When the Left Abandons Workers, They Are Easy Prey For the Right
28 June 2018
How did immigration become such a flashpoint in British politics and the EU referendum? An anthropological study of the English Defence League finds that the abandonment of working-class communities by the Left allows right-wing scapegoating to flourish.
Social scientific research projects often give experienced researchers small surprises, but big surprises are rare. Whilst researching the English Defence League (EDL), a white nationalist protest group regarded by many as an Islamophobic hate-group, my colleagues and I got two rather big surprises as the minutiae of its general perspective and hierarchy of prejudices began to crystallise. The EDL is not an organised political group with a history, a moral centre, a specific ideology or a policy programme but a street protest group. Like many of their antagonists on the liberal left – anti-fascist, anti-racist and so on – their politics are negative. They have little idea what they are for but a vague idea of what they are against. The movement is, however, firmly rooted in what was once clearly understood as the traditional industrial working class.
The first big surprise was the discovery that the racism frequently expressed by active EDL protestors and the movement’s scattered multitude of silent supporters, abhorrent though it is, is nevertheless nuanced. Most seemed to be aware that the British working class had for a long time been multi-ethnic. Therefore, so they claimed, they no longer felt any antipathy to settled and integrated Afro-Caribbeans, Irish or any other cultural group. Early leaders such as ‘Tommy Robinson’ had expended a great deal of effort trying to convince EDL supporters to focus their hatred exclusively on Muslim immigrants. We encountered a constant stream of racist prejudice directed towards this particular group, but in many cases it was tempered by a surprising degree of sympathy. The EDL supporters despised Muslims’ involvement in terrorist acts on British soil and resented their supposed refusal to integrate in the cultural and legal spheres. They attempted to justify this hatred logically by pointing out the threat that uncontrolled mass immigration poses to British public safety, jobs, housing and other overstretched aspects of the country’s social infrastructure. However, many also understood why the majority of Muslims had entered Britain – for a better economic life, to join family and so on – and admitted that, were the shoe on the other foot, they would probably do the same. Some also admired their solidarity, courage and ability to stand up to the racism they had encountered. Therefore “Tommy Robinson” and the other far-right ideologues had not been entirely successful.
The second big surprise was that Muslim immigrants were only in second place on the EDL’s hate-list. In first place, by a country mile, and regarded with a contempt entirely unmollified by any form of sympathy, was the middle-class, metropolitan liberal left. Described in colourful language replete with highly inventive insults, the liberal leftists were irredeemable. There was nothing to admire. We know that the EDL protests are sporadic and often reactions to specific incidents. However, as we talked to the movement’s silent supporters in their bleak, run-down socioeconomic environments, mostly in former industrial areas, contempt for the liberal left was constant, ubiquitous, unreserved and heartfelt. As the research progressed we found that this unremitting hatred had the deeper political root.
The big surprises were accompanied by a few smaller surprises. For instance, the EDL supporters’ admiration for Israel seemed to confirm the claim that today’s far right is not simply an extension of the European fascist parties widespread in the earlier periods of the twentieth century. Another still was the political history of these people. A minority hailed from working-class Tory backgrounds and thought that someone like Charlie Mullins (the rags-to-riches founder of Pimlico Plumbers) might one day be the saviour of the British economy, if not the human race. But most were from Labour-voting, trades union families and locales. The crucial difference between the liberal left and the Muslim immigrants, the EDL supporters felt, is that the former, at some point in the past, had infiltrated and changed beyond recognition a Labour Party that had once represented their economic and cultural interests. Whereas they felt threatened by the Muslims’ presence, they felt betrayed by the liberal left. Foreign policy revision, a sensible immigration policy, shared prosperity, education and community bonding can help to eliminate the perceived “Muslim threat”, but betrayal is of a higher magnitude entirely – perhaps, in some cases, unforgiveable. If one finding stood out above all others, it was the EDL supporters’ insistence that no matter what liberal-left politicians promised, even if the promises were expressed in concrete terms, they were lying. They should never be trusted again.
