What has Luton done to deserve a visit from Esther Rantzen? On a bright Sunday afternoon, the relentlessly chirpy television presenter is gliding around the town centre in a floppy hat, mingling with the crowd at a Love Music Hate Racism concert. There are two reasons why she is here. One is the parliamentary expenses scandal, which led her to stand as a celebrity “anti-sleaze” candidate for the Luton South seat of the disgraced Labour MP Margaret Moran. The other is the rising tension after a series of racist incidents, which campaigners are working hard to contain.
As Rantzen takes the stage to make a speech, Geoff Webb, one of the concert’s organisers, tells me about the local response to the event. “It’s brought all sorts of new people into activism. Some got involved for the music, but they’re getting more and more interested in the political side of things.” Rantzen approaches the microphone. “We love you, Luton South,” she shouts cheerily. “This is Luton North,” replies an onlooker – an inaccurate but devastating heckle. “Have you ever been to Luton before?” Webb asks me. He adds, half-jokingly: “If you say ‘only to the airport’, I’ll kill you.”
Luton, it is fair to say, has an image problem. A former industrial town situated on the edge of the Home Counties, it has long been looked down on by its well-to-do neighbours. Its diverse population is the story of postwar British immigration in miniature: from the 1950s onwards, successive waves of workers – Irish, Caribbean, Asian, African, eastern European – have made this place their home. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, its large south Asian Muslim population (30,000 in a town of 184,000) has been under intense scrutiny, and particularly so since Luton-based Islamic extremists were alleged to have been involved in the 2005 London Tube bombings.
The writer Sarfraz Manzoor, whose book Greetings from Bury Park chronicles his formative experiences as the child of Pakistani immigrants to Luton, tells me that his home town has an “unenviable” reputation. “In my lifetime it has gone from being a town that others mocked to one that is feared. The reputation as a hotbed of fundamentalism doesn’t represent the Luton I grew up in or the town to which I return. Luton is unashamedly working class; it is also deeply uncool. It is an easy target for the media because it doesn’t answer back.”
Now Luton is in the news once more, for all the wrong reasons. In March, the town made headlines when a homecoming parade by soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment was picketed by a handful of radical Islamists. They were confronted by members of the crowd who had come to cheer the soldiers on and a few scuffles broke out. Later that day, the mayor of Luton, Lakhbir Singh – a Sikh by religion – was attacked by a white youth angry at the parade protest. On 24 May, a protest march, nominally against Muslim extremism, turned violent as men wearing balaclavas and England football shirts rioted and began to attack Asian residents. Since then, various anti-Islam groups have tried to hold marches through the town, only to be dissuaded by the police. On 20 August, the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, announced a three-month ban on unauthorised demonstrations.
It would seem that Luton has all the ingredients for race riots on the scale of those in Oldham or Bradford in 2001. A report in the Sunday Times on 14 June titled “Fear and hatred on the streets of Luton” wondered if the town would ever find peace. In March, the London Evening Standard described the place as “a breeding ground for militants”. And there is no doubt who might try to make capital from this argument: the British National Party leader Nick Griffin told the Times on 10 August that Luton was a “tinderbox”.
Yet the nightmare scenario – multiculturalism and its failings come home to roost, as Griffin might have it – has not so far materialised. That’s not for want of trying on the part of groups such as the English Defence League, the most prominent actor in the May riot. Tom Woodson, a Luton-based activist with the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, describes the league and its associates as a “loose coalition” of far-right activists, Islamophobes and football hooligans from around the country. The league promised a summer of anti-Islam marches around Britain, but its attempts faltered in Birmingham on 8 August, when only 70 people turned up to a planned rally and were driven off by a much larger counter-demonstration. The league is currently regrouping: a planned march in Luton on 19 September is what provoked the Home Secretary’s ban.
Co-opting a tactic used by the National Front in the 1970s, the far right is trying to manipulate groups of football supporters. A possible link with the BNP emerged when a website purporting to represent the league was set up by a BNP activist, though both groups were quick to deny any connection. Woodson offers an explanation for the involvement of local hooligans: “Luton Town FC has taken a dip over the past year. They’ve been relegated from the football League and there’s a sense among hooligans that they want to prove themselves. So, you know, this ends right up in the psychiatrist’s chair.”
Like many Lutonians I speak to, Woodson bristles at the suggestion that his town has a particular problem with racism. “Most people in Luton just want to get on with their lives. A few aren’t happy with that, and they’re given prominence by a gullible media. In fact, Luton is a well-integrated town.”
The council leader, Hazel Simmons, echoes this view. “Papers like the Sun are constantly targeting Luton, whether it’s factual or not. The real Luton is an example of where multiculturalism works. The town is tolerant; it tries to work together.” Simmons points to Luton’s annual carnival, which attracts 180,000 visitors a year and rivals its better-known counterpart in Notting Hill, as evidence that the town is comfortable with its ethnic mix. Unlike Oldham or Bradford, there is no history of segregation. The council has never tried to house immigrants in a single area, and the town’s schools are ethnically mixed, by and large.
