Plans by the English Defence League to demonstrate in Bradford on 28 August present a huge challenge to the local community, the national labour movement and the socialist left.
After failing to fulfil their promise of a “long, hot summer” of demonstrations, the EDL has now planned a provocation that could have repercussions for wider British society.
But unfortunately the threat posed by this nasty racist street gang has sent some sections of the left and trade unions into a spin. Once again the weakness and wrong-headedness of the “official” movement against racism and fascism has been shown up.
What is at stake and why are the issues so sharply posed?
Over the weekend of 7-9 June 2001, Bradford experienced the worst inner-city rioting since Brixton and Tottenham in 1981. The root-cause of this rioting is disputed in both mainstream and left-wing accounts.
Where reports on the BBC and other news websites painted the events as a high-pitched clash between Muslims, “whites” and the police, commentators like Nick Lowles from Searchlight magazine blame the outbreak of violence on the left being provoked by a handful of fascists.
The large numbers of police deployed and injured, the number of arrests and the total cost of damage grabbed the headlines in some media outlets. But the reality of racist and fascist provocation, in an already charged atmosphere of division and bigotry, was largely overlooked.
The events in Bradford followed similar disturbances in Burnley and Oldham. All three cities had, and to a degree retain, similar social problems: poverty, unemployment, poor housing. All three had and have been neglected by successive governments. All three contained communities — white, black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other south Asian communities — which had been set against each other in such circumstances and over a long period of time. In addition, all three areas had become targets for the organised far-right and fascist parties.
The events which sparked the riots in Burnley and Oldham — incidents which in an earlier period would have constituted another police statistic — sparked mass confrontation between white and mainly Asian youth. Bradford's history was similar but the “spark” for the rioting was somewhat different: it was organised.
Fascists from the British National Party and the National Front, hoping to sustain and roll-out a wave of race riots across the north of England — which, they said, could result in a “nationalist” revolution allowing them to gain political power — descended on Bradford to attack Muslims. Although a planned march by the NF was banned by then Home Secretary David Blunkett, tension had already been built and the fascists came to the city regardless of the ban.
Those on the left and within the trade unions who are now calling for the EDL’s demonstration to be banned and, in addition, call for there to be no counter-demonstration — to “avoid” a confrontation, we are told — miss several important points.
Nick Lowles claims that “Perhaps in some places there might be a case for [a counter-demonstration] but in Bradford we believe there is not.” Why? “No EDL protest has actually been stopped by a counter-demonstration ... In almost every instance the EDL has held a static protest regardless of the actions of anti-fascists. More worryingly, some have led to disorder.”
This is nonesense. The anti-fascist movement has so far failed to stop the EDL not because they can’t be stopped, but because the mobilisations against them have been far too small and poorly co-ordinated. The counter-demonstrations have “led to disorder” not because hundreds of drunken anti-fascists have gone out looking for a fight, but because, given the balance of forces in favour of them, the EDL have felt confident enough to use physical violence against their opponents.
Nick Lowles uses a more genuine argument when he states that “[u]nfortunately, much of the media coverage of earlier protests has presented a scene of two groups of extremists ... hardly the best way to win hearts and minds.”
However, why has it been possible for the media to portray things in this way? It forms this picture of events in the absence of a mass, labour movement mobilisation. A mobilisation uniting black and white, religious or not, on the basis of class.
In the debate on this issue on the ‘Hope not hate’ website, Dave Matthews from Nottinghamshire Stop the BNP answered Lowles’ argument, writing that those calling for no counter-demonstration — anti-racists, Muslim elders and some local trade unions — “are simply not strong enough to successfully bring about a de facto desertion of Bradford by Muslim people for the whole day. Many Muslim/Asian people will not want to cower in their homes whilst racists go on the rampage in the town. Unless one expects every Muslim to vacate town many will inevitably be out in the town at risk of being isolated, provoked and attacked by the EDL.”
This is absolutely right. In addition to the common sense imperative for the labour movement to stand firm against the threat of the EDL there is an equal imperative to stand side-by-side with those who are threatened and take the initiative to fight back. These are the best traditions of our movement and this is what we should be organising to achieve. Any other course of action will leave people isolated and under threat. It will leave the media free to continue its’ “clash of cultures” narrative about EDL violence.
Even if the Home Secretary issues a complete ban on all demonstrations in Bradford on the day or if the police issue restrictions on movement and activities, nobody can guarantee that small bands of racists and the organised fascists who operate within the EDL will not come to the city to provoke and attack.
Socialists and the left within the labour movement should be campaigning to win the argument for mass mobilisations against these threats.
It may already be too late to achieve the numbers and strength needed to drive the racists out of Bradford or to challenge restrictions imposed on anti-racists by the state. It is therefore essential that we get ready combat the conclusions that will be drawn by those already calling on us to give a free hand to the racists.
We need to reiterate again that we need working class campaign. But not just to mobilise the thousands necessary to drive the street racists out. Such a campaign is essential because only a working-class campaign with working-class politics can unite the communities in places like Bradford that the racists seek to break apart and set against one another.
And we need a clear analysis of exactly what the EDL represents. It is certain that organised fascists or those with past associations with fascist groups operate at the centre of the EDL.
But the EDL does not mobilise people on the basis of this kind of politics. Centrally and peripherally involved are old-style football hooligans; the hopeless, disheartened white working class – often young and poorly educated. Activists who have engaged in discussions with people on the margins of the EDL know that many of them genuinely believe themselves to be “not racist” or even “anti-racist”. The EDL has attracted support from small numbers of Sikhs, Jews (there is now a “Jewish Division”) and LGBT people. The dynamic around the EDL is therefore not straightforward.
What unites those who demonstrate with the EDL is acceptance of a form of racism — specifically anti-Muslim racism — that manifests itself in softer and harder forms. The EDL’s claim to be “anti-extremist” is capable of covering all forms of this prejudice, after such vigorous and nasty campaigns by the right-wing tabloid press.
So whatever the actual politics of the core members and organisers of the EDL, it is useless and dangerous to label all EDL supporters as Nazis and fascists. Constantly applying these terms — in press releases, leaflets, placards and chants — can only damage efforts to split the vast majority of EDLers from the organisation.
There is currently a split in the leadership of the EDL with rival factions, including people associated with Loyalist terror groups, vying for control. There could be a political hardening of supporters around groups of fascists within the EDL. This prospect seems all the more worrying given the possible splits in and weakening of the British National Party.
Any victory for the EDL — be it the proscription of anti-racist activities; a riot between exclusively Muslim youth and EDLers or even a limited pitch battle with the police — can only aid their growth. Any growth for the EDL can only spell mortal danger for Muslims everywhere and the labour movement more generally.
And a continuation of the confusion, anti-democratic practices and political abstention within the anti-fascist and anti-racist movement can only aid this growth.
The labour movement must mobilise to challenge the English Defence League in Bradford on 28 August.
Stop Racism and Fascism Network: http://srfnetwork.org/