ONE of the Church of England's most senior clergymen last night issued a hard-hitting warning about the growing threat of far-right extremism resulting from voters "giving up hope" in mainstream politics.

In a rare move, the Bishop of Durham issued a rallying cry to North-East churches to join forces to thwart the British National Party (BNP) in the forthcoming local elections.

The Right Reverend Tom Wright, called for more to be done by political parties to stop the rise of the BNP.

In an open letter, the bishop said people could not afford to become complacent.

Last night, his warning was endorsed by all the major political parties.

But the bishop's comments were criticised by the BNP, which claimed it was only meeting the needs of ordinary people.

Dr Wright's warning came as the BNP prepared to field a record 30 candidates in the elections for a new County Durham authority.

In his letter, he writes: "The reason the BNP can even gain a foothold in people's affections is because many people in our region feel so disaffected after the last 30 years of national politics that they are in danger of giving up hope in our regular main parties."

Dr Wright has said the parties need to ask: "Why is there a vacuum there that the other parties aren't filling?

"What frustrations are there that the BNP are exploiting, and what are the wise ways of reacting to, or even meeting, those needs?"

He adds: "It is one thing to point out, as many have already done, the neo-Nazi tendencies of the BNP, and to warn with a shudder against our society even taking a small step in any such direction.

"It is another to say How can we drain the swamp so that this kind of ideology won't breed again?' "None of us can be complacent.

"Opposing the BNP isn't simply a matter of saying the status quo is working fine, so please reject these idiots'.

"It should be a matter of saying What does a healthy society look like and how can we make it clear to our whole population that we are working in the best ways towards that goal?"

Last night, Ken Booth, the North-East organiser for the BNP, said: "This is not his place at all. He should be trying to regain his flock.

"While the bishop's banging on about how evil the BNP is, he is going to find out one day that there will be more practising Muslims going to mosques than any practising churches in Britain."

Phil Wilson, the Labour MP for Sedgefield, County Durham, said: "The mainstream political parties do have a job to do to connect to the people we represent in a better way. We have a duty to get out there in our communities and talk to people and explain how we are working to address their concerns.

"It's incumbent on all of us - political parties, the churches and community groups - to maintain a united front against the extremists and to show their politics up for what it is - the politics of hate."

Michael Bates, vice-chairman of the Conservative Party in the North, said: "The bishop has raised an important issue, not just for our region, but for the country as a whole."

Tommy Taylor, the leader of the Lib Dems on Wear Valley District Council, said: "With the greatest respect to the Bishop of Durham, his job is to deal with religion, and politics should be left to politicians. It is very rare that the BNP get many votes, and in my opinion, they will never, ever be a major threat."