A healthy local political culture also makes a huge difference. Unlike Stoke-on-Trent, from where I reported in May, Luton has an active Labour Party. Nor has it become dominated by middle-class career politicians. Kelvin Hopkins, Labour MP for Luton North since 1997, has spent three decades working in the town. Unlike his Labour colleague Moran, Hopkins has come through the expenses scandal well, winning praise for his frugal approach to parliamentary allowances. When we meet in his constituency office, his aides are preparing invitations to a summer barbecue for local party members.
“In Luton we’ve always had to fight for every vote,” Hopkins tells me. “And we’ve worked at it, knocking on doors, telephone canvassing, turning up to meetings.” In 2007, a BNP candidate stood for a council seat in the Farley ward of town, but a sustained leafleting campaign by Labour, Liberal Democrat and anti-racist activists kept the party out of power. The local Labour Party has also made great efforts to engage all sections of the community. At present, 17 of Luton’s 26 Labour councillors are from ethnic minorities: a level of engagement, says Hopkins, that stretches back to the 1970s.
He also points out that the town’s most pressing problems are economic, rather than social. The Vauxhall car plant, which once employed 28,000 people, closed in 2002. A smaller factory, IBC Vehicles, remains, but the 1,500 jobs it provides are now under threat from the break-up of its parent company, General Motors. “Luton has been lucky, because we’re in the south-east and we’re able to absorb unemployment more quickly than elsewhere in the country. But now the bubble’s burst, Luton could have serious long-term problems if we don’t look to generating employment.”
The Labour hierarchy has been working locally to save jobs – Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business, made a recent visit to the IBC plant in an attempt to convince its owners to keep it open – but Hopkins does not feel the town has benefited substantially from 12 years of New Labour. In particular, he found Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” speech a troubling development.
“The fact that it has been used by racists is very disturbing,” says the MP. “There was a fear that the white working class was moving away from Labour. But there is a whole series of policies Labour could adopt that would attract the whole of the working class – white, black or brown.
“[The speech] disguised New Labour’s absolute commitment to neoliberal capitalism. Brown, Blair and Mandelson were all about promoting neoliberalism, dissolving the state, unpicking the postwar settlement and letting the market rule. To make that speech, when your whole strategy is about free markets, is a contradiction in itself.”
On the streets of Bury Park, where many of Luton’s Asians live, business owners are working hard to keep their heads above water during the recession. Tanher Ahmed, co-owner of Coffee Pot, tells me what inspired him to set up the town’s first fair-trade café last year. “We wanted to help other countries, other peoples.” He is proud of his town, too. “Luton’s a nice place to live. It’s a place with strong communities, strong families. People from all over the world come to live here.”
For Bury Park’s Muslims, the events of recent months are just the latest in a series of attacks on their beleaguered community, from within and without. The right-wing groups trying to march through the town might claim to be standing
up to Islamic “extremism”, but the people who have done the most to confront it on their streets are in fact Luton’s own Muslims. On 29 May, there was an angry confrontation in Bury Park as a crowd of residents chased away a dozen extremists who were trying to set up stall on the high street, shouting: “We don’t want you here.”
When I ask Ahmed about the incident, he is forthright in his opinion. “There are a few people trying to give Muslims a bad name. These people come from outside and they make trouble here. They’re not local.” Fiaz Hussain, a university lecturer and representative of the Luton Council of Mosques, agrees. “What makes me proud of the Muslim community in Luton is that they’ve been under the spotlight for several years now and yet, despite the efforts of a tiny minority, we do exactly what everybody else does,” Hussain says. “We wake up in the morning and go
to work, take the kids to school. We are good neighbours [like] anyone else.”
No one in Luton denies the terror threat posed by small groups of Islamists, which is widely documented, but Sarfraz Manzoor stresses that it is important to separate this from what goes on in the wider community. “I accept that Luton has its share of issues. It is not a pretty place; its Muslims often live insular and unintegrated lives. But the best way to counter that is not to demonise the town, but to unpeel the reasons for why it has the reputation it has.”
Hopkins has a similar attitude. “People change over time,” the MP says. “There is a parallel with the Irish Catholic community and their integration into Britain. If you go back 40 years, there was deep prejudice against Irish Catholics; many of them felt very alien in this non-religious country that had dominated and brutalised them over the previous century. Over time, they’ve totally relaxed, particularly since the Good Friday Agreement. Now we have a Luton Irish forum, [and] a St Patrick’s Day parade in the town. It’s fantastic. But you couldn’t imagine that happening 30 or 40 years ago.”
That view is not a vote-winner, nor is it likely to shift many newspapers. But for towns like Luton, it might just be their best hope.
Some names have been changed