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Why do white working class people turn to the far right?

Hsiao-Hung Pai's Angry White People asks what draws people to organisations such as the English Defence League - and finds a long-felt disaffection.

In an attempt to identify the roots of the sympathies in the UK for the far-right movement, Hsiao-Hung Pai has gone out and spoken to many “angry white people”. She has visited some of the British towns most badly ravaged economically in recent decades, several of whose populations have changed rapidly as a result of immigration. In the course of her journey, most strikingly in Luton – where the English Defence League (EDL) was founded in 2009 – Hsiao-Hung finds not only anger among residents at their present predicament, but also resentment and fear.

This book is a timely one, coming as it does after a few months when Europe has shown itself increasingly intolerant of immigrants. People fleeing the conflict in Syria have been turned away from a cluster of Balkan countries. Meanwhile, in Germany, which has admitted over a million refugees in the past year alone, the movement known as PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) continues to grow in prominence.

It is reductive to dismiss every concern about immigration as racist. Many of the worries voiced in Angry White People come from self-employed British workers who find their rates undercut by foreign professionals who can afford to charge far less for their labour. Yet it is also notable that the EDL, the main focus of Hsiao-Hung’s investigation, does have a significant racist element. And as the British National Party is in sharp decline, with only a few hundred members left, the emergence of the EDL is of particular interest.

Tommy Robinson (born Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) left the EDL in 2013, citing his disappointment that the group he had founded was falling prey to far-right extremism. Given his previous pronouncements, however, this was as disingenuous as setting fire to one’s own curtains and then complaining that the lounge is burning. Robinson tells Hsiao-Hung that the grooming of children for sexual abuse is “specifically Muslim . . . It is a Muslim problem,” glossing over child abuse in the Catholic Church. It is Robinson’s selectiveness that makes his prejudice so dangerous. It is entirely legitimate to be concerned about the violence wreaked by religious supremacists such as those who murdered the British soldier Lee Rigby in a London street. The problem comes when this murderous ideology is ascribed to a whole group of people.

Robinson has more recently joined forces with PEGIDA, a movement with a far larger platform than the EDL. It seems that Robinson, rather than retracting his earlier positions, was merely seeking a bigger stage to promote them.

Hsiao-Hung skilfully draws out the sense of abandonment by mainstream politicians that has led some people to support the EDL and others to favour the UK Independence Party. Although Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, has often made pronouncements that can reasonably be construed as discriminatory, his party still won almost four million votes in the 2015 general election. One reason for this is expressed by Martin, a forklift driver who, since being laid off by Ford in August 2013, has barely been able to find work. “I’ve always been Labour, I’m a working-class man,” he tells Hsiao-Hung.

“But since Tony Blair’s New Labour, I became fed up with them . . . It’s not a working-class party any more. The Tories are for the rich, and the Liberals would sleep with anyone, we’ve got no one. Ukip’s offering a solution at the moment. I’m not saying they could run the country. But they’re saying what needs to be said.”

Hsiao-Hung’s work could form a useful basis for policy formation. A big issue is the lack of a satisfactory minimum wage in the UK, which allows unscrupulous employers to exploit cheap labour. (Farage, incidentally, has been opposed to this practice.) The author also highlights the scant investment in facilities for young people. On a visit to Luton, she notes that “the lack of venues for social education is the one thing that every parent seems to talk about here”.

Some might argue that these observations are not particularly new, and that it is this long-felt disaffection with the political elite that is building much of the momentum behind candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States. Yet the facts are no less powerful for being restated, and Hsiao-Hung does that very well here. If the book has any shortcomings, it is in paying insufficient attention to the role of Anjem Choudary, so often Robinson’s sparring partner in the media. Hsiao-Hung interviews Choudary, whose work with the Islamist group al-Muhajiroun has been described by the anti-racist Hope Not Hate as “a gateway to terrorism”. It would have been helpful if she had taken him more firmly to task on this score, but she seems largely to accept his line that his efforts exist solely in response to the ills of British foreign policy. Choudary’s trial on charges of promoting Islamic State suggests that there is far more to his views than that.

The most crucial perspective in the book is arguably that of Darren, who was key to the formation of the EDL but was then horrified to be called a racist when he protested with the league in Birmingham. Darren, who marched against the National Front several years ago, has latterly become far more critical of EDL activities. (Although the league has seemingly been marginalised since Tommy Robinson’s departure, its underlying philosophy remains prominent; one of the men whom Hsiao-Hung interviews – a Ukip voter – observes: “Ukip’s just EDL with briefcases.”) If the advance of the far right is to be reversed, it is Darren’s viewpoint, by turns downcast and optimistic, that must be considered most carefully by politicians, journalists and society at large. “They [white, working-class people] are not overnight racists . . . They’re good, hard-working people,” Darren says. “These splinter groups are capitalising on the one in ten. Working-class communities got it really hard, you know. Most people are still trying to hold on to what is right.”

Angry White People: Coming Face-to-Face With the British Far Right by Hsiao-Hung Pai is published by Zed Books (384pp, £12.99)

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition