For the third time since their emergence onto the political landscape in 2009, the self-styled ‘English Defence League’ rioted in a major British city. On 23 January, the streets of Stoke, filled with up to 1500 EDL racists (according to the BBC), were a no-go area for ordinary shoppers and anti-racists alike as petrol bombs flew, rocks arced through the sky and drunken thugs rampaged.
The EDL first hit the headlines after an anti-Muslim demonstration – posing as opposition to ‘Islamic extremism’ – descended into a racist riot through Luton. The EDL, posing as ‘concerned citizens’ staged further demonstrations in Manchester, Leeds and elsewhere which remained relatively peaceful. In Birmingham a small number of EDLers were confronted with physical opposition and scampered away. In Nottingham EDL members – filled with booze and racist hatred – were provoked by anti-racists into a full-blown fight with the police. Their march and rally were cancelled.
Things were different in Stoke. The EDL organised large numbers and they were confident. Nationalists, racists and fascists see Stoke as ‘theirs’. The British National Party enjoys widespread support and despite a recent split in their group of councillors, remains a force to be reckoned with. The EDL came to Stoke spoiling for a fight.
Those they sought to confront – anti-racists and anti-fascists organised by NORSCARF and UAF – were well out of reach. Opposed to the one and a half thousand racist thugs were a group of no more than 400, tightly policed, activists. Riot vans and hundreds of police stood between the two groups. Without such massive protection those opposing the EDL – and not the EDL themselves – would have been run out of town.
The anti-racists and anti-fascists gathered at Stoke’s Afro-Caribbean centre on the edge of the city centre and held a rally. The tone of the official UAF speakers – all of them Socialist Workers Party members – was markedly different from previous such rallies. They avoided drawing sharp political lines between those who opposed the BNP and EDL and repeated the unthinking, and most likely untrue, accusation that the EDL is a BNP front group. They did, however, attempt to counter the racist claims of both organisations. Weyman Bennett, in possibly the best speech he’d ever given, laid the blame for the economic crisis at the door of the bankers and government. It was a populist speech, not socialist, but a major improvement on the usual ‘smash the Nazis’ rant.
The politics quickly sank into the quagmire as first a Liberal Democrat councillor and then a prospective Tory candidate took the stage. Cllr Ali claimed in his speech that Stoke doesn’t have a problem with racism and that everyone in the town was really very happy. The only person more politically unhinged than Cllr Ali that day was whoever decided to include a representative of David ‘cut immigration by 75%’ Cameron’s Tories on the platform: a truly scandalous act of stupidity.
When challenged about his comments, Cllr Ali told me that “The EDL come to Stoke because of the BNP. Without them they wouldn’t be welcome. I don’t think the BNP are successful but they have confidence. People are unhappy with political instability, people are not happy with the Labour Party. We need to politically engage them.” Yes we do, but this cannot be done with blatant lies of the type he offered from the platform nor from Tories denouncing fascists for not being “British” enough. The UAF-organised platform missed the opportunity to speak to those who turned up to oppose the EDL.
Tyler from Stoke was let down on more than one account. He told me that “We’re here to represent and defend our community. We have one concern: making sure that everyone can walk through the streets in safety. We need strength to stop the EDL.”
Where could that strength come from? Up to now the demonstrations against the EDL, and the BNP for that matter, have been organised with the ‘support’ of the trade unions and labour movement. This ‘support’ amounts to franchising out the responsibility for anti-fascist and anti-racist work via a financial donation to organisations like Unite Against Fascism and ‘Hope not Hate’. Such an approach is clearly not working.
Richard Sidley from the NASUWT (teachers union) executive started his speech to the crowd by sending greetings to those assembled from ‘the biggest teachers union in England’. Those greetings are very much welcome but the only people from the NASUWT on the demonstration were himself and someone to help carry a banner. When I asked him about this problem, Richard Sidley replied “I’m happy to see others representing trade unions here today. We have a responsibility to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Stoke. Trade unions have to step forward and respond. It cannot just be students and trade union activists who do the job. We need to mobilise a larger number of trade unionists.” The events in Stoke demonstrate this all the more clearly.
Extending Trotsky’s idea that in certain circumstances the bourgeoisie can achieve part of what the working-class cannot do for themselves, it is clear that in Stoke the police played the role that our movement was not capable – neither politically, organisationally or numerically – of fulfilling. Without the forces of the state to protect us, we would have been helpless. Such conditions cannot endure without the further deterioration, in politics and spirit, of those who oppose racism and fascism.
If the labour movement is to overcome the current malaise of ‘official’ anti-fascism it must politically educate and organise its members. It must discontinue the essentially parasitic relationship with the SWP’s front organisation, UAF, and mobilise on its own terms. Such a change will be the result of socialists intervening and arguing seriously for a different model of organisation, for working class politics and a combined effort to mobilise the labour movement. Such efforts are underway and will be discussed formally at an upcoming conference in Nottingham on 27th March.
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