Tommy Robinson supporters gathering in Trafalgar Square before the rally in Whitehall, Saturday 9 June. Photo: Floyd Codlin Tommy Robinson supporters gathering in Trafalgar Square before the rally in Whitehall, Saturday 9 June. Photo: Floyd Codlin

After the big Free Tommy Robinson rally in London, the entire left need to get serious about organising against the far right argues Shabbir Lakha

A “Free Tommy Robinson” rally organised by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance in London on 9 June brought over ten thousand people outside Downing Street. The rally came after Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the EDL, was convicted of contempt of court and put behind bars.

The sight of thousands of people, young and old, from all around the country, decked in Union Jacks and England flags, doing Nazi salutes and shouting racist chants should be frightening for everyone. It is said to be one of the biggest far-right mobilisations in Britain in decades.

When the FLA first appeared, there was a lot of confusion around what they actually stood for and how serious of a threat they were. But there can be no doubt any more that they are a far-right grouping with a core of fascists including older National Front, BNP and EDL members. The threat is real and the left urgently need a strategy to deal with it.

There is immense and growing discontent in society. Austerity has meant that four million adults are reliant on food-banks; meaningful employment is being replaced by precarious conditions; real term wages are declining, affordable housing is practically non-existent and cash-stripped public services are failing.

The Tories have consistently blamed migrants for the fallout of their policies. Not the richest 1% of society that claimed 82% of the wealth generated last year or the massive multinational corporations paying no tax, and certainly not themselves. For two decades, successive governments have used Muslims as a scapegoat for their disastrous military interventions in the Middle East. The mainstream media have been a largely uncritical transmission belt, happily presenting these ideas as facts.

These are the ideas that form the bedrock of far-right rhetoric – it’s how the far-right can co-opt and mobilise the legitimate anger against the government and deteriorating living standards. As the neoliberal centre ground continues to collapse, politics continues to be polarised to the right and to the left. On the left this has been articulated through the Corbyn surge. On the right, faced with the demise of UKIP and a crisis-ridden Tory party unable to govern, it is manifesting itself in far-right street movements.

It is the same mechanism that gave Donald Trump his victory in the US and the far right in Europe. Eight years of austerity under Obama followed by the sabotage of Bernie Sanders by the Democrats resulted directly in the strengthening of the so-called “alt-right” and Trump gaining the presidency. Similarly, the harsh austerity and anti-democratic measures of the European Union have boosted the far right across Europe – France’s National Front, Germany’s AfD, Italy’s League and the far-right parties that have actually taken power in Poland, Austria and Hungary.

Just a few months ago Donald Trump retweeted Britain First, giving them a huge platform and filling their supporters with glee. Saturday’s rally was addressed by Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders who proclaimed that “Tommy Robinson is the greatest freedom fighter of Britain today” and that “our governments sold us out with mass immigration, with Islamisation, with open borders – we are almost foreigners in our own lands”.

This growing pan-European and transatlantic networking by far-right groups is extremely dangerous. It means we need to be honest about the role the EU has been and is playing in creating the conditions that are worsening the living standards and collective power of the working class, as well as for the far right to thrive. It also means we really need to tackle the issues head on.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has proved that there is an appetite for radical left wing ideas and his performance in the general election last year proved that a left wing Labour Party can win electorally. Around half of UKIP’s lost votes in the 2017 election went to Labour, showing that a large part of their previous electoral success was down to a lack of a credible alternative to the Tories.

The recent outrage at the treatment of the Windrush generation and the hostile environment Theresa May created for immigrants shows that this government has misjudged public opinion and that the ideas of the far-right don’t have popular purchase.

The left has so far benefited more from polarisation than the right has, but this is not a given and won’t necessarily last unless we actively make it so. We can only undermine the far right and make it clear that they don’t have as much support as they think they do when we control the streets.

Since the election, the Labour leadership hasn’t been as combative as some of us might have hoped. The movements here have an important role in pressuring the leadership to stay radical and to remain connected to the streets. A week ago, Jeremy Corbyn issued a strong statement condemning the massacre in Gaza and in solidarity with Palestinians – but that statement was only issued to be read at a Palestine demonstration. Had the demonstration not been called, that statement would not have been delivered.

So we have a critical role in mobilising on the streets and showing both that we have the real solutions for tackling inequality and that we are serious about fighting for radical change, leaving no room for the far right to claim they have popular grassroots support and showing up their arguments for the shallow nonsense that they are.

But we cannot do that when we are as massively outnumbered as we were on Saturday and at a number of previous FLA rallies around the country. The entire movement needs to be brought out to confront fascists and that means building a serious united front and organising proactively with trade unions, the widest possible range of social campaign groups and religious and ethnic minority communities.

In the immediate term, we have two big opportunities to shape the political landscape and push back against the far-right in the months to come. They are the NHS demonstration on 30 June and the demonstration against Donald Trump on 13 July. Both give us the opportunity to bring big numbers of people onto the streets and to reclaim the narrative on austerity, war and racism. Particularly at the Trump demo, where we can put forward a direct challenge to the racists and undermine them, especially since the DFLA are organising a “Welcome Trump” march.

In the next month, we have to do everything we can to get as many people as we can to the demonstrations, and we urgently need to build serious organisation on the ground. The far right are organising and we simply cannot afford to be complacent.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.