'I COULD never understand why all those people were calling the BNP fascists. Well I do now,' says Maureen Stowe. She has broken all links with the British National Party and is now backing the fight against the fascists.
Maureen, age 65, has a message in the run-up to nationwide elections in June: 'Don't vote for them. They are not what they seem and, like me, you'll regret it.' And Maureen should know. She was elected as one of eight BNP councillors in Burnley, Lancashire, last May.
Last week she severed all contact with the BNP to sit as an independent councillor.
That Wednesday-at the same time as 2,000 people gathered for the London launch of Unite Against Fascism (see here)-she was due to make public her break from the BNP at the council meeting. But the BNP's regional organiser-a white South African-turned up at her house with three others and tried to pressure her into signing a form pledging to stick with the party. 'It was intimidation,' says Maureen. 'I was frightened. I eventually said I would sign the paper so long as they left,' she says.
'When they did, I thought, 'No, I won't be scared into this. I'm having nothing to do with them and I'm going to make my resignation public. This is the best thing I could have done. I've got a chance to do a lot of good. The following day I went as part of the council road show to the Daneshouse ward. The audience there was largely Asian. They were understandably puzzled why a BNP councillor would turn up. When the council leader announced I was a former BNP councillor who would now be sitting as an independent the cheers just went up. People put their arms around me. An older Asian man came up and said, 'You've made my night.' Now I think we can pull all the people of Burnley together to improve things for everybody. I keep asking myself how I could have been so stupid as to have anything to do with them. What's frightening is that I got elected last May without campaigning and on a BNP ticket when I had no idea what they really stand for. I worry now about the elections in June and them conning more voters.'
It's clear that much of the support Maureen got last May came from people who know her locally. She works in a local charity shop and has lived in the area all her life.
'I now think the BNP thought they could hide behind me, use me,' says Maureen. 'Everyone was so disillusioned by the council and the political parties,' she says. 'That's still true. So there's a danger the BNP can make gains. That's why I'm determined to speak out.'
MAUREEN STOWE is not a racist. She adopted a mixed-race boy who died tragically 15 years ago. The BNP only found out about that when she mentioned it at a meeting with constituents after she had been elected. She describes how before she became a councillor she and a friend had helped a Kosovan woman who faced deportation.
'The BNP really hid the racism, certainly in my presence,' she says. 'There was a lot of talk about money going into the Asian area of Daneshouse and Stoneyholme. 'I admit it seemed that way to me. But I've seen the figures and it's just not true.' 'There's an awful lot of poverty there, just as there is for white families,' says her husband Russell. 'We've none of us got nothing in Burnley.'
Maureen was never invited to the 'inner core' meetings of the BNP. 'I wasn't formally a member of the BNP.' Several events came together to convince her to disassociate herself from them. 'I went to the Red White and Blue festival last summer,' she says. 'I was only there for ten minutes on the Sunday and I didn't like what I saw. It was really nasty.'
It's around then she started to see there was a sinister core to the BNP. 'I began to see they were not interested in representing people. I know I must sound stupid to have ever gone along with them. I felt people round here were getting nothing. I suppose I turned a blind eye to what I considered the hotheads in the BNP were doing. I've woken up now. I've got a nephew who's in the TA and he was sent to Iraq. All those people killed, all those wasted lives-Iraqis and British. And all for what? For oil. Or take immigration. There are only 34 asylum seekers in Burnley. How can that be an immigration problem? People are people and we've got to come together to get the things we need.'
SINCE BREAKING from the BNP Maureen has had many people in the town congratulate her. But, while not easily intimidated, she is worried about reprisals from the BNP. 'I'm frightened they will turn really nasty,' she says. 'It's not just them coming round here. They are also quite capable of making stuff up and trying to rubbish me. But I won't be deterred.' She planned to speak this week at the organising meeting of Pendle United Against Fascism, which was launched at a brilliant 90-strong meeting in the town near Burnley last week. And she is going to speak out at other events to, as she puts it, 'make sure they don't con anyone else between now and the elections in June'.