Cannock anti-racist protest Cannock anti-racist protest. Photo: @AntiRacismDay / Twitter

On 4 February, anti-fascists were able to mount a counterdemonstration to block a fascist march in Cannock, reports Rob Horsfield

It was revealed during a Home Affairs Committee meeting on the 26 October 2022 that the British government was spending £7m a day on asylum accommodation and that expenditure was likely to rise as the global refugee crisis worsens.

The figure has been a powerful refrain for the right, both ‘respectable’ – in particular, the billionaire-owned tabloid and broadsheet press, Home Secretary Suella Braverman, and the rest of the Conservative party – and less respectable – the far right, especially with their most recent iteration, Patriotic Alternative, the neo-Nazi group founded by former neo-Nazi BNP youth leader Mark Collett.

As the cost-of-living crisis worsens, as more people die of hypothermia, as the foodbanks collapse under the weight of demand, explanations and solutions proliferate; with the disintegration of the Corbyn project, those of the left have all but vanished from legacy media and from parliament. As an example, for the first time in its history, the Labour Party has noanti-war MPs either capable or interested in speaking about the causes of the refugee crisis, how rampant imperialism abroad is fundamentally linked to the immiseration of the many at home.

It is in this vacuum that the £7m-a-day factoid has become a rhetorical USB cord between anger about falling living standards and neo-Nazi conspiracy theories postulating a cabal of Marxists and corporations (usually depicted as the World Economic Forum) plotting to dissolve national cultures with an ‘invasion’ of non-white migrants. Articulating and integrating public anger and racist attitudes into the well-rehearsed ideology of fascism, it has resulted in a surge of racist activism targeting the alleged fount of social decay – hotels housing asylum seekers – using social media to maximise their reach. Although the resulting demos have been smaller than those of the far right in the past, they are distinguished by their very high frequency – at least one each weekend since January – and their local involvement. One such event, underreported in the national media, took place in Cannock on Saturday 4 February.

I was first alerted to the threat of a racist demonstration in the last week of January when I came across the burgeoning Facebook group ‘Hotels Housing Illegals’. Then, the group had a membership of about six and half thousand. At the time of writing, it has fourteen thousand. In it, Facebook users share anecdotes about asylum seekers living it large in five-star hotels, about local girls and young women who have been harassed and stalked by Albanian and Afghan men, and details about upcoming events.

There was a lot of discussion about Cannock, where there are reportedly two hotels which have deals with Serco to accommodate refugees. Their plan was to meet up at the local Jobcentre, march to Cannock high street’s war memorial, and proceed to the Holiday Inn by the railway tracks. Anti-racist campaigners had caught wind of it too, and commendably arranged to set up a stall at the bandstand at the other end of the high street to block the demonstration’s passage.

Countering fascists in Cannock

By ten o’clock on a chilly Staffordshire morning, Stand Up To Racism, the organisers, had a stall set up by the bandstand. In total, four dozen or so of us, of whom more than half were pensioners, made it to Cannock to anticipate the protesters. Inaugurating the canvassing with a speech, we were told by the organisers that it was unlikely Patriotic Alternative would turn up.

In the beginning it was quiet with a minimal police presence – around four officers and another four special constables to observe – and little evidence a racist protest was about to happen. People on leafletting duty chatted to shoppers about Stand Up To Racism’s presence. A former BNP member approached one of our canvassers and initiated a friendly enough conversation for about half an hour.

What we thought was the bulk of the demo – about thirty – congregated at eleven in front of the war memorial, as expected. A few people with phones were filming us at this point with more dedication than a curious passer-by. Police began to take more of an active role too, lining up on either side of the groups facing each other, but things remained quite cool until eleven thirty, when things escalated.

