With the far right gaining strength at home and across the continent, this demonstration provides the left with a crucial opportunity to fight back, writes David McAllister
We are witnessing the biggest surge in support for racism and fascism for decades. Many were shocked to see 15,000 march in London on 9th June in support of the fascist founder of the EDL, Tommy Robinson. His conviction for contempt of court in May has led to a hardcore of fascists pulling some broader support around them. Recent mobilisations by the new Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) have also been worrying for anti-racists in Britain.
A National Unity Demonstration against Racism and Fascism has been called for 17th November in order to counter this threat. It has been initiated by Stand Up to Racism, and is supported by Unite Against Fascism and LoveMusic HateRacism, as well as by Diane Abbott MP and John McDonnell MP. This follows John McDonnell’s call that “it’s time for an Anti-Nazi League-type cultural and political campaign to resist” because “we can no longer ignore the rise of far-right politics in our society.”
The rise of the far right takes place against a larger political backdrop - several key events have manured the ground for a growth of fascist organisation in Britain. The well-established longer-term trend of course is the ongoing War on Terror, which has been accompanied by a ramping up of Islamophobia at home by politicians and the right-wing media. The project is one of fostering a culture of suspicion and hatred against Muslim communities, a move which has always benefited the far right.
More recent events have accelerated this process. The Windrush scandal, where thousands of black British citizens were targeted for deportation as part of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, exposes the rotten racism at the heart of our political system. This has only been further inflamed by Boris Johnson’s horrific comparison of niqab-wearing Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’ (something for which he refused to apologise). These are not accidents. Economic crisis and austerity have created a polarisation in society, where the establishment will seek to deflect the accumulated bitterness amongst working class people away from themselves and on to vulnerable scapegoats.
Internationally, the rise of Donald Trump means that the most powerful country in the world has the most reactionary president in living memory. He has become a significant figurehead for racists and fascists around the world who identify with him. His recent visit to Britain inspired a series of fascist ‘welcome’ demonstrations around the country, though these were dwarfed by the ‘Together Against Trump’ demonstrations which turned out to reject this racist message, including the 250,000 who took to the streets of London on 13th July.
This represents the other side of the polarisation in society, where there is a huge appetite for the politics of hope represented by big anti-racist mobilisations and the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn. There are huge opportunities to build from this which we cannot afford to miss if we are going to beat back the politics of despair represented by the far right.
Developments on the continent are equally, if not more, concerning. Populist and far right parties have enjoyed success on a level not seen since the 1930s and this has obviously boosted fascists in Britain. This is not just in the form of being granted some mainstream legitimacy for their ideas, but also in the form of practical support. Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and Dutch fascist Geert Wilders both spoke on their demonstration on 9th June. There is, therefore, an international dimension to this which makes it crucial that we give as much solidarity as we can to people fighting racism in the United State and across Europe.
But it’s also important that we keep things in perspective. The growth of the far right does not reflect a general rightward shift in British society. In fact, surveys have shown that public attitudes towards migrants has become more positive in recent years. Also, the 15,000 who demonstrated in support of Tommy Robinson might be unprecedented, but it is still tiny compared to the recent left-wing national demonstrations in London.
The day after the demonstration against Trump, Tommy Robinson supporters were countered by thousands of anti-racists organised by ‘Stand up to Racism’. There was also a tremendous show of solidarity with Bookmarks bookshop in London after it was attacked by a dozen far right activists. This was followed by a packed-out meeting where there was a clear call from all sides for a movement-wide anti-fascist organisation.
November 17th can be an important launchpad for this movement, so it is crucial that activists build as broadly as possible – in their workplaces, union branches, CLPs, university campuses, churches, synagogues, mosques and other community spaces.
The crisis in politics and society is such that the fascists can grow very quickly in short space of time if we become complacent. They will try to feed upon the disillusionment felt by working class people, and the populist racism which exists in official politics.
But two of the most striking images from July 14th were of Tommy Robinson supporters blocking and taunting a female bus driver, and of RMT union leader Steve Hedley following a brutal physical attack from fascists. This shows clearly that the Tommy Robinson movement does not represent working class people in any way. The working class is diverse and the vast majority reject the politics of racism and scapegoating.
Finally, November 17th is crucial for keeping the left where it is at its strongest – on the streets. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has unleashed a huge amount of energy in support of an alternative to the politics of racism and inequality.
We need to channel that energy into a fighting movement which will drown out the street movement Tommy Robinson is trying to build. That means putting the left in a position where it sets the agenda and takes the narrative away from the far right. This does of course mean that we must oppose and outnumber them whenever they march, but it also means that we go much further than that.
Given the growth of racism in society at both establishment and street level, it is important that we are not reduced to simply firefighting the fascists. We need to be proactive as well as reactive. We must organise to celebrate our diversity and express our rejection of racism, whether from Boris Johnson or Tommy Robinson.
This is why it is encouraging to see John McDonnell invoking the legacy of the Anti-Nazi League. That struggle was not only effective in directly countering the threat from the fascists, but also in remaining consistently active, mobilising broadly in every community, and building a vibrant culture where racism and fascism are not welcome.
We need that now. To paraphrase an old saying: we are many, the racists are few.