On 21 July 2018, a demo called by supporters of English Defence League co-founder and far-right activist Tommy Robinson ended quickly in humiliation. In sharp contrast to the thousands of Robinson supporters on the streets of London the Saturday before, the Cambridge ‘Free Tommy’ demo had a turnout of 35 at most.
Opposing the far-right were two counter-demonstrations that joined forces on a different corner of Parker’s Piece to the ‘Free Tommy’ demo: one called by Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) and Unite Against Fascism (UAF), and another called by Cambridge University Students’ Union BME Campaign, Cambridge Defend Education, and Common Cambridge. The counter-demonstrators significantly outnumbered the far-right, with an estimated turnout of 400.
The ‘Free Tommy’ demo eventually came over and had a stand-off with the combined counter-demo, separated by police. Demoralised by the sheer imbalance in numbers, the Robinson supporters soon gave up and were led away. The counter-demo then marched around town and, aside from the arrest of one far-right demonstrator, there was no significant use of force.
We should celebrate the far-right’s embarrassing defeat. Nevertheless, much of this defeat had more to do with the far-right failing to muster its anticipated turnout than it did with the counter-demo’s own organisational approach, which was often far less confrontational than it needed to be. For instance, approximately 20 minutes into our rally of speakers and musical acts, we were told that there were only 14 ‘Free Tommy’ marchers at the other corner of Parker’s Piece. Despite this tactical knowledge, we were subsequently informed that we would hear the last couple of rally speakers and then have a march around town. Our needed stand-off with the far right happened only because they came to us.
This illustrates why we need to think about the exact purpose of such counter-demos. It is not sufficient to have an alternative rally and march. Our objective should be to break the far-right’s momentum and sense of security so that they cannot build or sustain a fascist street movement. This requires us to move against the fascists and their allies much more proactively than we did in Cambridge. Moreover, while there were thankfully several Labour Party and trade union banners, the labour movement needs to think about how much anti-fascist organising it has ‘outsourced’ to bodies like SUTR and UAF at the expense of its own capacity to mobilise in self-defence.