It was reported in The Guardian on the 15 February that Patriotic Alternative marched among residents, but it was apparent that the bulk of the protesters were led by them towards the memorial. Chanting ‘Whose streets? Our Streets!’, ‘Whose Country? Our Country!’ about a hundred people marched together to bolster the first group, now numbering approximately fifty. It was clear by this point that Stand Up To Racism had underestimated either the infiltration of Patriotic Alternative or – more worrying – the receptivity of local residents to their ideas. What lends itself to this second possibility is that the main organiser of and speaker at the Cannock protest, Tracey Sweeney, is local to the area. “Me and my mate started this last week,” she said to begin her speech, “we have never done this in our lives before … we are just two mothers and grandparents.”

Being caught by surprise, we had to be on the alert; the police were somewhat slow to respond too, and had only brought about thirty officers to form a line between protesters and counter-protesters. I was put on lookout duty in case we were encircled; the police line only stretched to cover the breadth of the high street, allowing the racist demonstrators to edge past them and begin to close around our stall. Tensions were quite high, and a few comrades left for their own safety, before both camps left after half past twelve. The event was a success for the antiracists in that they prevented the march, but the threat of physical abuse was tangible.

Altogether, the experience was immediately worrying; a town of less than thirty thousand like Cannock had a hundred and fifty people turn up with fascist support in an attempt to intimidate some of the most vulnerable people in the world. This became all the more concerning after the events in Knowsley, where an estimated 450 people, again outnumbering the anti-fascist counter-protesters, caused a small riot in their attempts to reach another hotel housing asylum seekers. Rotherham, Erskine, Leeds, and other towns and cities have been the setting for much the same scenes. There is one planned for Skegness on 25 of February, and another demonstration is expected at Cannock on 11 March.

Lessons and strategies

I think the 4 February event can show us quite a few things. Firstly, that the left’s capacity for anti-fascist organisation is quite limited at present, despite our principles having more popular support across the country than those of the fascists. That may be starting to change; at the recent protest in Rotherham, a few hundred anti-racists outnumbered those protesting against asylum seekers by at least four to one. It is clear, however, that our counter-mobilisations need to grow.

Secondly, the government is not just stoking racist fears and anxieties but is quite closely sympathetic to the far right’s aims. Suella Braverman herself believes the asylum seekers coming to the UK are part of an invasion, believes in the laundered neo-Nazi conspiracy of ‘cultural Marxism’. A clear example of this came through Cannock, when the MP for Cannock, Amanda Milling, brought up the far-right demo euphemistically as ‘rising community tensions’ to Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, the local Cannock paper The Express and Star gave cover for Milling in its own coverage of the demonstration, somehow failing to note the prominent neo-Nazi presence, despite their colours being visible in the photographs they used.

Thirdly, as Walter Benjamin put it, ‘behind every fascism there is a failed revolution,’ in this case on a smaller scale. Corbyn’s period as Labour leader was a time when a radical left-wing social democrat, an actual parliamentary socialist, energised millions of people and gave life to radical possibilities beaten into the dust by the defeats of the 1980s. His defeat required the establishment not merely to resist Corbyn himself by cutting him out of public life, but to cauterise the left too; the Labour Party has self-disembowelled in order to do, scattering the comparatively unified left into single-issue groups and trade unions still struggling to coordinate. The remaining carcass puppeteered by Keir Starmer and the right refuses to condemn the scapegoating of asylum seekers, and indeed says either that the government isn’t being efficiently racist enough (Yvette Cooper) or that asylum seekers should be electronically tagged (Angela Rayner).

Returning to Tracey Sweeney’s speech, it is important to note that she touched on, to emphasise the need to deport every asylum seeker immediately, funding the NHS and social housing (though only ending homelessness for former armed-forces personnel). Cannock also used to be home to Littleton Colliery, the last mine to be closed in Staffordshire, whose 2,000 NUM members participated in the 1984-85 miners’ strike. These former sites of radicalism can’t just be left alone; the demonstration defending asylum seekers which took place in Liverpool was a positive action, but we need such mobilisations in places like Knowsley as well.

The anti-fascists can beat the far right, but only through offering a clear political alternative explanation for why life is getting worse for all of us and how we can change it, how we have commonality with asylum seekers and against the rich and powerful.

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