Last week saw a vibrant and united anti-racist and anti-fascist march through London. It was cross-generational and multicultural. It had a big turnout from several trade unions and a bigger Labour Party representation than I can remember over many years. It was built through blocs representing different sections, interests, identities, each of whom gave their segment of the march its own character. And it was internationalist -– personified by the large bloc of Brazilians (which included a separate women’s section) and supporters of the Brazilian left in the wake of Bolsonaro’s frightening victory.
What we witnessed last week were signs of a renewed confidence within a movement that any honest participant or observer would recognise has gone through difficult times in the last year, in the wake of global developments, but has begun to wake up to the urgent need to broaden its reach. Unfortunately, it has been the far-right in Britain, boosted by the advances it has made in America, and in Western and Eastern Europe, that has had a spring in its step. Although individual, centralist, far-right UK organisations remain small, their ability to mobilise huge numbers of atomised cross-class forces around common racist and nationalist themes, and around a figurehead, has shown their strength and potential.
That figurehead – Tommy Robinson – has been ridiculed as a “poundshop Enoch Powell”. From a platform at one of our recent anti-fascist mobilisations I called him “the lummox from Luton” and a “two-bob Oswald Mosley”. Intellectually, that is probably true, but he is dangerous. And the people especially in the USA and Canada, that have been pouring money into his account are banking on him becoming a lot more dangerous.
This week, though, he has been given a huge boost by the actions of two seemingly diametrically opposed movements. One is UKIP, which has been taken step by step on a journey to the very far right under the caretaker-leadership of Gerard Batten. The other is a movement which ostensibly includes people from the centre-left to the far left – Another Europe is Possible.
Robinson is not just some populist pub-brawler, but is a convinced racist and fascist. He is a former BNP member and EDL leader, who poses as a martyr to free speech, as a representative of the left behind (white) working-class, and a bulwark against a mythical Muslim takeover of British society. From his EDL days he was seeking to create division between Muslims and Jews by handing out Israeli flags on their demonstrations, while at the same time hob-nobbing with convinced Nazi antisemites with swastikas tattooed on their chest, and with anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists.
UKIP’s “temporary” leader, meanwhile, has kept very close to Robinson, and has been converting UKIP from a sanctuary mainly for disgruntled, hyper-nationalist but traditional, imperialist, Tories, which operates as a particular kind of protest vote at the ballot box, into a more openly cross-class movement. And most significantly, he has taken it on the streets to blend with largely working class far-right street protesters, many supplied by Islamophobic football firms.
Of course Brexit has been a major driver of that movement, but what drives their attachment to Brexit has been less a concern to maintain British independence from Brussels bureaucrats than an increasingly open racism, mainly expressed through Islamophobia but also a hardening of vicious anti-refugee sentiment, and under Batten’s leadership a sentiment against those he calls the “globalists” and “elites” who he believes are fostering multiculturalism and undermining the nation. More longstanding anti-fascists don’t need help decoding these antisemitic tropes.
Batten has met resistance within UKIP from more traditional Tories to his desire to bring Tommy Robinson into the fold, as a fully-fledged UKIP member, so he has by-passed that section of the membership this week by employing Robinson as an advisor (on grooming gangs and prison reform). Batten has pledged to work with him in a street mobilisation called for 9th December opportunistically railing against what they call the “Brexit Betrayal” represented by the chaotic “deal” being put together by Theresa May and her shrinking band of loyal followers. Brexit will be the slogan but the themes for this Robinson and Batten-led march and rally that will assert themselves will be open and blatant Islamophobia, coded antisemitism, vicious anti-left rhetoric and selective anti-establishment posturing.
The same forces that organised last week’s successful and positive march have called a counter-protest to Robinson and Batten’s plans. We will need as many people as possible who turned out on last week’s anti-racist and anti-fascist unity march to provide a solid opposition to them that will prevent them taking over the streets as they did in June and July.
The strength of that mobilisation last week was its ability to unite left wing Leave and Remain voters in a common cause. But Another Europe is Possible have called a separate protest which ties their opposition to the Far Right explicitly with anti-Brexit politics and a people’s vote, simultaneously splitting the anti-Robinson forces into Remainers and Leavers, while crowning Robinson the King of the Leave cause.
There is no doubt that, at the time of the referendum, those pushing the left’s scepticism about the capitalist club that comprises the EU barely got a look in. Hard right racists seized the initiative in gathering the Leave vote, and there was certainly a spike in racist attacks after the Leave victory in the referendum, by emboldened racists. But the reality was always more complicated and has become more so.
Leave also picked up a lot of votes for reasons other than racism. There are not 17 million hard-right racists in Britain, but there is a growth in far right racist forces right now. There are many trade unionists who are fighting for a more equal society, and who are anti-racist, but are thoroughly unimpressed with the EU, and voted Leave. Last week they turned out in big numbers on our march and were united with Remainers in their unions and in wider society. They can see the danger signs of a renewed far right. It would be disastrous if we let our forces be split on this basis, and if we gave people the impression that the natural leaders of the Leave movement are the likes of Tommy Robinson.
In the face of immense pressure from the right wing of the Labour Party and the pro-Remain establishment media, Jeremy Corbyn has steered a difficult path to keep on board those Labour members and voters who voted in either direction. He has sought to prioritise discussions of housing and homelessness, foodbanks, poverty, education cuts, trade union rights, the need for greater public ownership, and the threat from the growing far right in Britain and across Europe. Corbyn has been assiduously maintaining close connections with socialists in Europe, and pushing for an early General Election here as the means for social transformation.
I was a reluctant Remain voter, who, like others, saw what the EU did to Greece. I have witnessed the far-right and right-wing populist forces getting stronger across Europe and fear that the next European Elections will strengthen the most reactionary, authoritarian and racist forces within the EU. I also fear the potential for the far right to become much bigger here. This is not at all the time to split our forces on the question of racism and fascism, so I appeal to Another Europe is Possible to join a united effort to stop Batten and Robinson’s street movement in its tracks.
Whether there can be any coordination on the day with the forces around Antifa including the Feminist Anti-Fascist bloc and Plan C, who held a successful, separate mobilisation against the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, remains to be seen but they will surely turn out in numbers and won’t allow themselves to be divided on questions of Leave/Remain.
On 7 December, it will be the 80th anniversary of the return of the British Battalion that fought against Franco’s fascists in Spain. They docked at Newhaven, then came by train to Victoria Station where they were welcomed by huge numbers of anti-fascists and and were greeted by prominent political personalities including Clement Atlee.
They then went by bus to a dinner at the Cooperative Society in London’s East End, where the fight against fascism in Britain had been at its sharpest through the 1930s. Let’s honour the memory of those who fought in Spain with a united mobilisation against racism and fascism on 9 December. And let’s turn the popular slogan in the Spanish Civil War, “No Pasaran”, into a reality on the streets of London!