After Whitehall; where next?

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From the perspective of the EDL, the BNP or UKIP, the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby on Wednesday 22 May 2013 could not have been better scripted. The victim was a white soldier with a two year old son and a plainly loving family. A person who is not moved by their suffering has something seriously wrong with them. Lee Rigby’s killers were Muslim, political Islamists, and of African descent. They tick every demographic or political “box” about which the right has been raging for years. The public location of the killing and its amateur method compound the sense of horror that has in turn energised the fascists, the tabloid press and the state.

We all are familiar with the ways in which our opponents have engaged with the killing, beginning with the EDL Assembly at Woolwich on the evening of the 22nd itself, and the rapid construction of a Facebook page “RIP Woolwich Soldier”, which rapidly received 1.4 million likes, and which appears to have been set up using an EDL template. The main EDL page meanwhile leaped from around 30,000 to over 120,000 likes, before (thankfully) it was taken down by the hackers’ collective Anonymous.

EDL supporters attempted to follow up their original assembly in Woolwich on the night of the killing, with various regional protests, including by turning out over 1000 people in Newcastle on Saturday 25 May, with the Independent reporting that EDL supporters outnumbered anti-fascists there by 4 to 1, and the Sun not even giving any indication, in its coverage, of the numbers gathered by the left. It is possible that these estimates were all wrong. The newspapers usually quote the police, who in turn under-count our side and exaggerate the EDL’s numbers. But even if the balance was subtly less bad than the impression these numbers give, millions of people will have read these reports, and will have drawn the conclusion that the EDL was on the rise.

Socialist Worker responded relatively quickly to the killings, posting a statement on 23 May saying in effect that without the War on Terror, Lee Rigby would still be living: “The US and Britain have murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the “war on terror” over the past 12 years … This is a war which we learned last week that the US administration believes will go on for at least another ten to 20 years. That means decades more of invasions and drones and bombs and torture camps and assassinations. Is it a surprise that some people react in this shocking way?” This statement was followed by a message to all members from the National Secretary of the SWP Charlie Kimber instructing us to oppose the next two, main, EDL and BNP marches.

On Monday May 27, the EDL was outside Downing Street, and on Saturday June 1, the BNP had plans to march in Woolwich. Before assessing the effectiveness or otherwise of these last two protests, and of our collective response to them, it is worth pausing and asking why the EDL in particular has shown such signs of evident life, after a long period in which it was clearly in decline?

Putting the EDL and UAF in perspective

There was a tendency within the SWP especially between about December last year and this March for comrades to speak about Unite Against Fascism as if it had been a model campaign, which had played a unique part in decisively halting what would otherwise have been the inevitable rise of the EDL. A more honest appraisal would begin by admitting that no matter how many anti-fascist events we have held, they were not the sole cause of the EDL’s recent problems. The EDL’s difficulties were also partly self-inflicted. Its demonstrations, which were taking place weekly in 2009 and 2010 had begun to fizzle out before the end of 2010, essentially because there was no discernible progress from one march to the next, and no obvious plan beyond the demonstrations. (You might say that the right was suffering its own counterpart of a problem the left had faced after 2003, i.e. demonstration fatigue). The EDL had to endure deep divisions over its own counterparts to the BNP’s better-known modernisation strategy (i.e. the existence of EDL Sikh, LGBT and Jewish contingents) and the EDL was already in visible decline by late 2010, i.e. before Unite Against Fascism proved capable of repeatedly outnumbering it.

“Billy Blake”, whose book EDL: Coming Down the Road offers the best short guide to the mindset of a local EDL activist, ends his account in August 2011, with (even on his account), the EDL “in disarray”. In his words, “The internal politics and infighting which has plagued the EDL for over a year has undoubtedly contributed to the fall in support. Although English regional identity has contributed, the infighting has been magnified by an intransigent dictatorial leadership and an entrenched sub-leadership, both unelected. Mistakes have been made, but like we see in government, no-one has paid the price. There are people in charge whose main concerns, once their position is gained, is holding onto it, rather than furthering the aims of the EDL.”

The EDL’s situation had not significantly changed between August 2011 and May 2013, prior to Woolwich, if anything the EDL was weaker than it had ever been. But, even in its diminished state, the EDL still carried two things which gave it a distinct edge over its main rival the BNP. First, it retained some degree of brand loyalty among a series of activists who had repeatedly demonstrated over the past five years. By May 2013, most had been inactive for around two to two and a half years, but they were significantly more “battle-hardened” that the BNP, which had not called any national, street mobilisation for more than twenty years.

