One anniversary that passed us by

Anti-racists and anti-fascists have long memories. I can recall graphic details of how we were suddenly, forcefully, pushed to the back of Trafalgar Square by thick ranks of police, arms linked,  on my first anti-fascist demonstration in 1975, so that the plinth could be reserved for “race”-obsessed, Hitler worshipping, anti-immigrant agitators to practice their free speech.

I still have haunting memories of a march through south Hackney and Hoxton in 1977


Hoxton NF activist, Derrick Day

where we were outnumbered by National Front members and supporters pouring on to the streets from the estates we walked through and the pubs we passed, to scream abuse and threaten us on the streets. One of them targeted myself and a group of young Jewish socialists. At spitting distance he was shouting, “You’re going to the gas chambers.”

I was out of London when the powerful Black People’s Day of Action march took place in 1981 following a fire at a house in New Cross where young people were partying. Thirteen black teenagers died in what is widely believed to have been a racist fire-bombing, Friends who marched that day have described that day of action to me relatively recently, as clearly as if it had happened last week.


Enoch powell

Our memories are punctuated by anniversaries. In April this year we will recall the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Enoch Powell’s poisonous “Rivers of Blood” speech. It will be the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder by racist thugs as he waited a bus stop in Eltham south London, with his friend Duwayne Brooks. We will once again recall the appalling behaviour of the five police who arrived on the scene and treated Duwayne as the suspect. While Stephen Lawrence struggled for his life, not one of them attempted to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation. We know why.

Later that same year, myself and other family members, were among the 60,000 who were attempting to march on the  bookshop/HQ the British National Party had established in Welling, not that far from where Stephen Lawrence was murdered and a host of other horrific racist attacks had occurred.

I have no doubt these anniversaries will be marked this year. But one 40th anniversary on this theme, just a few days ago, seems to have passed us by. It didn’t take place on the streets. People experienced it in their living rooms, watching World in Action on television. On 30th January 1978, Gordon Burns interviewed the leader of the opposition at that time, Margaret Thatcher, in a period when the National Front were holding provocative marches on the streets aiming to intimidate minority communities and using every opportunity to push the propaganda line Enoch Powell popularised 10 years earlier: Stop Immigration Start Repatriation.

In the interview Thatcher expressed her fears and encouraged her white British viewers to share them:

“… by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth


Margaret Thatcher

or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay people’s’ fears on numbers.…we cannot go on taking in that number…
there is a feeling that the big political parties have not been talking about this… as much as we should… that is one thing that is driving some people to the National Front. They do not agree with the objectives of the National Front, but they say that at least they are talking about some of the problems…  we ourselves must talk about this problem and we must show that we are prepared to deal with it. We are a British nation with British characteristics. Every country can take some small minorities and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened.”

Burns interjected: “So, some of the support that the National Front has been attracting in recent by-elections you would hope to bring back behind the Tory party?”

Thatcher replied: “Oh, very much back…”

altabalimetpoliceappealOn 4th May, less than 100 days after that interview was broadcast, Altab Ali,a 24-year-old Bengali immigrant, on his way home from a hard day’s labour making clothes in a workshop on Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, was attacked, and stabbed to death, by three teenagers. They were two 17- year-olds and one 16-year-old. In court, they acknowledged they did it because he was “a Paki”. His assailants were not born racists – and one of them was himself of mixed-race heritage – but they had their minds poisoned by racist and anti-immigrant ideology that they imbibed from several sources, not least the National Front. May 4th 1978 was also the day of local council elections. The National Front were contesting 41 of the 50 council seats being fought over that day in the borough where Altab Ali was killed. They knew they wouldn’t get elected but it gave them a chance to spread their venomous propaganda and hatred.

This afternoon I will be taking nearly 30 young activists for social justice fromstop10_004 marginalised communities in South London, on a walk in the East End focusing especially on, immigration, anti-racism and multiculturalism. They are part of the Advocacy Academy, a brilliant and imaginative project that works with them for one year through residential retreats and fortnightly gatherings. I have taken two previous Advocacy Academy groups on this walk. When we visit Altab Ali Park, the small green space between Aldgate and Whitechapel named in his memory, I will tell them his story and show them a poster of the time that says “Who killed Altab Ali”. I will put that question to them, and I expect, perhaps with a bit of prompting they will be able to tell me who it was that killed Altab Ali – beyond the three teenagers who stood trial and served their time.

Because there were surely a number of adults who should have been in the frame too:   National Front organisers and propagandists; the police, who had been failing to deal with racial violence against the local immigrants community; the press with their repeated and sensationalist anti-immigrant headlines… and mainstream politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who was cynically seeking to  win votes for the Conservative Party that were heading the National Front’s way, not by challenging their philosophy but by  legitimising it.

