Back in 2005 the left had a bit of a shock when the British National Party (BNP) won a number of council seats, mainly in the North of England but in pockets of the South such as Epping Forest as well. In the following year they got over 50 seats with 12 in Barking & Dagenham. How did this happen? A large part of the answer is that nobody really took them seriously and if they did, the anti-fascist organisations largely did not see the importance of organising at a community level. So in Redbridge where I work, the BNP put out a monthly bulletin in the ward of Hainault. None of the other political parties had put out anything to their constituents for years. The only people who appreciated the danger were local anti-racists and anti-fascists who formed Redbridge & Epping Forest Together (REFT). We tried to match the BNP in terms of local work. But it wasn’t enough, we were not their electoral opponents. The political parties did absolutely nothing. So of course they won a seat in 2016 and would have probably have won all three possible seats in that ward if they had stood another two.
No fascist party had achieved anything like this electorally in Britain. The NF never got any councillors, Mosley’s British Union of Fascists got nowhere electorally
Over the next few years, despite sectarian bickering, anti-racist, anti-fascists and the left put in the work and by 2010 most of the BNP lost their seats – most spectacularly in Barking & Dagenham where they lost all 12 seats.
During their turn to electoral politics the BNP deliberately chose not to have marches or big public rallies because they calculated that if this led to street fighting that is how they would be perceived publically.
After their electoral rout they did try a couple of marches, but garnering less than 100 people. The BNP then collapsed and fragmented.
A number of BNP supporters turned their hand to organising a street force. The main organisation was the English Defence League whose main focus was Islamaphobia. Don’t get me wrong, the BNP were anti-Muslim too. One of their Redbridge leaflets had the headline “Don’t Let Hainault Become like the Islamic Republic of Ilford”. But the EDLs focus was narrower and super provocative, marching past Mosques and Islamic Centres. They even managed to present themselves as liberal and part of the enlightenment in contrast to reactionary Islam – taking up questions about women, LGBT and even Jews. I remember shouting and screaming at a group of men with pink triangle flags and another with the Star of David in their contingent. “Don’t stand with them. Tomorrow they will stab you in the back”. In this respect the EDL, and particularly their leader Tommy Robinson – aka Stephen Christopher Yoxley-Lennon, were looking to the continent to people like Gert Wilders. But with one big difference – EDL was not into elections.
So did that mean that the electoral fight was over? Not at all, there was of course UKIP. Throughout the 2000s UKIP were already a force to be reckoned with, getting a number of MEPs in European elections. But they became a more significant electoral machine under Nigel Farage. They were winning council seats, Greater London Assembly seats. Then in the 2014 European elections they got 26.6% of the votes and 11 MEPs, ahead of the other parties. In the 2016 General Election they still managed to get 14% of the vote even though they got no seats. Alarm bells should have been ringing then – an ultra-nationalist party riding high electorally and the EDL in the streets. But the EDL was not that powerful in the streets. Usually the anti-fascists outnumbered them some times by a substantial margin and they started to decline.
Then there was Brexit. But UKIP’S success was also its demise. It had staked itself as a single issue party dedicated to leaving the EU and had done its job. Farage resigned as leader and it fell apart in a squabbling mess. Farage has pretty well declared it dead. But Farage is by no means dead.
Before leaving Farage and this far right roller coaster of rising and falling leading up to the present situation it is worth examining speeches and compare them to Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech. Many of Farage’s speeches are merely re-workings of Powell’s original. In an interview Farage admitted that Powell was the politician he most admired, especially for his Rivers of Blood Speech.
What’s going on today
If the history I have sketched had alerted us to the danger of fascist and ultra-nationalist organisations, what is happening now should fill us with terror. The Football Lads Alliance or the Democratic Football Lads Alliance has managed to mobilise tens of thousands of people on the streets. Observing one of their marches – not the biggest – and they had at least 10K, nearly all men, all appearing up for a fight given the chance.
Just as no fascist came near the BNP’s electoral success, in contrast, no fascists had come anywhere near the numbers coming out on the streets. The British Brothers League could organise a rally of 3K at the end of the 19thcentury. But not marches on this scale. Similarly the British Union of Fascists came nowhere near it – they had about 2,000 mobilised to march through the Jewish East End which was stopped by a huge working class resistance in Gardeners Corner and Cable Street in 1936.
The NF were seen very much as a street force but actually never got anything like the Football Lads Alliance on a march. They had a measly hundred when we stopped them in Lewisham. The battle was with the huge contingent of police.
So we are witnessing something huge. How and why? Again the main focus is apparently Islam. The big triggering points for this were the Westminster Bridge attack and the Manchester Arena. Tommy Robinson and others saw their opportunity. There was an enemy within – Islam – which was killing people. More subtly there was the issue of grooming of girls and young women by Muslim men. This was portrayed in the media as white girls – many were but not entirely. And of course groups of white men have been doing this too. Robinson exploited this callously to become a martyr to the cause. So you had a heady mix of a phobia of Britain being eaten from within – an enemy within that has to be destroyed.
Despite what I have just said I think we can overstate the Islamaphobia not realising that this is part of a wider issue of opposition to migrants more generally – immigration will always come back into the rhetoric, whoever the initial target is.
We have to see this as part of a much bigger international movement – Europe-wide if not global. In country after country across Europe ultra-nationalist and fascist forces are making massive headway, sometimes in to government. We have seen whole communities rise up against foreigners in towns in Germany. People like Orban in power in Hungary and in Italy. Again Islamaphobia is key to the whole Europe wide movement but other migrants are often targets too; especially Roma. And the triggers are not just Islamaphobic – the arrival of large number of migrants into Europe across the Mediterranean on to the coast of Italy and Greece and their attempted movement from there across Europe was a central motif too.
What we are seeing with the Football Lads Alliance is part of this global movement.
If we look at the other countries we see two elements of our story coming together – the street force and the electoral. Sometimes it has been through two separate organisations – so in Hungary you have Orban’s Fidesz the ultra-nationalist in power and Jobbik as a more deadly street fighting, whereas elsewhere you have parties on the spectrum between the two – seizing the streets and the ballot box too as they have in Brazil.
It is quite possible to imagine some version of this electoral/street force combination arising here too – and this would be classic fascism.
So how might these be bound together in Britain? One important force is the Traditional Britain Group, the grand child of the Monday Club and Western Goals made up of forces who straddle the right of the Tory party, UKIP, the fragments of the BNP and forces around Tommy Robinson. An apparently respectable and posh group they could be a key to what happens next.
Further indications of nasty binding is finding UKIP’s leader Gerard Batten speaking at Tommy Robinson rallies.
In Epping Forest and Redbridge there has been a re-groupment of a variety of fascists including ex-UKIP people who have made their way into the local media as a ‘nationalist group’.
The American and Russian Connections
There are a clear ideological connection between Trump and the European far right movement. But there are clear political connections too. Nigel Farage was feted by Trump during the first couple of weeks after he was elected. Later Steve Bannon, a key member of Trump’s administration in the early days, has set up an office in Brussels trying to meld a Europe wide force he calls The Movement.
Less well known is the strange Russian Connection. Putin has been developing links with far-right forces in Europe and the State. We know that the Kremlin has given money to various parties including Front National in France and close ties have been made with ultra-national governments too. In the UK one of Putin’s inner circle has been doing combat training with proper Nazi outfits. Famously in the US in the Presidential election they launched a cyber operation to influence voters towards Trump and may have done something similar here in Britain in support of Brexit.
It is not clear what is behind this. It is also a bit of a puzzle what we say about it. As an internationalist I am not very comfortable about making a fuss about ‘foreign interference’ in ‘our’ politics. But obviously this linkage with the far right needs to be exposed.
What Is to be Done?
Now all this raises a hell of a lot of questions, largely about what to do but some others to.
Only a mass movement can stop a force like this. The need for a united front is absolutely clear. We need the labour movement and community movements to stand shoulder to shoulder just to makes sure things are safe. The physical question is not just about marches it is attacks on estates on the streets. The question of workers and community self defence needs to be on the agenda if we are going to be ready for things to become like in German towns for example.
But equally there is a massive ideological and emotional fight around migration. Now in a united front there will be people with all sorts of positions on immigration. We cannot insist that they take on a position of no borders no controls. But we must fight for those positions and make sure that the united front does not take unacceptable positions like demanding a fair, non-racist immigration policy.
I said emotional? Emotion and politics run together especially with fascism. In a period of crisis people desperately need solidarity – a sense of belonging. Without a strong socialist movement and working class communities, a false solidarity develops, based on whatever identity is to hand – nationalism etc and other identities. So we have to be building a movement which fights for working class solidarity, self organisation of people under attack – which can only be done from the bottom up.
Finally the fight against Islamaphobia has sometimes not been nuanced by the left. The left has made concessions to Islamism and stood back from taking stances on women and solidarising with women challenging the male leadership of the community. I think there is a whole discussion about how the left should have responded to the grooming question.
Twenty years ago Anti-Nazi League was denying that grooming gangs existed, that they were the invention of the BNP in places Keighley, Bradford and Rochdale and this denial played into the BNP’s hands.
On the other hand we had the ex – shadow minister for Equality and Diversity Sarah Champion saying that ‘there is a problem with Muslim men’ as if a significant proportion of Muslim men were involved in this sort of thing, which they are not, and that white men don’t do this stuff, which they do. And there is the stuff coming out the enquiries where professionals like social workers have said they couldn’t do things because they were frightened of being accused of racism. We didn’t get the balance right and we have to get it right for it has been key to how Tommy Robinson has set himself up and the ‘free Tommy Robinson’ movement around his contempt of court.