Thirty years ago this April 80,000 people marched to Victoria Park, east London, for a carnival against fascism organised by the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, headlined by The Clash and The Tom Robinson Band.
The day went down in history and marked a decisive turning point in the battle against the fascist National Front (NF).
Now artists involved with Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) hope to repeat the feat with a carnival in the same park on Sunday 27 April this year – and deliver a similar body blow to the British National Party (BNP), the NF’s present day successors.
The preparations for next month’s carnival – and the political urgency behind it – were at the centre of an LMHR workshop at last Saturday’s Unite Against Fascism national conference.
The panel included a range of artists supporting the carnival, including Anthony Rossomando from Dirty Pretty Things, upcoming reggae artist Natty, and MCs No Lay, Bashy and Snakeyman.
Red Saunders, one of the organisers of the original 1978 carnival, vividly described how politics and music had come together to help build a mass movement that smashed the NF.
Martin Smith from LHMR spoke about the similarities and differences between the NF then and the BNP today.
He noted how the BNP is currently focusing on making electoral gains – but has not given up its long term goal of stirring up racist thuggery on the ground.
The BNP poses a threat across much of the country, but its main focus in the upcoming May elections will be the London Assembly elections.
The fascists only need 5 percent of the vote to secure a place on the assembly.
The carnival can be a crucial mass event drawing in tens of thousands from across the city to get the message out for people to vote against the BNP on 1 May.
A high turnout from London’s anti-Nazi majority is the best line of defence against the BNP grabbing an assembly seat.
But much of the discussion at the LMHR panel moved beyond the immediate issue of stopping the fascists and looked to deeper social and political questions.
“Racism used to just be in your face – but now it’s more institutional,” said Natty. “It’s the way that confidence gets destroyed in the youth.”
This theme was echoed by Bashy, who spoke about the polarised reaction to his single about racism, “Black Boys”.
This larger debate about the politics of anti-fascism was reflected across the whole conference. While there was wide agreement on the importance of unity in the campaign against the BNP, there were questions over wider strategy.
In particular, many Labour Party figures such as Jon Cruddas and Emily Thornberry called for a Labour vote in May as crucial to stopping the fascists.
Others, in contrast, emphasised grassroots anti-fascist activity and noted how the Labour government’s policies of war and neoliberalism contribute to the climate of cynicism and despair that the BNP thrives on.
Many people in the Labour Party and the broader left are worried about the prospect of Tory gains in May elections – and are consequently focusing their energies on a narrow call to vote Labour.
But such a strategy runs the risk of further demoralisation and demobilisation of the movement. Even many Labour supporters are tired of blindly backing the party no matter how right wing its policies get.
The focus should rather be on encouraging everyone opposed to the Nazis to vote, regardless of their political tradition, and building up a confident movement on the ground.
And part of this involves linking the fight against fascism with other political struggles.
Weyman Bennett, joint chair of Unite Against Fascism, noted to applause that fascism was born in the trenches of the First World War – and that opposition to the “war on terror” can only strengthen opposition to the fascists today.