Let us remember Altab Ali, Stephen Lawrence, Martin Luther King and all victims of racist murders,  but let’s not forget the parts played by Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher.






The Suffragettes who fought for equality within their own movement

Teresa Billington was a self-motivated rebel born in Blackburn in 1877.  She ran away from her very strict Catholic working class family. While apprenticed as a milliner, she went to night school after long days at work, to train as a teacher. She worked at a school in Crumpsall, Manchester, but was hauled up in front of the local Education Committee and faced the sack, because she had refused to teach religious instruction. One of her responses to her own strict religious upbringing was to become an agnostic. One outspoken member of the Education Committee was really impressed by Teresa’s spirit and arranged for her to be transferred to a Jewish school where she would not herself be obliged to teach religion. That Committee member was Emmeline Pankhurst. They became firm friends, and before long Teresa had joined Emmeline in two political bodies that she had become involved in consecutively – the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), later known, of course, as the suffragettes.


Annie Kenney (left) and Christabel Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst founded the suffragettes with close family and political friends in Manchester, in 1903, as a new kind of suffrage movement in Britain,  unafraid to take on the authorities with militant methods of civil disobedience. When Emmeline wanted to spread the organisation beyond Manchester and make it national, she sent Teresa Billington down to London with another fiery working class activist, Annie Kenney. A bit later Teresa was chosen to replicate this work in Glasgow. There she met and married a local socialist, Frederick Greig. Her feminist principles were expressed in their pre-nuptial agreement which bound them to take each other’s surnames rather than replace her identity with his surname. They both became Billington-Greigs.

Her close political and personal friendship with Emmeline Pankhurst reached breaking point though, at a delegate conference of the WSPU in 1907. The movement was four years old. It had established a recognised style with its purple green and white sashes and flags, had launched its own newspaper – Votes for Women  –  later renamed The Suffragette, and forced its way into the headlines of the mainstream press. It was growing rapidly, but still had no rules governing how it ran its own affairs. Teresa was pleased to have been asked by Emmeline to draw up a constitution for the WSPU that would be discussed and voted on at this delegate conference. What followed on the day profoundly shocked her. In her own words:

“The meeting where this was to be discussed was dramatically and unexpectedly turned from its intended purpose by Mrs [Emmeline] Pankhurst who …announced that there was not to be a constitution or any voting membership, but that she… had assumed dictatorship and would direct-govern … through her selected colleagues or subordinates”.

Emmeline Pankhurst then physically tore up the draft document, theatrically trampled it underfoot, announcing that the WSPU:

“was not a society but a volunteer army enrolled by her and her officers for one purpose only and that no interference from the ranks could be contemplated.”

In notes held at the Women’s Library collection at LSE, Billington-Grieg describes


Teresa Billington-Greig

“stunned surprise and confusion… the meeting broke up in disorder”, with delegates wondering how they could “claim the right to vote as citizens of the country and agree to be voteless in the management of our own society”.

Seventy of the 350 delegates walked out of the meeting and many of them became founder members of a splinter group of suffragettes called the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). In sharp contrast with the WSPU this splinter group democratically elected its officers at an annual conference and made policy decisions by majority vote. It built its own independent suffragette campaigns for example, around Tax Resistance, and published its own newspaper, The Vote. The WFL had charismatic leading figures too, its most prominent one being a vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist socialist-feminist called Charlotte Despard, who lived in Battersea, but Despard and her colleagues were democratically elected to their positions on a regular basis.

The WSPU, dominated by Emmeline Pankhurst and the eldest of her three daughters, Christabel, is credited by history with conducting the most militant suffragette campaigns – which involved many courageous confrontations with the police, window smashing and arson attacks. But militancy should not be confused with political radicalism. Rather than being collective actions by what had originally been a movement rooted much more among working class women, many militant actions were carried out by well-to-do individuals, who could risk imprisonment knowing there would still be many nannies to look after their children  and an income still coming into their households. Christabel Pankhurst consciously pushed working class suffragettes to the margins, by insisting that actions be taken by “picked women”. Christabel wrote:

“No militant could go to prison merely for her own sake…. It is for the sake of other people more helpless and more unhappy than themselves that the militant women are prepared to pay a heavy price”.