Second, it had an ideology which appeared dramatically more relevant. The BNP has long been vulnerable to accusations of Nazism. Its leader Nick Griffin will still occasionally call himself a National Socialist (albeit only in front of the right audience). The EDL carries the process of ideological modernisation much further. It parades its tiny number of black members. It has an internal language modelled on the Battle comics of the 1970s; and exults in the victories of English soldiers in 1939-1945 over their German counterparts. It is patriotic, and militantly anti-Islam. It was born out of the War on Terror, and is better shaped to deal with the present crisis.

A tale of two protests

For those of us who were in the thick of Monday’s anti-EDL protest, it is hard to be precise about how badly we were outnumbered, certainly 3:1, and perhaps more. There were more reasons for concern than just numbers. There were very few black faces on the protest, the crowd dwindled rapidly, and there was little leadership at the front. It felt as if we were going back to a previous period, where we should expect to be regularly outnumbered by them, even in central London. At the end of the EDL protest, a group of their supporters made a rush at the UAF contingent, throwing glasses and placard sticks, and we were barely able to hold them back. Had they broken through, many people could have been injured.

The voices of the comrades who were there, and who were writing within hours of the protest, gives a sense of our collective unease at what we had just been through. Here is S G: “I’m worried we’re not winning the ideological argument and have been suddenly shunted back to a position we were in 4 years ago, when the EDL, however disorganised and chaotic, could ride a wave of Islamophobia.”

R D: “We were completely outnumbered today. The EDL are undoing months of antifascist work as they march in their hundreds and thousands across the country.”

R S: “Our tactics didn’t really work though. It was skin deep. A month ago the EDL looked like a spent force. But clearly that was rather superficial, since all it’s taken is a single murder for them to launch multiple mobilisations and outnumber anti-fascists. We seem to have made very little impact on actually undermining the basis of Islamophobia in Britain.”

A comrade who writes under the pseudonym Caliban’s Revenge: “Today, standing against the EDL on Downing Street, was tough. There were some things we couldn’t control about this situation: The far rights ability to remobilise around the Woolwich killing, the difficulty for us to mobilise at such short notice (they redirected the march from Woolwich to downing street on Friday) and the low confidence of Muslims to confront the fascists outside of their communities since the onset of the latest racist backlash … What really troubled me was the lack of organisation on the day. In the past, when I’ve been on UAF demos and we’ve been out outnumbered, in the crowd were people … not just barking instructions to people through megaphones, but talking to a few key people in the crowd and relaying information and instructions that they could then disperse throughout the crowd- especially at the front line. More than once people have come up to me and said “I won’t lie to you, they could break through at any moment and YOU have to hold this line because if you don’t there will be a panic and more people will get hurt”. And even though your shutting, you do because it makes sense and at least you know what’s going on. That didn’t happen yesterday… I turned around and I saw that the initially 400-500 strong crowd, enough to hold, had just disappeared.”

And A J: “off to see a friend in hospital slashed by ‘white youth’ last night, and hope I never again have to see anti-fash retreating from fascists.”

Some comrades responded by trying to play down both the extent of our reverse and the importance of Saturday’s looming protest. Despite the message from coming from Charlie Kimber that Saturday would be a national or certainly a London-wide mobilisation; one UAF full-timer could be heard telling us:

“Can we have a bit more thought and circumspection please? Yes, there were hundreds of EDL in London, 4 reputable people I know who followed them say around 800. 800 too many for sure, but i see one or two saying they had thousands … yes, we were outnumbered. Then, I see Lewisham 1977 being raised re next week. Lewisham took weeks of preparations and can’t be wished into existence, just like that, that’s for sure. We need to re double our efforts and build/re build rooted UAF groups. Walthamstow, Cambridge, Norwich, Leicester, show the way. Urgency for sure, but a mid- to long-term viewpoint is needed and roots in the localities…”

To which one obvious answer would be that if a campaign has been in existence for 10 years, and still lacks local roots; what on earth has it been doing? Or perhaps a kinder response would be to say that while everything I have just quoted  would be unobjectionable in a different context, it was hardly an inspiring call to action to make just five days before the BNP were planning to march within a few streets of where Lee Rigby had been killed.

Between Monday and Saturday, it was extraordinary to watch how a younger generation of party comrades (the very ones, it seemed, who had been on the losing side of the recent faction battle) took it upon themselves to organise. They produced their own leaflets; they distributed them by their thousands.

