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EDL in Tower Hamlets – what lessons should we learn?

The anti-EDL protest in Tower Hamlet’s teaches us a lot about the problems we face in the anti fascist movement, but also how we can go forward, writes Mark Booth

Contained but not defeated

The attempt by the English Defence League (EDL) to march in Tower Hamlets on 3 September demonstrated the continuing weaknesses of the anti-fascist movement in Britain.

For the EDL 3 September was “the big one”, although they have a habit of claming that every demo is “the big one”. They were marching into “The lion’s den—the heart of multiracial and multicultural Britain” in the predominantly Asian and Muslim Tower Hamlets borough in order to take their so-called fight against “Islamic extremism” to the heart of London’s multiracial and multicultural East End.

The anti-fascist movement organised a large counter demonstration, but the Con-Dem government capitalised on the shift in the political climate after the riots, to ban all demonstrations in the 5 boroughs of East London, and the City of Westminster, initially for five days, but this was then extended to 30 days.

Sections of the anti-fascist movement, (Hope not Hate and United East End) supported the state ban as a blow against the EDL. Nick Lowles, Searchlight Co-ordinator said “Their [EDL] plan has been foiled.”

But events on the day were to prove Nick Lowles wrong. The state may occasionally take action against the fascists when it suits their interests, but the state will always use these occasions as an opportunity to attack the left at the same time.

The ban on demonstrations for 30 days was a blow to the anti-cuts movement and all those fighting the austerity budgets who lost their democratic right to protest.

The counter-demonstration did however go ahead, but was now restricted to a static protest on the corner of Vallance road opposite the East London Mosque.

While the counter-protest organised by UAF/UEE got around 1,500 on the street, the EDL themselves managed between 800 and 1000.

Neither demonstration went near the other, with the EDL being surrounded and escorted by thousands of police. The EDL arrived at King’s Cross and were escorted by police through the tube system to Moorgate then marched to a rally point by Aldgate where they were able to have a rally on the edge of Tower Hamlets borough.

Anti-fascists attempted to frustrate the progress of the EDL as they assembled at Liverpool Street, but they lacked the numbers and organisation to take effective action due to the bulk of protestors being corralled on Vallance Road.

The EDL were able to assemble largely unopposed and were marched into and out of Tower Hamlets with a heavy police escort. As the EDL approached Aldgate the bulk of demonstrators left the static protest to try and reach the EDL, but their path was blocked by thousands of police who kept the two sides well apart.

Although EDL leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known in public as “Tommy Robinson”, was arrested at the protest for violating his bail conditions and there were minor scuffles between police and the EDL resulting in some arrests, their march largely went off with hitch. The truly thuggish nature of the EDL was however exposed when one young journalist was surrounded and set on fire by them. He subsequently needed hospital treatment.

One of the EDL coaches was surrounded and a window was smashed when they attempted to drive out of London past the East London Mosque, an obvious provocation which got a clear answer from anti-fascist youth. But this was a spontaneous and coincidental action, not a collective imposition of no platform organised by the movement.

The reality is that the EDL were able to marshal roughly 1000 fascists and march them into the East End under the protection of the state. They were contained by the police, but they were certainly not beaten by the anti-fascist movement and this will set a precedent for further demonstrations.

More important, however, was the decision by the RMT to close train stations used by the EDL on health and safety grounds, actually using the power of the trade unions to frustrate the EDLs ability to mobilise, and the campaigns which got the EDL banned from carparks and pubs where they wanted to assemble. These were brilliant examples of tactics the organised workers’ movement can use to beat back the rise of the far right.

The nature of the EDL

Despite this being the 38th street march organised by the EDL, there is still confusion on the left over exactly what type of movement they are, and how we should respond to them.

The EDL are fascists – they use mass demonstrations to initiate pogroms against Muslims and Asian communities and cultivate a violent street fighting ethic designed to intimidate and sow fear in these communities.

They have attacked left wing meetings in many places. The lack of Swastikas and Hitler salutes should not fool anyone, the EDL are a uniquely British fascist organisation, one which appeals to fear of, or rather prejudice against, multiculturalism and multiracial integration. It is the formally ‘non fascist’ character of this fascism that makes them so dangerous. They provide an answer to the historic problem of British Nazism, which has, due to the fact that anti-Hitlerism forms a key part of the “we won the war” dominant ideology, struggled to win a mass following when it promotes these icons.