The EDL members we interviewed were angry. But underlying this anger, we discovered, was a palpable sense of loss and lack. Their life-chances had diminished; the secure jobs they remembered or had heard their parents fondly describe had evaporated; their residential areas had decayed; they saw nothing but a bleak future. They were unfortunate enough to have been in the old industrial world what Andrew Yang calls the “normal people”. By this Yang does not mean a norm of culture or identity but rather people with average educational attainment and work skills who function normally in a given economic system. The current stage of neoliberal economic development is not simply post-industrial but rapidly becoming post-manual and post-administrative. Over the next few decades many routine manual tasks, even those associated with firefighting, dentistry or surgery, along with routine administrative tasks, will be automated. Autonomous lorries operating in convoys supervised by one driver will throw most of the USA and Europe’s 6.4 million lorry-drivers out of work. Only the unusually well-connected, well-qualified and upskilled can look forward to a genuinely bright future with some degree of confidence. Neoliberalism is waging a war on normal people and achieving easy victories on every front. Our interviewees all sensed the probability that they will be first to be thrown on the scrapheap, and they knew that some were already on it.
Many of the current liberal left seem to enjoy denouncing all those drifting to the far right as stupid, ignorant and racist. Many of those we interviewed had little time for approved liberal modes of thought or expression, and we certainly encountered racism. But, having avoided the dubious advantages of a liberal education, they had also been spared absorption into its more unworldly pipe dreams. They knew that something was afoot which wasn’t going to be very good for them. They just couldn’t put their finger on precisely what it was. Not one talked about neoliberalism or economic systems in general. This is hardly surprising, since the decline of the left, and its abandonment of working-class communities, has deprived them of the frameworks through which they might otherwise have interpreted their plight. Unable to discover the source of their terrible sense of loss, lack and foreboding, they had been persuaded by far-right ideologues – similar in tone to those who once promulgated racism on behalf of imperialism – to scapegoat Muslim immigrants, merely another people with a different set of cultural practices attempting to survive and prosper in neoliberalism’s unforgivingly competitive global economy.
Ideology does not consist entirely of lies but also of truths and half-truths presented in specific ways to construct a specific narrative. Because EDL supporters do not apply systemic thinking to their parlous socioeconomic situation – and those who masquerade as our left-wing representatives prefer moralising to systemic understanding and criticism – the far-right ideologues’ relentless cautionary tale of an impending foreign takeover via immigration can be put in such a way that it seems to tally with reality. Usable truths abound. During the research project there were many signs that it was the immigrants’ ability and willingness to cope a little better with neoliberalism’s chronic insecurity that really got the longer-term residents’ goat. Many immigrants are middle-class, well-educated and able to prosper or at least hold their own in neoliberalism’s competitive economy. Those who are not and hail from impoverished backgrounds also seemed to fare a little better in the new struggle of the insecure normal people, especially in the service industries. Perhaps, of course, because they had experienced far worse and felt they had nothing to lose. Immigration can be used by unscrupulous employers to depress wages. Housing shortages are pushing up rents to impossible levels. Decontextualized, these truths and half-truths can quite easily be woven into a narrative in which immigrants become the sole villains.
Third on the list of the EDL’s constructed enemies were EU migrant workers. They shared many cultural practices and values with British workers but, despite their lack of formal education, the EDL supporters were aware of currency differentials. Builders from countries in the EU but outside the Eurozone could undercut British builders’ prices because the pound could be favourably converted into their home currencies. Because many of these workers were temporary migrants, not settlers, for the EDL supporters they were taking business, depressing wages and syphoning money out of the country with little or no commitment to its future prosperity. Those who know of EU neoliberalism’s systemic flaws might add that migrant workers are also denying their home countries their skills and at least part of their daily spending power, but what can they do when investment and opportunities in their home countries are so limited? In denial of these problems and many more created by minimally regulated competition in the labour market – a market in human beings and their life-chances – the Europhile liberal left still persist with their ideal of open borders. Even the call for managed borders and a regulated labour market is for them a sign of xenophobia.