But this flurry of activity “from below” did not seem to be adequately matched by other anti-fascists. The details of the assembly point for Saturday were not published until the morning of 28 May 2013 (so there was no leaflet to hand out for the 28th on the anti-EDL protest in Whitehall). The news of the assembly point was broken on social media, not on UAF’s website but several hours beforehand on a twitter account: “martin@uaf”.

No political argument was given for why Saturday’s protest had been called. There were of course perfectly sensible arguments for focussing on the danger posed by the BNP. By announcing a demonstration to begin at Woolwich, where Lee Rigby had been killed, inevitably they made themselves the priority for anti-fascists. By threatening to march from Woolwich to Lewisham, the BNP was deliberately invoking (and threatening to overturn) the worst defeat that the far right has suffered anywhere on British streets since 1945. These arguments would have armed comrades to deal with the twists and turns of BNP tactics that followed. But rather than explain why were were marching, the membership was addressed with a set of instructions. We were expected to follow a “routine” method (we are the SWP, they are the BNP, we demonstrate against them, that’s just what we do) focussed on internal arguments rather than ideas for engaging with people beyond the ranks of the already persuaded.

On the Friday, as the BNP’s plans changed, the party changed the focus of its intended demonstration from Woolwich to Downing Street. This decision was publicised for the first time, once again, on “@martinuaf”. Three hours passed before the main UAF website was updated.

Meanwhile, it was only too clear that the fascists were becoming bolder; and that Monday’s victory had given the EDL in particular fresh recruits. While the message from UAF headquarters remained that Monday was a temporary aberration and that the EDL remained locked in an inevitable spiral of decline, the words of EDL supporters gave a very different impression. Here for example is Edward Downs explaining why he would be attending an EDL-sponsored wreath-laying event in Islington on 1 June: “I know it’s not strictly an EDL event – just encouraging people to come out and pay respects to Lee Rigby and the disgusting way he was murdered. I was OFFENDED by this and got off my arse and attended the Downing Street demo on Monday. Best thing I’ve done for a long time. I met other people there who were not EDL but felt the same as I did and took to the street. What a great bunch of people, EDL and non-EDL alike. I can only advise people not to listen to the media and to come out in to the sunlight…”

Going into Saturday’s protest, anti-fascists had one main advantage and several weakness. It was to our assistance that the enemy we were facing was the BNP rather than the EDL. To help us; the BNP had no recent experience of street organising. It lacked the branch structure to book transport, etc, in order to be able to turn people out. The BNP does not have a single functioning branch in London. They were likely to be a “relatively” easy target.

On the other hand, there was considerable confusion as to whether the BNP would follow police instructions and assemble in Whitehall or keep to its original plans and assemble in Woolwich or Lewisham. If all the anti-fascists had kept to one location point, while the BNP or EDL supporters assembled elsewhere, we would have had a problem.

Saturday began with around 200 or so UAF supporters assembling outside Downing Street. (Images above). An impressive group of about 100-150 “South London Anti-Fascists” had chosen to assemble at the Imperial War Museum, from where they marched to join the main UAF contingent:

Rather than remaining at Downing Street, these anti-fascists then marched towards the BNP’s intended starting-point, which even as late as 11.30 still had only around 50 people in it. Close up, they looked tired, bored and sullen:

For a time, it seemed that the anti-fascists would be able to occupy the BNP pen, and disperse Nick Griffin’s supporters. But gradually from around 12 or so, the police were able to take control of the situation, bringing vans, dogs and increasing numbers of officers into the area:

The Metropolitan Police drove up two adapted red buses, designed to hold large numbers of detainees before processing them to police stations. Officers began collecting plastic cuffs in order to make multiple arrests:

Over at Downing Street, the main group of UAF supporters had shrunk visibly in numbers. Young supporters of UAF were voting with their feet to join the other anti-fascists. Eventually, UAF took a cue from them and instructed the Downing Street crowd to march towards the BNP pen. For a time, it seemed that their extra numbers might be sufficient to hold back the police, or even allow anti-fascist to make a further attempt on the BNP pen:

The leaders of UAF stationed themselves some way back from parliament:

But the police continued to press; in increasing numbers. By some extraordinary good fortune there was already at Parliament a demonstration against badger culls. The dominant politics seemed to be broadly what we used to consider “hunt sab”, and it was a real pleasure to hear activists shouting “Save the badgers; cull the Nazis”.

