Sixteen AWL members were among 200 anti-fascists who turned out to stop the far-right in Harrow on 13 December. By ourselves we would have outnumbered Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE) who staged an anti-Muslim demonstration outside Harrow mosque.
Despite boasting that they would mobilise 1,500, extending invitations to other far-right groups, in particular, the English Defence League (EDL), on the day SIOE was exposed as amounting to not much more than one man, Stephen Gash, his website, and his Danish friend Anders Gravers. For on the day, about 15 of them turned up. For two hours, in the cold, they stood forlornly at one end of the car park in front of Harrow Civic Centre, protected by masses of every sort of police you could imagine – including dogs. The Tactical Support Group was around the corner in vans as well, in case it was needed.
For two hours they were baited by the anti-fascists, and subjected (as were we all) to noise torture by Sarah Cox of the UAF shouting ‘we will defend the unity of our community’ from the UAF’s flatbed truck. For part of the time, they waved Star of David flags (the Israeli flag) in a feeble attempt to provoke the crowd. Then they slunk off, escorted the back way to Harrow and Wealdstone station by the police.
The day was a PR disaster for the far-right. However, that is more down to their failings than to the successes of the forces ranged against them. A number of questions confront us starkly.
Conservative role of the mosque
In September, when the SIOE first tried to march in Harrow they were deterred by a crowd of at least 1,000 young people, mainly of Muslim background, mobilising from the area.
In December, the mosque warned young people to stay away, and reassured them that the police and mosque stewards would ‘protect the mosque’. Partly the mosque was acting out of fear for its public image, because in September a small number of skirmishes between the police and Muslim youths stole all the headlines.
In fact, the role of the police was to facilitate a provocative, anti-Muslim protest, and they enacted it very well. There was never any risk that the mosque was under threat of attack but every chance that Muslims would be demobilised, and they were.
The mosque debated the correct tactics to adopt, the more conservative elements winning the argument. They even asked anti-fascists not to mobilise a counter-demonstration: “We value the goodwill of others but believe that a counter demonstration only sows more discord on the day.”
A crowd of young people is more likely to turn out on a Friday afternoon in September, than on a Sunday afternoon in December, but, to judge from the small numbers of young people turning up, who were not connected with the anti-fascist left, the call to stay away made by the mosque was widely heeded. Small numbers did attend, including from the mosque itself, which also sent legal observers to distribute bust cards to the anti-fascists, but in all we could not have been more than 300 counter-demonstrators over the afternoon.
Meeting afterwards on 16 December, the local AWL group discussed drafting an open letter to the mosque leaders, questioning their tactics. The Muslim community cannot afford to be quiescent when they come under attack – political and physical – from the far-right.
Inadequate anti-fascist mobilisation
About 200 anti-fascists were mobilised by Unite Against Fascism (UAF), the AWL, other far-left groups, the Jewish Socialist Group, and so on. Before we realised how few the SIOE were, this was far too few for comfort. If the EDL had turned up in any numbers – as we know from Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham, they can – far from being able to stop the far-right, we would ourselves have been vulnerable to attack by them.
We would have been in the disastrous position of relying on the police for protection.
In the build-up to the event, the AWL put effort into persuading trade unionists to join the counter-demonstration. We started too late, but the response was still very disappointing. There were a number of trade union banners on the demonstration, but far too few and very much from local activists.
Trade unionists have anti-racist and anti-fascist politics but it is time that they turned out on demonstrations to show to the EDL and the far-right that they are outnumbered. Without that, the EDL can continue to parade around our towns and cities with impunity, harassing and intimidating any who opposes them, and black or Asian bystanders.
Are we content as a movement to let that happen? Are we happy to let the far-right build a movement without any effective opposition?
We need a social message
The UAF hastily set up a local group in Brent and Harrow and held some local meetings to discuss tactics, before the September and December demonstrations. It was good that they did not accede to the mosque request to stay away in December, but both in September and December their mobilisation and politics were lacklustre.
On the day, they simply stressed, over and over again, the ‘unity of the community’. The unity of black and white, people of all faiths and none, against the far-right is good, but it does not address why the far-right has grown, and cannot stop it from growing further.
UAF also trumpet another unity – of the political mainstream – against the far-right, with Liberals and Conservatives signing on to their message of ‘anyone but the Nazis’. The labour movement and socialists should not seek unity with Conservatives, Liberals and right-wing Labour on this issue any more than we do on any other: their understanding of the problems and their proposed solutions are inadequate. In fact, they are causing the problems!
Racism and fascism are ignorant and evil ideologies, which must be fought on the level of ideas. But they are only likely to gain social force – adherents, either convinced or opportunist – during times like we are living through now, marked by widespread political disillusionment and social anxiety. All parties have only one answer to the economic crisis: not radical redistribution from the wealthy to the working and middle classes – which is possible and necessary – but simply more competition among those at the bottom, fighting each other for much needed but scarcer and scarcer public services, jobs and homes.
Come to the meeting in Nottingham in the spring, to discuss building the working-class anti-fascist movement we need. Details will appear on this website soon.