The SWP correctly designates the EDL as a fascist organisation and states it should be treated as such by applying the principle of no platform and physically blocking EDL marches. However, their central error is a disjuncture between theory and practice; they acknowledge the EDL are fascist yet do not take any of the necessary steps to organise the movement so it is capable of defeating this fascist threat. Their liberal anti fascist vehicle UAF is an anchor around their necks, preventing them from organising the kind of action that can stop the fascists.

More problematic is the line taken by the Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers Liberty, both of which state that the EDL is a racist organisation, however both reject any attempt to characterise it as fascist.

The SP have many detailed reports on their website of incidents of EDL members attacking Asian and Black people on their demonstrations, of the EDL intimidating and harassing SP activists in towns and cities around the UK and of the EDL organising vigilante squads in the aftermath of the August riots as a means of launching attacks on Asian and black people.

These are clear hallmarks of a fascist organisation trying to impose its will on the streets through physical violence and intimidation. However, despite this, the SP only characterise the EDL as a racist, far-right and hooligan organisation.

Not all the EDL’s membership will be hardened fascists yet and there are misguided and racist working-class people in the EDL, but the role they are playing as pogromists, clearly marks them out as distinctively fascist.

The AWL characterise the EDL as a racist and nationalist organisation, which has fascists within it. While they advocate self-defence against the EDL, they also refuse to designate the EDL as fascists.

In one article, the AWL criticise the SWP for not preparing self-defence of an anti-EDL meeting in Norwich that had to be shut down when over 30 EDL members turned up outside. The AWL fail to draw the obvious conclusion that the over 30 EDL members who turned up at the meeting were not there to “debate” but were there to disrupt it and stop the SWP and the left organising – clear fascist behaviour, whatever the individual beliefs of those 30 EDL members may have been.

But the AWL then go on to criticise the fact the SWP “dismiss the option in any circumstances of formally debating with EDL members, or even of talking to them.”

The EDL is a political campaigning an organisation and when they mobilise they must be treated as what they are – a fascist mob which must be physically stopped.The interviews on youtube of EDL members demonstrate the poverty of understanding of those who want to debate them – one EDL member claimed to support Israel because they are “Christians like us”. This is not a movement formed from clear political ideals but one which expresses the rage of parts of the petty bourgeois class and street hooligans from football ‘casuals’.

What these socialists forget is that fascist organisations are not judged purely on their politics, or their membership, but crucially on their actions.

It is not the politics alone of an organisation which denote whether it is fascist, but rather its actions.

As Leon Trotsky put it:

“The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.

The fascists find their human material mainly in the petty bourgeoisie. The latter has been entirely ruined by big capital. There is no way out for it in the present social order, but it knows of no other. Its dissatisfaction, indignation, and despair are diverted by the fascists away from big capital and against the workers.” – Whither France?, 1934

Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that the EDL leader who goes by the name “Tommy Robinson”, owns a tanning salon in Luton. Certainly not the voice of the working class as he claims, but in fact a small business owner.

Fascists organise to physically attack the left and minority groups and prevent them organising the resistance to the capitalist offensive. Their purpose is to destroy workers’ organisations and atomise the working-class.

We are living through an immense economic crisis, the effects of which will potentially last for another 10 years. The impoverishment of the middle-classes and working-class is already chronic. It can only worsen.

In these conditions, even though the workers’ movement is not strong, fascist movements will find fertile ground for their ideas and will continue to grow.

By summer 2011 the EDL have held over 40 large street demonstrations, many of which have led to attacks on minority communities and allowed racists and fascists to rampage through the streets. Alongside this they have attacked socialist and trade union meetings up and down the country, intimidating and physically attacking activists. Whatever ideas they espouse, these are the actions of a fascist organisation and they should be treated as such.

UAF strategy fails….again

The strategy of Hope Not Hate and the Labour Party, with Socialist Action and Student Broad Left acting as the crucial link in the chain to UAF, of calling for a state ban is a major problem, which the movement must deal with, however this has been the case for years and is not a new problem faced by the anti-fascist movement.

The blame for the inability of the left-wing of the anti-fascist movement to have much impact must be laid squarely at the feet of UAF, and their supporters in the SWP. The SWP’s reporting of the protest has demonstrated an unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of the situation we face.

The over the top headline in Socialist Worker “We stopped the EDL in tower hamlets….and we’ll do it again!” That says the day was an “outright victory” and that the EDL was “outnumbered 10 to 1” and that the protest “set the benchmark for future anti-EDL protests” is at best distortions, and at worst outright lies.

The reality of the Tower Hamlets dfemonstration is that both sides had mobilisations and short marches – despite the ban – and the overwhelming police presence kept order.

The most important political lesson of the day is that the police are the ones who controlled the streets. This takes nothing away from the UAF mobilisation which happened under very difficult circumstances – but shouting about the victory of the counter protest or how we stopped them is simply ridiclous.

We stopped them at Cable Street and we stopped them in Lewisham 1977 – ‘we’ did not stop them in Tower Hamlets 2011.

UAF’s strategy of building peaceful static counter demonstrations, which celebrate multiculturalism, in alliance with local councillors and community leaders does little to prepare and organise the movement for its primary task: driving the fascist EDL off the streets.

While the SWP acknowledge this is the goal of the movement and state as much in their paper, they are trapped in an unprincipled alliance within UAF which prevents them from organising and preparing this action.

When speaking as SWP members at meetings and demonstrations they will call for no platform for fascists and for militant demonstrations to drive the fascists off the streets.

Yet when they act within UAF they limit the action to peaceful counter mobilisations, and hope the militant youth and anti-fascists in attendance spontaneously take action that stops the EDL. This is no way to build a movement.

The SWP correctly criticised Labour and Hope not Hate for calling for a state ban, but in their articles there was no mention of the fact that UEE, the coalition of community organisations, local councillors and the Mayor of Tower Hamlets had petitioned the local council asking for a ban.

According to a UEE press statement this petition was signed by John McLoughlin, Chair of Tower Hamlets UNISON and prominent local SWP member. Why did the comrade sign the statement if it is opposed to his party’s line?

Such actions leave the anti-fascist movement unprepared for the tasks facing it.

The SWP claim that they argue their politics in UAF but they ‘loose the vote’ when the reformists and Socialist Action oppose them. It is clear that UAF is a block to the action that we need – but the SWP is locked into it and refuses to properly criticise it or take steps to build something new.

If we are going to physically stop the EDL we have to ideologically, organisationally and politically prepare the anti-fascist movement for a more militant movement organised from below.

What kind of movement do we need?

We need to state openly that our purpose is to provide the fascists with no platform from which to spread their views, that we will organise to do this politically and physically prepare the movement and wider working-class for this task.

What does this entail? It means that UAF and other anti-fascist organisations should openly they state that they are going to mobilise with the explicit purpose of stopping the fascist marches and we will not call on the state to intervene.

It means conducting a political campaign in the trade union movement and the wider working-class to win them to supporting this strategy. It will be a long and hard argument but it is of absolute necessity if we are to win the wider working-class to the tactics and strategy necessary to defeat the EDL.

It means preparing our mobilisations so they can actually stop the EDL and overcome the obstacles created by the police; this means creating a command centre and leadership structure for these events which can direct the demonstrators to where the fascists are, which can react to a rapidly changing situation and any counter-actions by police or fascists.

This means creating self-defence organisations to protect our marches. It means organising medical teams to treat the injured that will result when the fascists or the police attack our protests.

We face a situation where the EDL can mobilise 1000 people in inner London, and many times that in smaller towns and cities around the UK.

Confronting them and defeating them will take the kind of mass anti-fascist mobilisations which haven’t been organised in Britain since the early 90s when the Anti Nazi League organised a march on the BNP HQ at Welling.

We need to prepare our movement now for this task, we cannot rely on the spontaneous actions and bravery of the youth and working-class to defeat the EDL.

Cable Street, the Battle of Lewisham, these victories occurred because the anti-fascist movement, actively led by the Communist and Independent Labour Party in 1936 and the SWP in 1977, who set out to organise and build a movement with the explicit aim of driving the fascists off the streets and smashing up their organisation. If we are to do the same in 2011 we must prepare our movement in the same way they did. The SWP responded

Anyone who replies that these tactics aren’t possible because we aren’t living in the 1930’s or 1970’s anymore should try and tell that to the EDL. The fact its not the 30’s or the 70’s hasn’t stopped the fascists organising mass street demonstrations to intimidate minority communities and try to incite pogroms. It hasn’t stopped the fascists from turning up to socialist and trade union meetings to break them up and stop us organising.

If they say we cannot do this now, then they have already admitted defeat. If we act now we can begin the difficult but necessary task of preparing the working-class and anti-fascist movement for victory against the pogromists.

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