Although the BNP was never able to march, by the end of the day, some 58 arrests had been made:

Speaking to other demonstrators, the following opinions of Saturday appear to be shared generally:

1. Anti-fascists needed to seriously outnumbers the BNP after Monday’s debacle. On this test, the day was a success. It seems unlikely that the BNP would dare attempt something similar again. For our part anti-fascists feel lifted.

2. This modest success needs to be kept in broader perspective. The EDL could hardly have been checked by events at Whitehall; they were not there, but at several dozen other places across Britain. Many of these activities were small; in some cases, the EDL turnouts again seem to have been met with larger anti-fascist mobilisations. But the energy remains with them, as compared to the BNP, or indeed with us.

3. The recent difficulties in the SWP continue to mark our intervention as anti-fascists. The vast amount of work put in by younger SWP members did not lead to a significant presence, for example, of non-SWP students. There was very little direction from the UAF full-timers or other long-standing comrades. The party intervention suffered the same vices as those identified by Caliban on the Monday.

4. Many people have been arrested; they all need our solidarity. It is unwelcome that a demonstration in which anti-fascists outnumbered fascists by around 10 to 1 should have ended that 58 of us arrested and none of them.

5. Going beyond this Saturday, we do not seem to have worked out how to readjust from confronting the BNP to the EDL, who have the numbers and the momentum. Nor, assuming the EDL are pushed back sometime in the future , do we have any serious plans (yet) for the second change of focus we will need, to develop a new kind of anti-racist politics capable of damaging UKIP, who are flourishing better than anyone else during the recent crisis and can realistically be expected to top the polls in next year’s European elections.

To be able to get to these more important battles right would require a dramatic break from our present routine.

Other models

UAF is not the first time that the SWP has played a role in anti-fascist or anti-racist struggles, nor, if we are honest, has been as effective as our first such campaign, that of the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s. One feature of the ANL was its success in bringing together different SWP “generations”, i.e. both the hard-headed political organisers, and the comrades with the greatest sense of cultural politics. Most SWP members took part in the campaign through the ANL: a specific, one-purpose campaign to defeat the National Front, expressed as physical confrontation, public marches and leafleting against NF election candidates. But a large part of the campaign’s dynamism came from the activity of a relatively small group of comrades in Rock Against Racism. They made sure that fascism was never misunderstood as just a very aggressive form of popular racism. They fought all the time to join up the popular racism of the NF to the institutional racism of the police, prisons and courts; its anti-black racism to its simultaneous, swaggering and homophobic masculinity. They fought, in effect, for a broader, more heterogeneous anti-racism.

A reason why the ANL worked was because it was able to win the support in black communities that saw the National Front routed when they attempted to march through Lewisham, or which turned Blair Peach’s killing into a martyrdom. UAF “seems” to take this on board by having a leadership structure which combines at the very top, “black leadership” (it is a part of the campaign’s founding agreement, that all senior office-holders have to be black), and with the visible presence at UAF conferences of very many members of the TUC race relations committee (one reason that UAF  conferences are so dull is the need to give everyone on the committee a separate speaking role). But paradoxically, despite this black leadership role UAF seems to have less to say about institutional racism than the ANL once did. And the SWP campaigns far less about racism than it did 35 years ago. You won’t find UAF campaigns about victims of injustice, or economic racism. It is hard to imagine UAF giving the same amount of time as the SWP and the Anti-Nazi League once gave, for example to the Campaign Against Racist Laws.

Another part of the Anti-Nazi league’s victory was its success in drilling roots deep into the trade union movement, between 1977 and 1979, 30 AUEW branches affiliated, as did 25 trades councils, 13 shop stewards’ committees, 11 NUM lodges, and similar numbers of branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE. I can recall working in the offices (temporarily) of the much smaller mid-1990s Anti-Nazi League. It had multiple ring-binders full of the  details of affiliated trade union branches, which (even then) ran into the several hundreds. Contrast UAF, which has the support of 19 national trade unions; and some local trade union branches, but only one of the latter (Holborn GMB) was so well integrated into the campaign so as to nominate anyone for any position at this year’s conference. Indeed this is only one reflection of the general weakness of  those events and of UAF itself. They, and it, feel like a space aimed at accommodating the union bureaucracy. The focus is rarely on the union rank and file.

It is an area of obvious concern that the party leadership (which I do not mean at all only the people in full-time roles at the SWP or UAF head offices), but just as significantly the local leaderships in the branches, is still in purge mode. In the words of one SWP member (writing on 30 May): “The party is not a student debating society. We are not here to listen to endless arguments about our perspectives from a small minority of comrades who are unwilling to act democratically when It does not suit them. I think it is time for those who cannot submit to the democratic will of the party to go so that the rest of us can engage in meaningful political work … I think the leading group in the ‘opposition’ should be expelled at once. I do not see why any of this should be tolerated for a moment longer.” The people who are visibly in the firing line are precisely the comrades who speak out of turn, the ones who write, and the ones who are trying hardest to revive the party’s former iconoclasm.

Rock Against Racism brought more to the table than just a broader anti-racist message, equipping comrades to step from one moment of anti-racist struggle to the next. It was RAR which dreamed up Temporary Hoarding magazine, the Carnivals, etc. “We want Rebel music, street music”, as RAR put it, “Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism.” Temporary Hoarding was never just about music, a typical issue would have articles about Steve Biko, the politics of racism, and institutional sexism or homophobia. It was a cultural intervention which took in design, art, etc. Its good slogans were never intended to last for all time.

Of course, no mere effort of will could produce merely “on request” a musical counter-culture as susceptible to left-wing intervention as early British punk; nor a group of comrades as iconoclastic as the RAR generation. But if we are going to have a fresh cultural intervention which recreates the dynamism of 1976-1981, we shouldn’t assume that it will be found only in music, nor that simply replaying the most compelling images and sounds of the past will produce the same energy as they once delivered. Mere repetition is likely to result in diminishing effect. If there is going to be network of cultural producers who play the same role in future that once was played by RAR, they will more effective if they find their own labels, and their own images, rather than through being tied to a slogan (“LMHR”) coined more than 30 years ago.

Another test of a viable campaign is who it has in the key roles. Paul Holborow, the organiser of the Anti-Nazi League, brought several strengths to the campaign. One, which is not always given sufficient weight in accounts of this period, was his very close attention to detail. If you speak to the people who worked in the ANL office, one thing they always report is how incredibly hard Paul worked. He was in the office first thing; he would be there till late. Every evening that he could, he spoke at a local ANL group meeting (and if he didn’t have a speaking role, he looked for an invitation). This sense of urgency came from a conjuncture which was even more desperate than our own. Politics were moving rapidly to the right; the very evening of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 saw an SWP member Blair Peach killed at Southall following fighting between anti-fascists and the police.

If we want to understand why after 10 years there seems to be very few people in any local groups who identify with the UAF beyond of course members of the SWP, the answer is not just down to “formal” politics, but also to the lack of planning, the administrative muddle, and the failure to maintain a membership structure or local groups which have characterised Unite Against Fascism from early on.

Finally, a recurring challenge for ANL Mark 1 was how to stop the National Front without the violent clashes overtaking everything else the campaign had to do. Normally histories of the period read this story backwards, with everything hinging on the eventual expulsion of the people who in 1981 would go on to form Red Action. Their emergence (which, if we are honest, was primarily within the SWP, not ANL) is contrasted with the previous periods when the use of physical force had been a collective rather than a minority experience. But mere common sense suggests that the history was a little bit more complex; that the “squads” must have come from somewhere, if only from a collective need to protect sales or public meetings from fascist attack.

The SWP of the late 1970s had better roots in the manual working-class than it does now or any other group on the British left (this is not to subject the old party to special praise; the whole left then had better roots in working-class communities than it does now). Even that organisation flipped and flopped to some extent between encouraging physical resistance and seeking to curtail it.

Today, every comrade will have memories of recent anti-EDL “protests” which saw groups of several hundred comrades sheltering, 1970s-CP-style, behind metal barricades, while we were addressed by local, religious worthies, while others took the struggle directly to the English Defence League; as well as other activities that have been little better than squad actions, leaving those involved feeling like “cannon fodder”. Squaddism was never the answer, but nor is it to be found in ceding the ground of physical resistance altogether. After all, if we are ever going to force the fascists off the streets, this will involve – inevitably – a degree of physical persuasion. What is needed is greater consistency, a focus on the sorts of mass campaigning that involve the greatest numbers of people working together to resist the far right, and to drive them off the streets altogether, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

[first published here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151397060211269%5D

One response »

  1. This is good stuff. I can see a collective brainstorm leading to a manifesto for a reconstituted anti-fascist movement coming on this basis.

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