How the EDL has exploited a murder

Daniel Trilling reports on the far-right rally at Downing Street on Bank Holiday Monday.

Beneath the rigid gaze of Viscount Alanbrooke, whose statue looks across Whitehall to Downing Street, a dozen English Defence League members face a shouting crowd of anti-fascist protesters. Kevin Carroll, a co-leader of the EDL, steps down towards the crowd and taunts them, arms outstretched, making little come-on-then gestures with his fingers. Dressed in a dark suit, he's smiling. It's the EDL's self-image in miniature: relishing the abuse, pretending to be the underdog, when in fact there are a thousand or so supporters around the corner whose islamophobia is nourished by a steady drip-feed from the right-wing press and the posturing of politicians.

Mouthing silently, Carroll mimics the taunts thrown at him. Racist scum? I'm a racist? You're the racists. It's a common refrain whenever the views or the actions of the EDL are challenged; its ideology sits on that fault line in our culture where islamophobia has flourished. How often we hear the question "how can this be racism? Islam is a religion not a race," even though race is not a scientific category but a discredited 19th century biologist's term, and seemingly ignorant of the racism that has been directed by whites, at whites - Irish, Jewish, eastern European - in this country's not-too distant history.

The trigger for the EDL's mobilisation is clear: the appalling murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, and the shock it caused, has breathed new life into their moribund movement. Since 22 May there has been a surge of interest in the EDL online. Most of this won't translate into physical support, but a demonstration in Newcastle on Saturday drew around 1,500 supporters, and a slightly smaller number have turned up on Downing Street this Bank Holiday Monday. It's been mirrored by a backlash against Muslims: the charity Faith Matters has reported a spike in violent and verbal abuse; at least ten mosques around the UK have been attacked, some with petrol bombs. In that sense, the many who argue that these two violent extremisms feed off one another are correct. But anti-Islam feeling is shared by more than just those on the far-right: a poll by YouGov, published in the Observer on Sunday, suggested that the percentage of people who believe Islam is a threat to democracy had risen to 34 per cent. It was already at 30 per cent the last time the poll was taken, in November 2012.

The smile disappears from Carroll's face as a group of anti-fascist protesters lift up a metal barrier he thought had been keeping him safe, and rush towards him. Carroll looks scared: it's a moment, an onlooker says to me later, when perhaps a thought flashes through Carroll's mind that this confrontation, this hatred, isn't worth it. He retreats, to the safety of Viscount Alanbrooke - the irony of a far-right extremist, however patriotic he might believe himself to be, sheltering beneath the statue of a Second World War commander, is not lost on some.

It's only a small victory for the anti-fascists - in fact, they are outnumbered by about two to one. Eventually the police will escort the EDL crowd to their rallying point on Whitehall, before allowing them to filter off into the West End. Nevertheless, the EDL remains as unpopular as ever with the general public, even if its supporters have found a new enthusiasm in the past week. Some 84 per cent polled by YouGov said they would "never join" the group - a 7-point increase from last November. Help for Heroes, the charity that provides aid to injured servicemen and women, has rejected donations from the EDL.

But the EDL's heavy symbolism - the St George's flags, the militarism, the often repeated claim that "there's one law for us and another for them" - and their use of violence and intimidation to elbow their way into the national media finds a resonance well beyond its size. How long before a demagogue like Nigel Farage - whose own party is experienced at playing on islamophobia when it suits - tells us to vote for him, to do something about Muslims who "won't integrate", in order to keep the EDL at bay? He's already made similar claims with regards to immigration and the BNP. How will mainstream politicians react if the disillusionment echoed by supporters of right-wing populist movements, whether they're street-based or election-focused, continues to deepen? Extremism of this sort is what fills a vacuum: when people feel ignored and that, for whatever reason, they have no political voice.

Later, the EDL's figurehead, "Tommy Robinson", a tanning-shop owner from Luton whose real name is Stephen Lennon, will give a speech to his elated supporters. "They've had their Arab Spring," he says, with only a touch of Alan Partridge about it. "Now let's have an English Spring." It's not particularly original - the French hard right have used something similar during their recent protests against gay marriage - but it's strikingly ambiguous. The Arab Spring, after all, was an uprising of people whose democratic rights had been denied. Could that at all be true in Britain? It's an urgent question. Without a doubt, though, the EDL is the wrong answer.

EDL supporters shout slogans at the rally. Photograph: Getty Images

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Is our obsession with class propping up the powerful?

Lynsey Hanley’s memoir Respectable: the Experience of Class attacks the sharp-elbowed bourgeoisie – but society will only be transformed by building coalitions between the middle and working classes.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism