Britain: English Defence League – racism, violence and division

How to fight the far right?

The English Defence League has set in motion a series of violent clashes around Britain. Although singling out Muslims for special attention, it is clearly a racist organisation, with many of its followers linked to football hooligan ‘firms’. At a time of recession and crisis, however, there is a danger that its support could grow. STEVE SCORE reports, outlining a strategy for fighting back against it.

OVER THE LAST year and a half we have seen a series of demonstrations hitting the headlines that have been organised by the English Defence League (EDL). Many of these have resulted in violence, and attacks on black and Asian people and shops. The EDL is organised and led by racists who preach an anti-Muslim message. However, in the violent assaults we recently saw in Leicester, and previously in other cities, they did not stop to question people about their religion before attacking anyone who, to them, looked ‘non-English’.

The EDL was formed around football hooligan crews and utilise Facebook and the internet to build its events. On some demonstrations it has been able to muster around 1,000 marchers, and has now created local ‘divisions’ of the EDL.

It has appeared at the same time as we have seen a growth of the vote for the far-right, racist British National Party (BNP), and there are undoubtedly BNP members and neo-fascist individuals in the EDL’s ranks and leadership. Searchlight, the anti-racist magazine, has exposed a number of these individuals. For its part, the BNP for a number of years has attempted to distance itself from street ‘activity’ and the trappings of neo-Nazism in order to gain respectability and votes.

But does that mean that the EDL can be described simply as the ‘paramilitary’, street-fighting wing of the BNP? Is it enough just to equate the EDL with the BNP and Nazis in order to defeat it?

The BNP has condemned the EDL, even claiming recently that it is a Zionist conspiracy! The EDL claims it has no connection with the BNP. It has even gone as far as burning a Nazi flag at a press conference to demonstrate its anti-Nazi credentials. And Searchlight says that Alan Lake, a businessman who it says bankrolls the EDL, has stipulated that there must be no link with the BNP as a condition for financing it.

The formation of the EDL came about from football hooligan crews, the so-called Casuals United, and small anti-Islamic groups from various areas. There is no doubt that an element in the EDL events is fuelled by those hooligans who just want a ruck, and Muslims and anti-racists are another enemy to oppose.

Targeting Muslims

THE CATALYST WAS events in Luton in March 2009, when a tiny number of right-wing political Islamists, a splinter group from Al-Muhajiroun, organised a demonstration at a parade to mark the return of the Royal Anglian Regiment from Iraq. Their slogans – such as, ‘baby-killers’, etc – were aimed at the troops, blaming the soldiers themselves rather than the government which sent them there. Despite the fact that this was a tiny group of people, the press and TV made a big issue of it.

This was followed in May by a demonstration organised by a group calling itself United People of Luton, during which they attacked a predominantly Muslim area, smashing shops and cars. After that, they linked with other individuals around the country and the EDL protests began to grow.

The EDL has tried to portray itself as ‘supporting our troops’ in the ‘fight against terrorism’. It has often linked its protests to the homecoming of troops, as in Nottingham. The EDL’s official material puts forward its message in a careful way, claiming only to oppose ‘Islamic extremism’ and ‘terrorism’. On its website it claims to be ‘a multi-ethnic, multi-religious movement’, and even that it has Muslim members. It is true that the EDL has a few black youth who have appeared on its demos, and it has used a Sikh, Guramit Singh, as a prominent spokesperson. The EDL tries to counter accusations of racism by using slogans like ‘black and white unite’. There is even a right-wing Zionist element, with Israeli flags sometimes appearing in order to try to provoke Muslims over the issue of Palestine.

The EDL is paranoid about sharia law ‘taking over’ in Britain, and says that it supports women’s rights and gay rights in opposition to right-wing Islam. It even claims to have an LGBT section! But it does not take much observation of its activities to realise it is scapegoating Muslims as a whole. Racist chanting on demos about ‘Pakis’, and provocative chants, such as ‘Allah is a paedo’, indicate the truth. Even its official campaigns such as ‘no more mosques’, implying that all mosques are hotbeds of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’, show that its target is all Muslims.

The fact that Islam is a religion not a race and includes people of differing colour does not undermine the fact that the EDL’s stance is as pernicious as racism based on colour. It aims to divide the working class in exactly the same way. Of course, it does not take much to see that, having taken on one target, it could move on to another.

The EDL is utilising the mood created by governments since 9/11 to justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the so-called ‘war on terror’. George W Bush, Tony Blair and other politicians created an Islamophobic mood, backed up by the tabloids which constantly play up the issues. The crackdown on civil liberties, such as the Patriot Act in the US and various ‘anti-terrorism’ measures in Britain (detention without trial, etc), has been justified in this way. This is what makes the EDL more dangerous, as it is pushing at an open door of ruling-class propaganda. The Daily Star ‘newspaper’ even printed some uncritical reports about the EDL.

Scapegoats and division

THE EFFECTS OF capitalism’s economic crisis – the lack of jobs, destruction of public services, low pay, housing shortages, etc – are stoking up enormous anger among working-class people. In the absence of a mass workers’ party, and also in the period before mass battles by the working class against these attacks begin, many people will look for other ‘answers’. Behind the anti-Muslim propaganda on ‘terrorism’ is also the idea of looking for scapegoats to blame for the lack of jobs and worsening conditions.

The EDL has attempted to build links with European Islamophobic parties, such as the far-right Sweden Democrats and, according to the Observer, the US Tea Party, inviting a right-wing rabbi, a Tea Party activist, to Britain to discuss sharia law. This could indicate elements within the EDL wanting to move in a more political direction.

The EDL is riven with contradictions. There are conflicts between the football crews and the more politicised elements – even between the supporters of different football clubs themselves! – as well as between the openly neo-fascist elements and those who want to keep their image free from Nazism. And the non-white EDL supporters are clearly in a contradictory position by standing alongside plain racists. At the moment, at any rate, this has all held together, especially as they think they are having some success. But the EDL is an unstable grouping, and its character could change over time.

However, the danger still exists that its message can get an echo. During the build-up to the EDL’s recent demo in Leicester there were worrying reports of some polarisation going on in certain schools between Muslims and white youth. We cannot wait for the EDL to collapse due to its own internal contradictions. It has to be opposed.

Missing the point

THE REACTION OF many politicians at a national and local level to EDL demonstrations is either to ‘ignore them and they will go away’, or to organise ‘cultural festivals’. The experience in Leicester is instructive. The EDL demonstration took place on Saturday 9 October. The Hope Not Hate anti-racist campaign, linked to Searchlight, organised a small rally on the day before, which was followed by a religious service to pray for peace. The council organised a music festival the day after the EDL demo, which it claimed was attended by 5,000. Of course, there is no problem about people wanting to attend those events and making a statement that they oppose racism, especially if they are fearful of possible violence on the day the EDL arrives.

However, these events do not defend the local communities from threatened attack, nor do they convince those who could be potentially influenced by the EDL’s arguments. They are events for already committed anti-racists.

Unfortunately, moreover, these events were counterposed to a demonstration against the EDL on the day. There was a massive campaign waged by the police, council, Hope Not Hate, faith leaders, local ‘community leaders’ and the local newspaper to keep people away from the counter-demo. Various employers told their workers to stay out of town. Mass leafleting by the police took place in the city centre, with the political statement that people wanting to support solidarity between different communities in Leicester should stay away from the anti-racist protest. Consequently, the numbers who turned up in the city centre to oppose the EDL were substantially reduced compared to what they would have been.

All sorts of dire warnings were made on leaflets given out to young people, threatening arrest, criminal records and the consequent destruction of job prospects. Those under age would be removed from the city centre by the police and ‘taken to a place of safety’. Youth clubs were opened up and huge pressure put on youth workers to stay open to attempt to distract young people away from the demo. There was even a youth club opened up on a predominantly white estate where the police aimed to take youth ‘sympathetic to the EDL’ – a club which was mainly staffed by black workers, by the way – while other clubs were for youth ‘opposed to the EDL’! At the same time, youth workers were told not to discuss the political issues involved with young people.

State bans

HOPE NOT HATE has pursued a strategy of attempting to get EDL marches banned by the state. However, even where this does happen, such as in Leicester, static protests are still allowed. Often EDL members are led by the police from their transport to the static protest area and stage a de facto march anyway! State bans against right-wing organisations are more often than not used against the left and the workers’ movement. In Luton (although not in other places) the ban on marches was for a three-month period. What if trade unions wanted to march against public-sector cuts during that time?

There was talk in Leicester of the police cooperating with the EDL in order to allow a march in a nearby town on the day. This did not materialise because of the EDL riot that occurred. But this has been our experience before, with National Front demos being shifted elsewhere while anti-NF demos are banned.

The ban on marches and allowing static protests are accompanied with a huge police presence. Protesters against the EDL are ordered into one area and sometimes kettled or ‘semi-kettled’ – individuals can leave the cordon at times the police decide, but not large groups – so that they do not come directly into conflict with the EDL. Demonstrators against the EDL who attempt to stand elsewhere in their own city centres are harassed and threatened with arrest by the police.

Unite Against Fascism (UAF) does have a policy of calling demonstrations to counter the EDL. However, on recent demonstrations these have become set pieces that are totally controlled by the police. In Leicester, for example, an area of the centre away from the main shopping area was allocated to both groups, separated by 100 yards, a huge metal containment wall, dogs and riot police.

Community self-defence

AT THE SAME time, there were EDL gangs who were not under the control of the police, who wandered around looking for people to attack. Many black and Asian people and shops were attacked (see: Community Organises to Resist EDL Thugs, The Socialist, issue 642, 14 October). The police then lost control of those at the static protest and several hundred EDL supporters attempted to make good their threat that they would march into the main Muslim area and attack a mosque. The truth is that the police cannot be relied on to defend us.

On 9 October, it was the mainly Muslim community of the Highfields area that prevented this attempt. Between 1,000 and 2,000 mainly young people blocked the thugs’ way on the edge of Highfields. The response of the community was massive and had quite a degree of organisation. The fact that Socialist Party members and other anti-racists were there to stand alongside the local community, with ‘Jobs, Homes and Services Not Racism’ banners and leaflets, was appreciated by most of the local youth. Discussions are now going on in that community as to whether, in future, they should go further than staying in their own area (other than the small bands of youth who did venture into town). Should they go en masse into the city centre to defend people there as well?

It is critical that the trade union and anti-racist movements play a role in this community self-defence. The EDL wants it to be seen as a ‘Muslims versus the English’ conflict. But what we need is genuine community and workers’ self-defence across all communities. Links need to be built with all the communities to assist in this.

United working-class struggle

THE POLITICAL SLOGANS and message of the anti-racist campaigns are vitally important. The message EDL=BNP=Nazis, promoted by the UAF, for example, is inadequate to answer the EDL, or the BNP for that matter. It is necessary to engage in discussion with those who might fall prey to the arguments that scapegoat Muslims, immigrants or any other section of the working class. This is not aimed at the hardcore thugs, but the wider layer around them who might just be taken in, who are looking for the answers to why they have been condemned to low pay, poor services and unemployment.

We have to explain that the real cause of those problems is capitalism and the political parties which prop it up. Was it Muslims who caused the banking crisis or recession? Are they cutting our services? We have to put forward an alternative that fights for the socialist policies that can eliminate those problems. We have to explain how, in order to fight for those things, we need to build working-class unity.

The problem is that New Labour politicians, along with the other main parties, are complicit in the creation of these problems. Their only answer is to say ‘no to racism’ and call for abstract unity, but with no convincing alternative.

The slogans on the anti-EDL demos and leaflets need to provide a class-based alternative. It needs to be taken into all communities, including predominantly white working-class areas. When, in Leicester, we raised at a UAF meeting about going into these areas to build in advance of the EDL demo we were opposed by Socialist Workers Party members, perhaps out of fear of the reaction they would get. But how can we win the arguments without having a dialogue?

Building anti-cuts campaigns and class struggles can cut across this potential for racism. The need for unity across all communities then becomes crystal clear. But, above all, there is the desperate need for the creation of a new mass party of the working class. There is a feeling among many that they have been abandoned. A political voice for the disenfranchised is needed if the danger of the growth of racist and reactionary movements is to be avoided. The trade unions have vital role to play in that. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), standing in the last general election, was a small step in that direction. Next year’s local elections can also be an important phase.

As socialists we need to initiate and participate in genuine democratic, local campaigns against racism, and to take the arguments out to all areas. But this is not separate from the need to build a working-class based fight-back, to develop the anti-cuts campaigns and build the movement for socialism.

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