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Laurie Penny spends afternoon with the English Defence League

Tired, hot and frustrated -- they've been drinking since breakfast.

A drunk woman in a bright yellow tabard that marks her a right-wing organiser is crying on the pavement, as a yelling man is cuffed by the police inside a closed betting shop on Minories Street. Her face is red, and she is shouting incoherently at the officers.

It's unclear why her friend broke into the bookies, but on a hot Saturday afternoon, any semblance of order or purpose is disintegrating under the September sun. Behind her, a thousand tanked-up fellow members of far-right protest group the English Defence League are shoving and screaming as they try to break through the lines of police driving them away from Aldgate, where a thousand anti-fascists and local Muslim youths are waiting for them.

As marches go -- and despite the controversial police ban, this looks very much like a diverted march -- this one sends mixed messages as the crowd wrestles its way down the side-streets. Some of the EDL members are half-naked skinheads, some are wearing football shirts, and one sports a Yarmulke; even as other members at the front of the march gave Hitler salutes, according to a journalist who was embedded with the crowd.

At least one marcher is black, and there are many women, wrapped in England flags and looking curiously at the few journalists who have dared to stay with the march after a press photographer was attacked with burning lighter fluid.

By this point, the English Defence League have been on the streets of London for several hours, are tired, hot and frustrated and have been drinking since breakfast.

Almost exactly 75 years since the British Blackshirts were prevented from marching through the East End at the battle of Cable Street, Oswald Mosley would not have approved of the bedraggled, sweaty rabble that bunches and yells as the police divert them towards the river: some of them aren't wearing any shirts at all.

They had congregated at Liverpool Street after the RMT union obstructed their arrival by closing underground stations, and were met by thousands of police and prevented from clashing with anti-fascists by mounted officers and several lines of riot police. To prevent the EDL from marching, the Home Secretary had declared a 30-day ban on all marches in the London area, neatly curtailing several other less proto-fascist demonstrations in the process, and setting a worrying precedent for the prevention of future protests.

Given that London is a tinder-box of social tension, with nights of violence and looting and clashes between rival gangs and the police fresh in everyone's memory, the immediate concern, as is so often the case in this new state of exception, was to prevent more riots. On both sides of the police lines this Saturday, I see angry, disenfranchised social groups spoiling for a fight with people they see, with varying degrees of accuracy, as alien intruders threatening their way of life.

Two or three young Asian lads appear in the alley my friend and I have just ducked into. They are far enough away to be safe while they goggle at the EDL. As soon as the march catches sight of them, they start to jeer and holler, stabbing their fingers in unison like pikes.

The EDL claim to be opposed only to the "threat" posed to society by the Islamic faith, but there is nothing at all to identify these teenagers as Muslim, nothing at all that differentiates them from some of the teenagers in the crowd, apart from the fact that they have brown skin.

"Scum, scum, scum, scum!" yell the EDL, as the boys hang back, afraid. The street is narrow, the air still, and you can feel the force of the chant on your face. The EDL really hate these boys, and it's a wild, hopeless hate, and it's not just about religion. "You're not English, you're not English, you're not English anymore!" they chant, in an ugly parody of a football song. "YOU'RE not E-e-ngli-ish a-ny-mooooore!"

Behind some railings, Connor, a sixteen-year old white boy, is standing with his mother, applauding the EDL as they go past. "I agree with them," he says. "They're the only people speaking for us."

"You're not allowed to be British in Britain anymore," says Connor's mum, who doesn't want to give her name. I ask her what she means. At first she is hostile -- "what, don't you agree with them?" -- but when I say that I'm a journalist, she visibly relaxes, almost as if she's been waiting for someone to talk to about what's really bothering her. As if the connection was obvious, she immediately launches into a diatribe about services.

"You have to fight for everything, you're fighting to get into a doctor, you're fighting to get into schools, you're fighting to get housing. You see him?" She indicates Connor, who grins. "I had to fight to get him into high school because of all the ethnics in the area. My friend, she's got six kids, she's been on the council waiting list for fifteen years, she's been in hostels, no deposit to put down to privately rent, and the council will not house her.

"Now, it's not about religion or anything, but it's like my mum says, we grew here and they flew here, so we should be first on the list. If you're going to let all these people in" -- we both know which "people" she's talking about -- "then build more hospitals, build more schools. They're closing the schools, aren't they?"

A bottle smashes into the pavement a foot in front of us. The EDL bellow at the boys disappearing down the alley, a sing-song crowd chant that bounces eerily around the bright, deserted sidestreet."Allah is a paedo! Allah is a paedo!"

"You'll be picking up your benefits on Monday morning, won't you?" hollers one man in a blue football shirt.

Clearly, this is about more than just Sharia law, whatever the EDL's leadership claim. I catch the man's eye, and he must be able to see the horror in my face, because he laughs, loud, and points at me. He feels powerful. He is with his friends. "Whose streets?" they shout, claiming the space aggressively. "Our streets!"

"Whose streets? Our streets!" chant the anti-fascists three roads away, behind a double row of police lines and riot vans. The Unite Against Fascism rally began with music and speeches, but several hours later, hundreds of activists from Tower Hamlets and the surrounding areas -- black, white and Asian; old and young, though mostly young -- are waiting for the EDL, the mood tense and frustrated under the mad glare of the afternoon sun. Prayers have finished, and the Muslim boys from the area have turned out in large numbers to defend the Whitechapel mosque.

Every so often, there is a rush into Leman Street, or another side street, and running scuffles with the police; there are some young men here who are, one suspects, more than a little disappointed that they won't get the chance to scrap with the far-right today.

There is anger here, too. There is frustration and fear, and a willingness to protect the community at all costs. Later on, a coach carrying members of the EDL is attacked as it goes through Stepney Green, its windows smashed and placards and traffic cones hurled inside by young Asian men who do not bother to cover their faces: confident, perhaps, that the retreating proto-fascists will not be able to tell them apart anyway.

Less than a month ago, when young Muslim men came out to defend their homes, mosques and places of business against the violent despair of mostly non-white rioters from the inner cities, they were lauded as heroes. Today, when young Muslim men use the same vigilante justice to defend themselves from the violent despair of a mostly-white, racist rabble, no one knows quite where to look.

On both sides of the political spectrum, politicians and policymakers have urged us to try to understand the disenfranchisement of white, far-right groups like the EDL, rather than dismissing their protests as "mindless violence".

Rioters from the inner cities, by contrast, are sent to jail for six months for stealing bottles of water; their rage at a system which does not want to educate, house or employ them written off as "pure criminality".

Behind the mounted, armoured cops, you can see St George's flags waving, and you can hear the thump and echo of smokebombs and the chanting of hate-tourists out to scrap with members of another disenfranchised community that happens to look and pray differently. The East end is in lockdown, and there are hundreds of police everywhere. The horses are spooked, and so am I.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.