An attempt by the fascist British National Party (BNP) to hold a racist rally in Dagenham, east London, ended in its humiliation last Saturday.
Despite extensive leafleting in the borough, the Nazis only managed to attract around 70 people to their rally – and they were surrounded by over 400 anti-fascist protesters chanting slogans and jeering at them.
The anti-Nazi counter demonstration, called by Unite Against Fascism, drew a large, vibrant and diverse crowd of local residents, trade unionists, students and anti-racist activists.
East London trade unions were particularly visible on the Unite demonstration, with banners from local branches of the GMB, T&G, RMT, PCS, NUT and Unison unions.
Richard Barnbrook, the leader of the BNP’s 12-strong council group in Barking & Dagenham, struggled to make himself heard to the small crowd gathered in a car park near Dagenham civic centre.
His words were drowned out by the chorus of anger and derision from anti-fascists. The BNP supporters eventually filed away, visibly downcast and uncomfortable.
The BNP is trying to exploit the social problems in Barking & Dagenham – especially the lack of affordable housing – to whip up race hatred and build a Nazi organisation in the area.
The rally was its first attempt to move beyond passive electoral support in the borough by holding an open air public meeting.
But it attracted few local people beyond the ranks of hardened Nazis. Nick Griffin, the BNP’s leader, failed to turn up.
In contrast the Unite counter demonstration brought together broad sections of the labour movement and the left in Barking & Dagenham in a confident and united protest.
Unite supporters held a short rally before the counter protest. Speakers included Steve Hart, the London regional secretary of the T&G, who underlined the importance of tackling the social problems in Barking & Dagenham.
“We have to fight and fight hard for more housing and against low wages,” he said.
This view was echoed by Ed Blissett, London regional secretary of the GMB. “We need to see a proper building programme – decent housing for all people of all colours,” he said.
“As a trade unionist, we’re here to unite people. Division is the way capitalism moves forward, setting worker against worker. That’s why we’ll not tolerate people like the BNP – they are a disaster for working class people in this country.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the left wing Labour MP, criticised recent attacks on multiculturalism from senior ministers.
“When people like the prime minister – who should know better – start lecturing us against cultural diversity, I say he’s wrong. The strength of London and our country is its diversity,” he said.
The Unite demonstration was attended by a delegation of Respect councillors from nearby Tower Hamlets.
Rania Khan noted that the housing problems in Barking & Dagenham were linked to shortages across east London.
“A lot of people are moving into Barking & Dagenham from Tower Hamlets because it’s the only place they can afford,” she told Socialist Worker.
“We all share these problems – and we need to stand in unity and fight the government for decent homes.”
This sense of working class pride and solidarity against racism was shared by many on the Unite demonstration.
Sam Tarry, a local Labour Party activist, said, “Today shows that the BNP has a lot less support in Barking & Dagenham than it would have us believe. The people in Barking & Dagenham know that the BNP’s politics of hate do not offer any solutions.”
Local people make their voices heard against racism and division
Unite Against Fascism’s protest against the BNP attracted many local people determined to voice their opposition to the Nazis.
They demonstrated that there is another side to Barking & Dagenham than the negative image of poverty and racism pushed in the mainstream media.
Georgina Southall is a Dagenham resident who came to the protest with her friends and family. “I’ve lived and worked in Dagenham all my life,” she told Socialist Worker.
“We came on the demo to show that ordinary people who live round here do not support the BNP. We don’t want our borough to be known for having BNP councillors. The BNP are telling people lies – it hides the truth of what it really stands for.”
But the major political parties also had to take their share of the responsibility for what is happening, she added.
“The mainstream parties need to look and see why the BNP is getting votes. The BNP is opportunist – and if the other parties don’t look at the long term issues and take some action, then the BNP exploits the opportunity.
“This borough was a beacon of social care when I was growing up. I don’t want to be all rosy eyed about it, but it was much better. Issues like housing and public services are going downhill.
“There needs to be action over meeting people’s fundamental needs – some dignity from birth to death.
“All our public services have been put up for private tender to the highest bidder. It started under the Tories but the Labour government are making it worse.”
Debbie Rosaman, another local resident, said, “I came on the demonstration to show that I’m against the BNP. The BNP stands for hate and intolerance – most people round here are not intolerant.
“Politicians and the BNP try to whip up fear of immigration, but people should look at the reasons why people uproot themselves and move. If I lived under a repressive regime, I would look for a better life for my family.”
Local school students were out in force on the Unite protest. “It’s been a really good turnout from us,” said Frances Smith, who is studying at Barking Abbey sixth form college.
“It’s important that everyone showed up so the BNP knows that they haven’t won over people here, despite them getting so many votes and council seats.”
Carolyn Hansen, also at Barking Abbey, added that she and others had got involved in Unite Against Fascism after a visit to the school by R&B singer Ms Dynamite, organised by the Love Music Hate Racism campaign.
Tom Baillie, the branch secretary of Barking GMB, said, “We’re demonstrating that we support democracy, and people’s right to freedom of religion, and freedom from persecution.
“If the BNP got into power it would get rid of all our democratic rights.”
Adele Turner is a branch secretary of the T&G in Barking & Dagenham.
“This is an important issue for trade unions to take up,” she said. “The BNP are very anti-trade union – and the trade unions need to be very anti-BNP.”
There is an opportunity to rally the majority
The BNP has been building a worrying amount of support at the ballot box in recent years.
It polled over 230,000 votes at the council elections in May this year – as compared to only 3,000 six years ago – and now has around 48 councillors across Britain.
If this growth is not checked, there is a danger that the Nazis will take seats in the London Assembly in 2008, or in the 2009 Euro elections.
The prime reason for the BNP’s electoral growth is the tide of racism – especially against Muslims – unleashed to justify the “war on terror”.
The BNP has set its sights on winning Tories alienated by David Cameron’s “caring” Conservatism, and Labour voters who feel deserted by their party. Exploiting racism is the way it can appeal to both constituencies.
The BNP has been avoiding street rallies and demonstrations in the main, attempting to emulate the electoral success of Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France by adopting a “respectable” image.
Like Le Pen, BNP leader Nick Griffin knows that being identified openly with Adolf Hitler is damaging.
Hitler and Mussolini used a twin track approach of electoral politics and street violence. At different times one was prioritised over the other. For the moment the BNP is muzzling its street fighters.
That will not last forever.
The poor turnout at the BNP’s racist rally in Dagenham shows that the Nazis are having trouble turning their passive electoral support into hardened fascist activists.
This weakness presents the left with an opportunity to rally the anti-Nazi majority and build a broad, united and effective campaign against the BNP.
Unite Against Fascism plays a crucial role in bringing together trade unionists, community activists, Labour supporters and the radical left in a single, focused campaign.
It is vital too that we unite over issues like housing or in defence of the NHS.
While the BNP’s propaganda is composed of racist lies, the social problems it exploits are very real.
The Labour Party has demonstrated its inability to tackle those problems – instead it is committed to a neoliberal course that will make them worse.
Those who want to fight for a better world need to build Respect as an alternative to Labour – while simultaneously working in unity with Labour supporters against the BNP.
Unite Against Fascism annual conference, Saturday 17 February, London. Go to www.uaf.org.uk