Luton gets a lot of bad press. And it will get even more this week when the English Defence League (EDL) descends on the town in an attempt to provoke a racist riot. Since the 7/7 bombings in 2005, the Bedfordshire town has been branded a “hotbed of Muslim extremism” and racist tension—all because the bombers took the train from Luton to London.
In 2009, a small group of Muslims protested at a soldiers’ homecoming parade in the town. It was met with a national outcry and became the excuse for the formation of the EDL with a protest in the town.
When the media discovered that a suicide bombing in Sweden last year was carried out by a man from Luton, the panic reached new heights. A Daily Telegraph headline read, “Sweden suicide bombings: Luton synonymous with Islamic extremism and racial tension.”
But contrary to the media’s myths, Luton is a town much like others across Britain. While there is some division, people mostly get on. Their main concern is the fight to survive as the economic crisis bites.
“The EDL and the British National Party try to divide us by getting people to blame one another for the problems in society,” said Ged Peck, a college worker who lives in Luton.
“It used to be Jewish and Irish immigrants. Now it is Muslims. There have also been arguments about Polish workers taking ‘our’ jobs. But it is a minority of people who buy into that argument.”
A recent survey found that some 82 percent of respondents in Luton said that they get on well.
“The problem is that the real issues—housing, unemployment and poverty—don’t get talked about in the media,” added Ged.
Luton ranks 87 out of 354 local authorities when it comes to deprivation. It has a higher than national average for infant mortality and cases of TB. Some 11,000 children live in households with no working parent.
“Poverty is the one link between the huge range of people we see,” said Hailey Lynch, who works at a sexual health clinic in Luton.
“Most of the people are young women from poorer backgrounds,” she said. “They aren’t in education, have low self-esteem and little aspiration.
“If the government and council force through cuts to services then they don’t stand a chance. We are writing off a generation.
“I spend my time talking to young people who don’t feel valued. I’m not surprised they are disillusioned.
“Last week we noticed flyers going round where we live advertising escort jobs for women wanting to make some quick cash. It shows how bad the situation is.”
School worker Lesley Fitzsimmons says that deprivation is visible everywhere.
“About a quarter of the students in my class are on free school meals and we are trying to get more to take it up,” said Lesley. “Pupils come in and say they are hungry, but we aren’t allowed to give them food.
“We have a spare clothes bin for children who come in with clothes that don’t fit, or aren’t clean. None of this is because the parents don’t care. It’s about being poor.”
A number of schools lost their Building Schools for the Future funding when the Tories scrapped the scheme.
“Some schools are falling apart,” Lesley added.
“We have lost our sports hall but for other schools it’s worse. Local youth services are being cut too.
“The cuts to Education Maintenance Allowance means that many of the students here won’t be able to go to college. It’s no surprise people feel abandoned.”
Luton also has a housing crisis. Of the 75,000 homes in the town, 63,000 are in the private sector. The council estimates that 31,500 homes are required to match current needs.
Some 18,000 people live in housing considered unsuitable for them—6,000 because of overcrowding.
Council workers have been shocked to receive calls from London boroughs looking for places to move poor families to when housing benefit is cut in April.
Before the 1980s, Luton was a town where levels of employment topped the national average. There were long-term, stable manufacturing jobs (see box). But the decline of the car industry saw a massive rise in unemployment—and it has got worse, rising by 38 percent since 2009.
“We have job cuts going on all the time,” said Tony Purdue, who works at Luton and Dunstable Hospital. “No one cares how many mosques Luton has—we care about jobs, schools and our futures.
“Over the 1980s and 1990s Luton’s industrial base collapsed. All the big companies shut. We have really suffered because of that. At one time people flocked here for work.”
For many people the real concern is Luton’s growing young population. Many are increasingly falling into the category of “Neet”—not in education, employment and training.
Hailey added, “People say Luton is terrible—but I don’t think that’s what people who live here think. It’s where we live and we just get on with it.
“But working class people are sick of being treated like shit. People at work aren’t talking about the EDL. They are worried about whether they will have a job in a month’s time.”
Tony agreed. “I’ve lived in Luton all my life and want to stay here,” he said. “I’m proud of Luton. The EDL want to divide us, but they won’t win because we have more in common with each other than we have differences.
