The British National Party last night threw the race card into the local election battle by vowing to fight against Birmingham becoming an ethnic majority city in 2020.

Their bald statement came as it emerged up to one in four voters could support the far right at next month's poll.

The BNP claims it could win up to 24 of the 86 council seats it is contesting in the region if mainstream voters fail to turn out for the major parties on May 4.

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Simon Darby, deputy leader of the BNP and West Midlands organiser, stated his party was making this year's elections a referendum on radical Islam, specifically targeting certain areas of the West Midlands which blame unemployment and a lack of homes on a surge in illegal immigrants.

He alleged the issues facing the region were not just immigration but "the deliberate replacement of British people", which he believes will cause problems if Birmingham becomes dominated by ethnic minorities in the near future.

"The first stage is to draw attention to this, at the moment we are celebrating the fact we are eradicating the white population from the city," he added.

The BNP's decision to target the West Midlands has thrown mainstream political parties into a lobbying frenzy to stop a march to the far right.

Ian Austin, Labour MP for Dudley, said it was unlikely the BNP would win a large number of seats but said he had been working harder to ensure Labour had support.

"I think Simon Darby should stay in his detached home in Cannock and stop peddling his poison in the Black Country," he said.

"In the areas that they are targeting, the mainstream political parties have to work harder than ever before and that is what we are doing here in Dudley.

"The vast majority of local people believe support for the BNP is completely incomprehensible alongside the British values which the rest of us strive for - democracy, freedom, fairness, tolerance and equality."

The BNP will put up a record 86 candidates across the region, contesting all of the 40 seats in Birmingham, nine in Sandwell, seven in Walsall, five in Dudley, seven in Coventry and eight in Stoke-on-Trent.

Mr Darby said the party was particularly targeting Sandwell and Dudley and looking at the "Islam problem".

Walsall Council leader Tom Ansell (Con Aldridge central and south) warned apathy among voters could lead to the BNP taking a few seats. He urged main political party supporters to go out and vote.

"I think, more than ever, people should turn out and vote and show this Government that they are not prepared to sit back and take what is being offered," he explained.

"We need a change but that change is not the BNP - that would send this country back 50 years and would not make a difference whatsoever to what is already happening."

Coventry council leader Ken Taylor (Con Earlsdon) added: "It is the first time they [the BNP] have spread themselves around the city and they are standing in some wards which are dominated by ethnic minority communities. I don't anticipate they will get a large vote although they did get 1,000 votes in the Woodlands ward at the election in 2004."

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust published yesterday said up to 25 per cent of voters may support the far right as anger with the main political parties had led to increasing numbers indicating they might vote for the BNP. One of the study's authors, Professor Peter John of Manchester University, said the research suggested many people in white working-class areas felt their concerns were ignored by Labour, Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

The report followed a warning by Employment Minister Margaret Hodge that disillusioned white, working class voters were deserting Labour for the BNP.

She said that as many as eight out of ten white families in her Barking constituency in east London admitted that they were tempted to vote BNP in forthcoming council elections.