The ominously named English Defence League have, in the past year, been travelling the country holding street demonstrations with the stated purpose of "opposing Islamic extremism". The fortunes of the EDL have been in direct opposition to the decline in the fortunes of the British National Party, who, while receiving a total of 500,000 votes in the recent general election, had expected to do considerably better; and have, in recent times, been plagued by factionalism and splits - not to mention a disillusionment of more hardcore elements over the party's decision to allow Black and Asian membership.
The EDL seem to have appeared from nowhere. Representing a diverse mix ranging from football hooligans, unemployed and working class youths, seasoned far-right activists, and even a smither of (allegedly) gay rights protesters at one rally, the EDL have come onto the scene to fill the void left by a political mainstream who long ago vacated the electoral territory of the white working class. A specifically protest orientated grouping, thus far the EDL has not engaged with electoral politics.
Worryingly, Nick Lowles, of Searchlight, has said: “What we are seeing now is the most serious, most dangerous, political phenomenon that we have had in Britain for a number of years. With EDL protests that are growing week in, week out there is a chance for major disorder and a major political shift to the right in this country.”
A recent undercover Guardian report highlighted plans by the EDL to hit racially sensitive areas over the summer months, including Bradford and Tower Hamlets, raising the spectre of a repeat of the race riots that plagued the North of England in 2001; and leaving the chilling prospect of far-right activists of all stripes descending en masse upon Bradford's large Asian communities during the August Bank Holiday weekend.
"Since the last major riot, many shops have moved out, businesses have collapsed, and jobs have been lost. The Odeon Cinema is rotting away, and half the city has become one massive hole in the ground. Only last week, another Yorkshire Ripper-style mass murderer “the Crossbow Cannibal” was arrested for murdering prostitutes. Black, white or Asian, impoverished long-suffering Bradfordians just want to get on their lives in peace, not suffer the mother of all race riots."
Bradford South Labour MP, Gerry Sutcliffe has said: "We support legitimate protest but this is not legitimate, it is designed to stir up trouble. The people of Bradford will want no part of it.”
If he really believes, or is attempting to imply, that the EDL do not have widespread support in white working-class households, then to describe him as politically naive would be over-generous. It is perhaps indicative of the sense of denial inside the Labour Party at the disillusionment felt by so many of their traditionally "core" voters; and he ignores at his peril the historical susceptibility of the working classes to race-based demagoguery when a vacuum is left by the abandonment of their traditional defenders inside the Labour movement.
One issue, discussion of which has all too commonly been dismissed as "racist", that the EDL have cottoned onto, is the creeping and unopposed return of religion to the public sphere in the form of Sharia and the repressive Burka, shamefully ignored by the Guardian-reading chatterati who, as it happens, don't live in those areas that harbour the fractured communities of unemployed British youth living directly alongside burka-wearing woman and Muslim communities. It is this lacerating sense, so keenly felt, that every other group in Britain is indulged while the white working class are dismissed as kebab eating, Stella drinking "chavs": the only group in British society who cannot dance/parade/swagger through the streets on a parade to celebrate an accident of birth (sorry, one's culture) without being immediately written off as beyond the pale. The social networking site Facebook was recently awash with groups speculating that the England football shirt had been "banned" from public places due to the potential offence it may cause ethnic minorities. While untrue and ridiculous, the perception held by so many that this really was true says a lot about the contempt with which great swathes of society feels they are held by the ruling classes.
The gradual journey of the Labour Party away from an alternative economic model has coincided with their championing of the notion that one's race, gender, ailment, or even sexual preference, qualifies one for the adoption of the over-used term "progressive". It becomes rather easy to see how a member of the urban poor might feel somewhat distant from those whom, claiming to represent "progressive" opinion, need only utter the sacred phrase "speaking as a ....." while expectantly assuming that their hide, sexuality, or disability will act as the only needed qualification in and of itself. That the only people seemingly speaking for them and who look and sound like them sometimes hold a sinister agenda and deeply unpleasant racist views is unimportant when viewed through the prism of identity politics - all they in fact need is to be "speaking as a white working class male". Identity politics works both ways.
The disappearance of manufacturing and job stability smashed the post-war consensus built upon the idea of full employment and the "working community" - i.e. factory and pub life coexisting side by side. All that remains is a periphery of low skilled, poorly paid jobs that offer little in the way of pride and less in the way of job security. Significance no longer comes through work and the only meaning left is felt through patriotism and the love of one's country: something which feels increasingly threatened by the decline in the importance of the nation state, the decline in Britain's standing in the world, and the increasing insecurity generated by capitalism's global context - which brings with it the mass movement of capital and the mass movement of ever cheaper labour. Mass immigration from inside the European Union and an unwillingness to integrate by many of those coming from outside the EU results in a toxic mix of alienation and poverty, both cultural and financial - the ideal and most fertile soil in which the seed of far-right politics is free to germinate.
Is the most sensible way to confront a group such as the EDL to write-off a generation of working class youth as "Nazi scum"?; and to scoff and intellectually defecate on the soft, football supporting patriotism, group solidarity and desire for "real work" that probably occupies the minds ot the majority of EDL members? Or is it possible to robustly confront the racism and anti-Asian bigotry (I won't use the silly term "Islamophobia") at the forefront of the EDL, while also seeking to provide real jobs and a route out of poverty and an all-together crap life by offering something more substantial than bingo and the lottery in those places where the EDL and BNP gather the greatest support?
As the EDL becomes more mainstream it may well fracture into disparate groupings. Or, unless something is done about the profound sense of alienation felt by so many at not just the bottom, but the lower middle as well (historically the base of fascism), there may be something more than a few fights in Whetherspoons on match day to contend with - by which time those most enthusiastic advocates of both the ruthless free market and multiculturalism will be safely enclosed in their gated communities, - while both of those groupings whom the labour movement always claimed to represent: the poor and ethnic minorities, will suffer the real consequences of dithering inaction and an unwillingness to confront a potentially nightmarish situation in the here and now through fear of what are trivial by comparison short-term consequences.