“But the recession can make it easier for people to be scapegoated, especially with the Tory cuts kicking in.
“Whether you are black, white or Asian, life is hard if you aren’t rich. That’s why we need a united fight, not just against the racists but against the cuts too.”
‘There weren’t enough people here, so migrants were vital’ – Mick, former Vauxhall worker
Luton is a large town in Bedfordshire, 30 miles north of London. In the 19th century Luton developed into a fair-sized market town. It was further transformed when the Vauxhall car plant opened in 1905.
Luton became one of the new towns as workers moved from the slums of London to work in the car plant and other factories.
London Luton Airport opened in 1938. It has developed into one of the major employers in the town.
Mick Murphy has worked in the cargo section at Luton airport for 25 years. Before that he worked at the Vauxhall car plant.
“Luton was once a thriving town,” says Mick. “But the decimation of Vauxhall in 2001 really hit the town hard—it marked the end of industry in Luton.”
In December 2000, General Motors, the multinational corporation that owns Vauxhall, announced that it was shutting most of the plant sacking 2,000 workers.
“I worked in Vauxhall as a young lad and became a union rep,” Mick remembered. “I learnt so much. The Communist Party was big in the area so we had a strong trade union tradition.
“The jobs were good and so were our lives.
“The new factories and workplaces required workers and that meant homes. The council had to build thousands of homes.
“By the 1950s Vauxhall employed 30,000 workers—today there are around 1,000 left.
“There weren’t enough people living in Luton to work in the factories—so immigration was vital. That’s why Luton has always been multicultural. Irish and African-Caribbean families came first, followed by Asian workers. It changed constantly.
“Whole families grew up and worked around the car plants—generation after generation.
“When GM decided to shut the plant, it was destroying an industry that had fed, clothed and housed their families for over 100 years.”
People fought the closure, with a 10,000 strong demonstration in the town in January 2001.
There were solidarity strikes by workers at Vauxhall Elsmere Port in Liverpool, the Toddington Way parts warehouse in Luton and the GM plant in Germany.
But the plant closed.
“We have never really recovered from the loss of Vauxhall,” Mick added. “It has left the town feeling hollow. But we get on with it. This is where we live.”
‘There are still pockets of racism, but it’s different from the 1980s’ – Aysha Ali
The media and government barrage against the “dangers” of Islam have led to the growth of Islamophobia. This has encouraged a racist minority to attack Muslims.
In Luton the Muslim community feels under siege. In 2009 a mosque was burnt to the ground and the EDL have continued their campaign of racist scapegoating.
But the level of racism people face generally on the streets and workplaces has declined over the years.
Young people have a dramatically different experience from those who grew up a generation before.
Aysha Ali, 34, was born in Luton. She said, “There have always been pockets of racism here, and still are. But it’s different from when I was growing up in the 1980s.
“I remember being scared to go into certain areas and my teachers not understanding the issues we faced. But my nieces’ experiences are different—they are accepted and have black and white friends.”
Salman Mirza, 43, grew up in Luton. He said, “There was racism when I was growing up. My brother and I used to get chased home by racists and spat on.
“We had bricks put through our windows. The first time it happened the police came round and instead of helping us they demanded to see my dad’s immigration papers.
“It isn’t like that now. We live in a more multicultural society.
“I can go for a run in the park and no one says, “Oi Paki what are you doing?”
Abeel and Abul are both 16 years old and are studying at Luton Sixth Form College. Their experiences are a world away from Salman’s past.
“Racism isn’t something we experience at college,” Abeel told Socialist Worker. “We have black and white friends—that’s just considered normal.”
Abul agreed. “That’s why it’s so bad that the EDL are coming here. We don’t want them coming to try and divide us.”
Steve Coghlan, a lecturer at Luton Sixth Form College remembers racism against Luton’s large Irish community when he was growing up.
“When the Guildford bombings happened and the Irish were blamed, my next door neighbour went to work and was beaten up because she was Irish,” he said.
“I remember her coming home with a black eye. I was shocked. Our families played together. That’s the problem with racism—it can tear societies apart.
“The people who were convicted and imprisoned were finally proved innocent. But so much damage had been done.
“That’s always the case when people are scapegoated.”
The EDL wants to turn the clock back. We can’t let them.