Throughout the research the absence of systemic thinking emerged as the major problem. In the current reality the longer-settled British workers, many themselves the offspring of older generations of immigrants in a multi-ethnic nation, share the same enemy with newer immigrants. The enemy is not each other but the neoliberal economic system, global in its scope and firmly entrenched in the EU as its central and undemocratic socioeconomic manager. And it is also the enemy of the immigrants’ countries of origin – all of Europe is ensnared in a neoliberal banking system that also influences investment patterns all over the world. The current wave of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East is the product of these bankers’ refusal to invest towards the goal of even development and mainstream politicians’ incessant waging of resource and regime-change wars. Needless to say, EDL members understand nothing of this, but even more problematic is the fact that many on the liberal left overlook it for the sake of divisive identity politics.
We already know that the right-wing media’s task is to hide the neoliberal system and its failings behind a beautifully choreographed consumer spectacle, at the centre of which is a less beautifully choreographed para-political pantomime. Conversely, we might assume that the task of the left – the opposition, after all – is to expose the system’s failings and suggest an alternative way of doing things. But the liberal left, largely accommodating of neoliberalism and willing to sacrifice at its altar since at least 1983, assist the right in blocking it from view. Those who point to neoliberalism as the real shared enemy are denounced by the liberal left as the “extremist” or “hard” left, an anachronism from the militant days of the 1970s. The more prescient and analytically penetrative the “extremist hard left” becomes about neoliberalism’s current failings, the more loudly it is denounced and marginalised. Even when the liberal political class speak of neoliberalism’s economic system in a critical tone, they are more balanced and more likely to understate its deleterious consequences, and therefore prone to dismiss the reports of insecurity, misery and resentment emanating from the precarious sections of the multi-ethnic working class. Neoliberalism is tough but manageable, they will say, so let’s stay in the benevolent EU technocracy and manage it better. The EDL are indeed full of wrong-headed prejudices, but they are certainly not wrong that for a long time now their official representatives have not been listening to what they have to say about the economic realities of their lives. Whilst in the EU, under Labour or Tory governments, their lives have become progressively more insecure.
To those who want to see the EDL supporters as an ugly, fascist, racist bunch of thugs, they appear as exactly that. That is certainly the aspect of their being presented to us by the neoliberal media. The reality of that aspect cannot be denied. Social media seem to echo that view, an indication that it is now standard. Most who identify with the liberal left concur and gather on the streets to shower them with invective. We can only regret the sight of working people floundering under the yokes of dysfunctional prejudices as they cleave such hostile divisions in a potentially powerful multi-ethnic political force. However, there is another aspect of the EDL supporters, hidden yet perhaps more instructive – their spectacular innocence. Unschooled and therefore unaffected by the ideological dogmas that would either keep Britain trapped in a neoliberal EU that strangles its potential of autonomous economic development, or turn a post-Brexit Britain into a global oligarchs’ playground, they alert us to a truth. They are in fact the initial disorientated and politically unrepresented victims of the neoliberal economy’s latest historical phase, the old normal people who sense their imminent dispensability and abandonment as their locales continue to decay. Yes, liberals fear the ability of protest groups such as the EDL to spread hateful prejudice and give far-right ideologues some of the electorate they want, but they fear more their ability to shout the truth, like the innocent child in the crowd, that the neoliberal Emperor in the EU palace has no clothes.
 Simon Winlow, Steve Hall and James Treadwell, The Rise of the Right: English Nationalism and the Transformation of Working-Class Politics (Bristol: Policy Press, 2017)
 Andrew Yang, The War on Normal People: The Truth about Disappearing Jobs and why Universal Basic Income is Our Future (New York: Hachette Books, 2018)
About the Author
Steve Hall is an Emeritus Professor of Criminology. He worked at the Universities of Teesside, Northumbria and Durham. With Professor Simon Winlow, he is the architect of the new ultra-realist perspective in Criminology.
This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.