Solidarity with Muslims and maximum unity are the watchwords for confronting today’s street racists, argues Lindsey German
The sight of 10,000 people led by fascists marching through London is incredibly worrying for all of us on the left. It is doubly worrying that the counter-demonstration amounted to only a small fraction of that number and was clearly in danger from attack at various points. The march reflects a number of things: the general growth of right-wing sentiment across the developed world, with its focus on attacking Muslims and migrants; the turn of UKIP from its failed electoral path towards a far-right street fighting alternative; the attempt by the presently jailed Tommy Robinson to build a broader far-right movement on the basis of crude Islamophobia and nationalism; the bankruptcy of a weak and nasty Tory government.
This development has been both predictable and predicted. The Democratic Football Lads Alliance has managed at least for now to bring together the rag tag and bobtail of tiny fascist and extreme right-wingers into a more coherent and larger right-wing force, given momentum by Robinson’s imprisonment for contempt of court and, on a wider level, by the alt-right internationally. The Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders addressed the demo and it was sent a message by Donald Trump's former right-hand man, Steve Bannon.
It is a sign of the deep political polarisation in the decade since the great financial crash of 2008. We have seen a growing discontent with mainstream parties and the growth of parties to the far right and far left. In Britain, Labour has maintained its popularity only as a result of the election of its most left leader, and the adoption of an anti-austerity manifesto. In countries such as France, Germany and Italy, traditional left social democratic parties have in contrast seen their support collapse. Discontent with traditional right-wing parties such as the Tories has also been evidenced by the Brexit vote and the lack of support for the party at last year’s election.
We have seen the far right in government in the US which obviously has a huge impact on right-wing forces worldwide plus in a number of European countries such as Hungary, Poland, Italy and Austria. The pressure of the rise of the far right is also leading to the main parties, including those of the left and social democracy, adopting similar policies against Muslims and immigrants. Denmark is the latest country to ban the Muslim women’s dress, a move accompanied by the Social Democratic Party adopting much more stridently anti-Islamic policies.
Britain has escaped the worst of this so far for two main reasons. One is the relative success until last year of the electoral right in the shape of UKIP. Its demise has led many of its leaders to flirt with fascist street politics. This has been a pattern with the British far right before. The second reason is the strength of Jeremy Corbyn who has helped avoid the opportunist response to right-wing politicians we saw from previous Labour leaderships.
However, we have to organise at every level on the left to stop the situation getting worse and to assert an alternative to the politics of scapegoating and racism. There will be much discussion in coming weeks about how we got to this state of affairs and how to counter it.
We firstly need to think about this as a new situation or phase of the struggle against racism and fascism. That means we need to think of how we deal with it strategically. It seems to me that is not helped by just repeating that we need more people on the counter-demonstrations. A moralistic approach works with a small number of people but in the end, does not politically motivate the forces needed. In addition, it is clear that just arithmetically increasing mobilisations is not going to do the trick. What is needed is a mass united front political approach which can bring large numbers of people onto the streets and organise organically among different sections of society in a meaningful way.
This means drilling down from national trade union support to every workplace, where those already committed to anti-racism and fascism engage in a process of agitation and education among their workmates. It means organising different groups from football supporters to tenants’ organisations, from community choirs to pensioners groups, to win the argument against the divisive politics of the right.
It means too that Labour has to mobilise on the streets and in communities and workplaces to counter this threat. Labour is a mass membership organisation, as is Momentum. It cannot confine itself to internal debates and promoting Corbyn as prime minister in waiting. The streets cannot be left to the right to mobilise and intimidate Muslims, ethnic minorities and anyone else they want to scapegoat.
So this is urgent. The left movements have not seen right-wing mobilisations on this scale for many years now. But politics are at an impasse in parliament and nature abhors a vacuum. If we do not organise for our agenda the right will try to enforce theirs.
While the situation is serious, we should not exaggerate how bad it is. The views held by these people are rejected by millions across Britain. Millions more can be won away from the politics of racism and scapegoating if they find the left relevant to their concerns. That means arguments in favour of public ownership, the NHS, trade union rights, against austerity have to be at the centre of our work. The failure of much of the left to accept the argument for a united front against austerity has been a weakness and must now be remedied.
We need to confront fascists on the streets, and well done to everyone who opposed the DFLA on Saturday and on previous demonstrations. But having small mobilisations which have not widened their reach and effect can often demoralise the participants. Let’s instead organise a major demo on a day they are not mobilising, in order to show opposition and also to build critical mass, to begin to harness our forces and turn them towards local mobilisations. That has to go alongside the mobilisations over Grenfell, the NHS and other issues.
The protests against Donald Trump's visit are a great opportunity to test this thesis. They need to be the largest, most united and most effective that we can muster. If we want to send a message to the DFLA, to Robinson and to UKIP that their politics are not shared by large numbers in this country, then turning out against Trump on 13 July is a very good place to start.
Rebellion on the Tories’ terms
This week sees supposedly tense debates about reversing the House of Lords amendments on Brexit. The debate yet again says more about Labour than the Tories. There was supposedly going to be a Tory revolt which would have maintained support for Britain staying in the European Economic Area. Now it looks like that rebellion won’t happen. The argument is that such an action would put Theresa May’s government in jeopardy and could usher in both a more pro Brexit leader and a possible Corbyn government. So rebellion is off the menu. These remain Tories have few principles when it comes to saving their seats and government, and are motivated by class interests above all.
All the more shameful then is the stance of the Labour rebels, including Hilary Benn and Chuka Umunna, who have declared that the only game in town is to back these same Tory Remainers. The logic put forward by Umunna is that the Tories will never vote for a Labour amendment so the only alternative is that Labour has to change its policy to fit in with the Tories. It is a disastrous strategy and one which disingenuously pretends it is MPs listening to their constituents. Yet a number of the MPs likely to rebel against Corbyn on Tuesday are from constituencies where leave votes were high. None of these right-wing MPs - who have gained safe seats in Wales, the northeast and Yorkshire - is remotely interested in reflecting the views of their constituents here. They just want to use this to attack Corbyn and to maintain the Blairite centre ground in politics which is so important to them.
The rows in Labour pose dilemmas for those on the left. The whole Brexit debate has divided the left and continues to do so, but increasingly the divisions are ones which reflect ruling class and establishment values - whether to stay or leave the trading, economic and political entity, how close to remain to it - rather than ones which reflect working class values. Left wingers on both sides can and must unite around a range of issues, whether defeating fascism, defending the NHS, stopping terrible job losses most recently with House of Fraser announcing the closure of half their department stores, demanding a higher minimum wage. These are the issues which most MPs, journalists and campaigners really couldn’t care less about.
It is these issues on which the left must deliver, and it must see the Brexit debates in this light. So no support for worsening conditions, no support for remain attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, and an understanding that the miserable conditions under which working people live today in so many cases are ones which predated Brexit, and ones which the EU as a whole was - and is - happy to endorse.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December
- We have a world to win – election briefing Polling Day
- Ignore the naysayers and keep fighting – election briefing 11 December
- Lindsey German: don't underestimate how far we've come - video
- One nation or the one percent? - election briefing 10 December
- Ten points to remember before polling day – election briefing 9 December
- Antisemitism, politics, and voting Tory - election briefing 6 December