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14 February 2023

Knowsley anti-asylum riot: “If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere”

In the aftermath of violent protests at a hotel housing refugees, the outskirts of historically left-wing Liverpool are polarised.

By Jonny Ball

Knowsley circles around the eastern outskirts of Liverpool. Though it is technically a separate borough from the city, people will describe themselves as Scousers here without raising eyebrows among those living in the city proper, who guard their civic identity jealously. Liverpool Football Club’s training ground and academy are here, and many a Merseyside childhood will include memories of being driven around Knowsley Safari Park, in the ancestral estate of the Earl of Derby, hoping the monkeys would climb onto the windscreen.

Last Friday (10 February) the area appeared in national headlines when an anti-migrant protest outside the Suites Hotel ended in serious violence. A police van was smashed with sledgehammers and burnt. Fireworks were thrown and 15 people were arrested. About 150 counter-protesters also attended, but were outnumbered and had to be protected by police.

Patriotic Alternative, a group founded by a former BNP activist and known for hosting “White Lives Matter”-themed hikes through the Peak District, had been leafletting local housing estates in the days before the incident. “Five star hotels for migrants whilst Brits freeze,” flyers read.

Key to igniting the demonstrations was a video that had been shared on social media, allegedly showing one of the hotel’s residents asking for the contact details of a 15-year-old girl. The man in question was arrested “in a different part of the country” before being released without charge. Refugees staying at the Suites told the Post, a local news site, that the individual in question had left that hotel in January. Nonetheless, a common refrain heard at Friday’s riot was that the police were “rats protecting the nonces”.

“It doesn’t take long for that sort of story to get blown out of proportion,” a sceptical taxi driver told me on the way to the hotel. “Look at the mix you’ve got in L8” – that’s one of the most ethnically diverse postcodes in the city – “it’s like minestrone soup! And they all get along great!”

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He jokes about some local folklore – the urban legend that Liverpool’s melting pot once included Adolf Hitler, who is said to have lived in the city for a few months. “If we can have him, we can have anyone! One of the girls in Concert Square must have said something that upset him because then he went back to Germany and bombed the hell out of us.”

[See also: What politicians don’t understand about asylum seekers]

The Suites, however, is far from L8. It sits on the intersection of a busy motorway and A-road and has housed refugees for the last year. There’s a housing estate on the other side of the teeming dual carriageway, but the hotel itself is in the north end of an industrial area, all portakabins, warehouses, hauliers, packaging centres and logistics.

Near the hotel itself it’s difficult to find anyone on foot, let alone who wants to discuss the protests or the far-right’s presence in Knowsley. Two journalists from the BBC and Guardian stop to ask if I live locally – they’re on a similar mission.

“We can’t get away from the fact that the rhetoric that the right-wing media and right-wing organisations are peddling is infiltrating working-class, traditionally left-wing communities,” said Kai Taylor, a Green Party councillor for a neighbouring Knowsley ward. A “rent-a-mob” fascist contingent played their part in the demonstration, he said, “but in no way did they make up the vast majority of the numbers”. In other words, their message is being adopted by others.

It’s true, Liverpool has long viewed itself as a left-wing city – there are no Tory councillors here, and any right-of-centre candidates are glad to keep their deposits in general elections, never mind win seats. There’s also a strong anti-fascist tradition. Oswald Mosley was chased out of the city and knocked unconscious by a flying brick in the 1930s. More recently the English Defence League has been outnumbered by huge counter-protests. A march this Saturday through the city centre will send solidarity to migrants at the Suites Hotel and elsewhere, and is likely to dwarf Friday’s protests.

Yet Liverpool’s leftish image has always contained an element of the “traditional”, “no-nonsense”, “old working class”, even “anti-woke”. These can be more receptive to anti-migrant messaging than people might imagine. It’s a politics based more on a popular anti-establishment, anti-elitist attitude than a fully-formed, committed internationalism. In the 1980s radicals on the council, who did much to solidify Liverpool’s bolshie reputation, distinguished themselves from the London-based “loony left”, which they said was obsessed with “black mayors and gay rights”. Instead, they claimed to simply be interested in building homes and creating jobs. The socialist council had a fraught relationship with the black community.

About a mile from the Suites Hotel is Knowsley village. There are smart old cottages, a rural-looking pub, a parish church and green fields. It’s not the type of place where you would imagine the far right making inroads into poor estates. But this is only an affluent pocket: Knowsley vies with Liverpool for second or third place in the deprivation rankings of England’s 350 local authorities. The borough has the lowest earnings in the Liverpool City Region, far lower than the national average. The working age population is in decline as younger people leave the area to seek jobs or a buzzier nightlife in the larger, more diverse Liverpool or elsewhere.

One man was waiting at a bus stop in the village. He was on his way back from work at a fruit-packing company nearby. “The immigrants in the hotel were taking pictures of school kids,” he told me. This is unverified, but the rumour mill is running at full force. “I’ve got four daughters, so I was disgusted.” He asked why people in the town centre were homeless while asylum seekers were housed in hotels. “With all this cost of living, we’ve got families struggling with leccy and gas and we’re giving [migrants] all this support.”

Another passer by, who worked for a local shipping company, said he had heard workmates talking about the protests. “Ninety per cent” of them were against the migrants, he claimed.

But not everyone was of the same mind. A woman on her way to work said that yesterday her colleagues (“not people I’d call friends”) expressed support for the riots. But she thought “racism is a massive element” of what had happened. “The refugees have got to go somewhere,” she said.

[See also: Child asylum-seekers are caught between the Home Office and cash-strapped councils]

In the taxi back to Liverpool the driver said that many of the hotel’s residents were Afghans who had worked with the British military before the Taliban regained control of the country in 2021. He was sympathetic. If it were him, he wouldn’t have stayed in Afghanistan had he been working with the British. “Your head would be used as a football. They don’t mess around, those boys.”

Misinformation had been rife in the run-up to Friday’s disturbances, said Taylor. Whispers had spread through Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Some had said the police were “too woke” to do anything about supposed bad behaviour from refugees. “That’s absolute insanity,” he said, but he added that “the right-wing stuff” is influential, getting people on side and drawing them in.

“If a place like Liverpool, traditionally a very welcoming place for refugees and an unwelcoming place for the far right, if a place like here can embrace right-wing ideas then absolutely anywhere can.”

[See also: The New Statesman’s migration tracker]

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