Comment: Multiculturalism speech was cock-up or conspiracy

David Cameron’s timing was unfortunate, but in the light of the EDL’s Luton march, the debate is necessary.

By Gavin Shuker MP

Two years ago the English Defence League (EDL) formed in response to a handful of radical Muslim protesters. Their behaviour, accusing returning parading soldiers of being baby killers and worse, was outrageous. But the extremism of the EDL potentially presents a far greater challenge to social cohesion in the UK.

Last weekend, the organisation reached a new crossroads, when 1,500 EDL supporters congregated in Luton. The cost of their action will run into millions of pounds – an initial assessment of Bedfordshire police’s biggest ever operation, involving 2,000 officers, is estimated at £800,000 alone. With 92 divisions around the UK, the EDL have come a long way in a short time.

For whatever reason, supporting the EDL’s anti-Islamic views does not yet carry the same social stigma as, say, voting BNP. But their simplistic diagnosis of all society’s ills – namely ‘it’s the Muslims’ fault’ – does carry resonance amongst a sector of the public, buffeted by a lack of job, educational and cultural certainty, as they are.

Any debate on race, religion and community cohesion must be pursued with a level head and with the voices of the mainstream majority heard. But on Saturday, in Luton, these voices were drowned out by people who were countering hate with hate. Either David Cameron did know about the timing of Saturday’s march, in which case he was negligent in not informing the police and local authority of his statement in the days before. Or, if he didn’t know, he was negligent in giving the EDL just the publicity they crave through a speech that should have been properly researched and timed.

Cock-up or conspiracy: either way the timing of Cameron’s speech served to give succour to the EDL extremists on an incredibly challenging day for both police and residents in our town.

I welcome David Cameron’s thoughts on the issue of community cohesion. Having grown up and lived in a vastly diverse town almost all my life, my own experiences give me something to input into that conversation.

I dare say that there are many moderate voices to be heard in that conversation. But, as ever, they are drowned out by those at the extremes. And that is the challenge – to foster a measured debate on community cohesion. That can only be done with thoughtful and well-timed interventions. If only Saturday’s speech had fulfilled both those criteria. Instead, EDL supporters were overhead claiming that Cameron’s speech was their big win.

Policing the march formed just part of the long-term cost of the EDL’s action. Make no mistake; we in Luton are paying a high cost for free speech. The challenge for level-headed politicians is to create an environment in which everyone can exercise it.

Gavin Shuker is the Labour MP for Luton South

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