens.
The FT/Harris poll was seized on by the BNP, which said on its Web site that Britain's "ruling establishment" had been "terrified out of its wits" by the findings which support a BNP policy to banish jobless immigrants.
Such responses prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the political risk posed by the 1930s Great Depression, says Oxford University politics professor Vernon Bogdanor.
"The tendency now is for people to say that if it wasn't for the foreigners, we'd have jobs -- and of course they said that , in the 1930s about Jews," he told Reuters. "It's a very worrying phenomenon."
Goodwin said the BNP, which opposes EU membership and wants strict limits on immigration, has learnt from the relative success of the far-right in France and Italy, where the National Front and the National Alliance worked hard to focus on local issues that matter to ordinary people and shed the extremist images to re-brand themselves as "legitimate political actors".
The BNP too has sought to move beyond a single-issue anti-immigrant stance and broaden its support by offering a wider range of policies -- from health to defence to transport.
As a result it has seen steadily rising support in recent years, gaining around 50 of the some 20,000 seats on local councils in England -- mainly in areas where it successfully tapped into local discontent with housing and services, exploiting tension in ethnically diverse communities.
Professor Ted Cantle of the Institute for Community Cohesion political think-tank, describes the rate of growth in support as "alarming" and says the party is "on the threshold" of electoral success in European elections.
"In the year 2000 local elections they got about 3,000 votes for a handful of candidates, but that had grown to about 300,000 votes for around 650 candidates by 2008," he told Reuters.
"I still don't think the far-right in Britain is going to reach the kind of proportions we see in other parts of Europe," he added. "But at the European elections, where there is proportional representation, there is a real risk that they are going to succeed in winning seats."
In France, Austria and Italy, far-right anti-immigrant parties have at times secured 10-20 percent of the national vote -- way beyond the performance of the BNP. But it is now importing their successful tactics into Britain.
"In terms of tactics and strategy, there are now more commonalities between these parties -- in particular the way in which they try to take root in local communities," said Goodwin.
The key to the success of the BNP will be its ability to embellish and capitalise on a recession-heightened sense of "ethnic competition" for ever more scarce employment and housing resources, he added.