Pankhursts: Emmeline, Christabel, Sylvia

The WFL, however, remained a cross-class movement committed to collective action. Its critique of the WSPU was not just about the democratic deficit in its own internal workings; it was also a critique of the limited framework of their political demands. Emmeline Pankhurst popularised the slogan “Votes for Women” but the full sentence read “… on the same basis as men” and this was at a time when barely 60% of men had the vote, on a property basis that privileged the most wealthy. The WFL saw this “on the same basis” demand as a bare minimum and increasingly spoke of “universal suffrage”. Teresa Billington-Greig argued that:

“The vote cannot secure of itself any single woman’s emancipation. It is a tool; and the kind of work that can be done with it depends first upon the nature of the tool, and second, upon the capacity of the person who uses it. Large areas in which emancipation is needed lie entirely outside the scope of the vote… a slave woman with a vote will still be essentially a slave.”

The WFL articulated  a wider feminist agenda:  “equal rights, equal opportunities; equal reward for our work; equal justice”. And these principles were also at the heart of the work of another democratically organised section of the WSPU that was forced out of the movement in early 1914 – its East London Federation. East End suffragettes were typically factory workers, laundry workers, cleaners, barmaids and shopworkers. They had a handful of middle-class members, though one who was very influential was Emmeline Pankhurst’s middle daughter, Sylvia, who settled in the East End in 1912. The East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) developed their own newspaper – Woman’s Dreadnought – after being expelled from the movement, and like the WFL, they maintained close connections between suffragette vote-oriented struggles and women’s industrial struggles for better pay and equal opportunities.

The clearest example of the cleavages within the movement came as Britain went to Warwomens-tax-resistance-league-banner in 1914. The WSPU dramatically scaled down its operation to demonstrate that it was patriotically behind the war effort, and the Government responded by releasing suffragette prisoners. The WSPU even changed the name of its newspaper from The Suffragette to Britannia in wartime. In contrast, the WFL and the ELFS, (both groups led by opponents of the war) stepped up their activities, focusing especially on trying to enforce a cap on rocketing food prices, and supporting women’s employment struggles. Many factories closed down in the early period of the war. Later in the war women were recruited to fill posts that had generally been reserved for men, but were given just a third to a half of the wages. Both the ELFS and the WFL  campaigned and marched to Westminster for equal pay and equal opportunities.

The suffragette struggle as a whole was undoubtedly a very successful rebel movement, but it was the success of an incredibly determined but divided movement.

In all the coverage I have seen in the build up to 6th February, the 100th anniversary of Royal Assent for the Representation of the People Act (which overnight granted the vote to more than 8 million women),  Emmeline Pankhurst has featured very prominently. The Act gave the vote to all men who had reached the age of 21, save those incarcerated in prisons and mental health institutions, and to married women over 30 who met a very minimal property qualifications, as well as university graduates. One militant suffragette, Lilian Lenton who had taken part in widow-smashing and arson activities said, “Personally, I didn’t vote for a long time, because I hadn’t either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30.”

In Victoria Gardens, next to Parliament, there is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst which was unveiled in 1930 in a ceremony where, unbelievably, the Metropolitan Police’s marching band had enthusiastically played Ethel Smyth’s “March of the Women”. Emmeline had died in 1928, just weeks before the further Act that would enfranchise all women and bring full political equality with men. Had she lived until 1929, she would  herself have stood for Parliament. She had been adopted as the candidate in an East End constituency by the Conservative Party!

f5af8edabec5a7aebe246f01f4df5462In the 1950s, the statue was moved closer to the main road, and side sections were added which celebrated, by then, Dame Christabel Pankhurst, and also acknowledged the women who went to prison in the suffragette cause, with a representation of the brooch/medal that the movement gave to prisoners on the morning they were released. It doesn’t credit the artist who designed that medal though. It was Sylvia Pankhurst. And there is no mention either of the Women’s Freedom League on the statue.

In the wake of Parliaments decision on 6th February 1918, the WSPU declared its job done and began to formally close down. It knew that full political equality was just a matter of time. It took another 10 years. But the ELFS, with Sylvia Pankhurst still playing a pivotal role, continued their work into the 1920s. By then they had transmuted into the Workers Suffragette Federation, then the Workers Socialist Federation. The WFL, though, outlived them all, not closing down until 1961, having fought and won many battles on its wider women’s equality agenda. The cudgels would soon be taken up by the new generation of “second-wave feminists”.

Teresa Billington was still alive in 1961 (she died in 1964), and spoke at the winding down ceremony of the Women’s Freedom League. She said that the campaign for votes for women was “only the first stage of political emancipation”. She praised the WFL for the way it had conducted itself internally as well as externally, “rejecting dictatorship as a false means to a good end“. She added, “I feel its death as a tragedy. It was born of the spirit of democracy and rebellion.” That rebellion, in London had included a rebellion within the suffragette movement. It is time that all of those rebels got the recognition they deserve too.


Find out more about the movements and personalities involved on my guided walk “Fighters for Equality: Suffragettes, anti-racists and enemies of Empire” on Sunday 4th March. Details and booking: