More than five hundred “demonstrators” went on a racist rampage in Luton on Sunday 24 May. Orchestrating the mob — which clashed with police, attacked at least one local Muslim man and several businesses — were a team of balaclava wearing thugs.
Two groups, “United People of Luton” (UPL) and “March for England” (MfE), called the demonstration in response to disruption caused by the clerical-fascist Al Muhajiroun organisation at a parade for returning troops in March this year.
Both UPL and MfE claim to be non-racist and not aligned to any political party. Racist? Well the dividing line between bog-standard national chauvinism (of which UPL and MfE are both certainly guilty) and outright racism has never been hard and fast; but in this case actions are speaking louder than words. That said, neither group is solidly aligned to prominent fascist groupings.
People visiting and commenting on the fascist “StormFront” website discussion board, an archipelago of the internet infested by white supremacists, open Nazis and British National Party members, initially struggled to identify the violent core of the demonstration. But photographs on news websites and footage on YouTube show a number of those wearing balaclavas also sporting t-shirts worn by a group of football hooligans who follow Luton Town FC.
The fascist commentariat are split on “March for England”. MfE is a nationalist outfit which appears to concentrate on responding to any and all perceived attacks on “Englishness” and issuing internet-based calls for St George’s Day parades. For some on “StormFront”, MfE is neither sufficiently nationalist nor politically committed. Others recognise the usefulness of such an organisation as a transition point for people on their way to the fascist right in the same way that those of us on the left recognise the role of single-issue struggles in developing political consciousness.
The fascists are also split on the use of violence in this instance. Early in the discussion, some posters criticised the football thugs for threatening the much vaunted but paper thin respectability of the BNP, others praised them for their potential role as “useful idiots” in the battles to come. BNP members expressed concern that the media would try to pin the violence on their party in the run up to the European and local elections in June whilst others speculated about trying to repeat such events in Bradford.
The apparent lack of any direct link between organised fascists and the demonstrators should not be a source of comfort. One local socialist reports that although BNP leader Nick Griffin has spoken in Luton several times, the party does little political work: no public stalls, paper sales or leafleting. The BNP may be organisationally weak in the city but the football hooligans and favourable objective circumstances for the growth of fascist politics are not.
Football-related violence is not straightforwardly susceptible to political pigeon-holing. In Britain, there have been links in the past (and there may still be some subterranean links) between fascists and specific “firms” of hooligans, but some groups have also identified with anti-racism and Irish Republicanism. On mainland Europe — Italy in particular — the links are more tangible not only between small groups of thugs but an entire layer of team “supporters” and the fascists, but anti-fascists also have their own teams and “hooligans”. The most notable characteristic of football hooliganism is that it unites a layer of mainly working-class and overwhelmingly white men, sufficiently alienated from society and desperate for some — any — release to engage in bare-knuckle fighting with the police and each other.
The Luton hooligans, undoubtedly influenced by anti-Muslim racism, outraged by Al Muhajiroun and given the opportunity by the “March for England” nationalists, decided to turn their attentions away from like-minded individuals towards anyone in Luton that day who appeared to be a Muslim. With them they took several hundred similarly influenced and “outraged” others. They staged an overtly racist riot.
The racists’ success is the result of a combination of factors that amount to a significant strain of public opinion, one that could easily be harnessed by the fascists:
Factor: the existence of inconsistently challenged national-chauvinism in British society. Yes, a large proportion of people opposed the war on Iraq... until the war actually started. The mainstream press — tabloids and “quality liberal” newspapers alike — and “anti-war” politicians like then-Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy reverted to a “support our troops” position once they were deployed. So deep and widespread is this factor — and so “legitimate” — that we see Gordon Brown invoking “British jobs for British workers” and sections of the would-be Trotskyist left accommodating themselves to blatantly nationalist slogans like “No2EU”.
Factor: a widespread racial prejudice against Muslims and people who appear to be Muslim. This sort of prejudice pre-dates 11 September 2001 and, however misunderstood or misrepresented, is a tangible form of prejudice. A day-to-day reality for people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Middle Eastern origin, whatever their actual religious views.
Factor: pervasive political discontent. Luton has been an epicentre for the current expenses scandal with thieving local Labour MP Margaret Moran, making the headlines. This scandal can only have widened peoples sense of distance and compounded their disengagement from the political mainstream. To compound things marginally further, the far left in Luton is described by a local contact as “dormant”.
Taken together these factors present an opportunity for groups like the BNP and a challenge to socialists. Events like the Luton riot could happen in any large city. It doesn’t take a particularly worked-up gang of football hooligans to spark such attacks. Even a small group of fascists or sufficiently worked-up and influenced thugs could replicate the riot.
A bigger and more active socialist presence in the city would not, by itself, be sufficient to countervail the factors that lead to the riot but such a group could and where they exist should organise a broad, labour movement based anti-fascist and anti-racist campaign with independent working-class politics — socialist politics — at the core.