CANDIDATES from both sides of the political divide have claimed the British National Party influenced a surprise win for Labour in a Benfleet by-election.

Despite a YouGov poll giving the Tories a solid 12 point lead, Labour's Brian Wilson took one of the two seats vacated by Cons- ervatives Kate and Alan Meager following their resignation from St Mary's Ward.

The Tories, however managed to cling on to the second seat thanks to their candidate, Alf Partridge, polling the most votes of the night.

But the evening belonged to Mr Wilson, who received 480 votes to become the only Labour councillor on the Conservative majority council.

He scraped in with just 21 votes more than Tory Mark Howard. Councillor Wilson said: "I will do what I can for people, but I just hope people in St Mary's Ward don't expect miracles from one person.

"It is going to be a challenge, but I am looking forward to it. The BNP presence was worrying.

"They had people coming down from all over the country delivering leaf- lets."

A 24.8 per cent turnout at the by election means around 1,000 ward residents turned out in bitter temperatures just days before Christmas to cast their two votes.

Alf Partridge, who polled 509 votes for the Tories, said: "I am very pleased to have won, but disappointed we only won one seat.

"When we were canvassing it was frightening the number of people who said they would vote for the BNP, particularly when we have no ethnic problems in Castle Point."

BNP candidate John Morgan said: "This is the first ward we have stood in and we feel it was quite a good achievement.

"We didn't expect to come first, but we were hoping to come second.

"At the end of the day we are pleased. We think we did quite well."

He revealed the party would be fielding candidates in every Castle Point ward in the forthcoming May local elections."