Down and out in Luton
The English Defence League rally on Saturday the 5th of February has been described by one left-leaning commentator as reflecting nothing more than the fading light of bigoted little Englanders. This unfair dismissal of the EDL marchers as narrow- minded bigots ignores its members real and legitimate sense of grievance.
Interviewing a number of EDL members and sympathisers at the march, I couldn’t help feeling some sympathy even if I completely disagreed with a lot of what they said. There was a hardcore group of masked marchers who looked extremely menacing but most were polite and approachable. It would be the height of intellectual laziness to dismiss Saturday’s marchers as unthinking racists. Yes, there were frankly Islamophobic undertones in much of what people said. A widespread rumour doing the rounds was that the Police was allowing Muslim paedophiles a free run. Other complaints appeared rather trivial; one Lutonian woman resented her daughter’s school serving Halal food. A twenty-something from Birmingham said he felt Muslims were ‘taking over’ and that ‘someone had to take a stand.’
At the same time, everyone I talked to stressed their anti-racist credentials. Jackie admitted to voting for the BNP yet took pains to avoid offending me, and stressing how she was happy to have her daughter’s Muslim friends visit. However, it was the marcher’s profound lack of prospects that was most striking. Many received benefits, and were extremely ashamed of the fact. As Jackie, an unemployed care worker, said to me, ‘I have worked since I was 14 but now that I am unemployed I am treated like shit.’ James, an EDL sympathiser, said that the marchers were mostly young men 'because its their future that’s bleak, there’s no good jobs around anymore.'
After the march, I met a retired prison chaplain, who was patrolling the streets so as to diffuse any tension between marchers and local Asian youth. ‘Many people here really lack self-esteem. They are acutely aware that society sees them as worthless.’ Marching with your friends, waving the English flag, evoked a sense of camaraderie, gave the marchers a sense of collective purpose, dignity and a sense of self-respect. And indeed, for many of the people I met, an inarticulate dread of Muslims and terrorism, seemed like a focal point for a deep-rooted sense of generalised frustration.
All of this seems to jar with the label ‘far right organisation’. One Sikh marcher described himself as a ‘working man’ who voted Labour. Jackie, who sympathised with the BNP was also an active member of UK UNCUT, who protest tax avoidance by large companies. These discontented working class people seemed natural allies of the left. Instead they are lazily dismissed as ‘fascist thugs’. This contempt for genuinely marginalised people seems to stem from a dissatisfaction with them being ordinary people with unrefined attitudes instead of ‘perfect victims’. It seems that, for many on the thinking left, the working class are worthy of compassion only as long as their opinions pass the muster.