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.

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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 appears in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war