Socialist Worker

How we beat the Nazis last time round

Issue No. 1837

THE BRITISH National Party (BNP) hopes to make wider gains after getting council seats in Burnley, Blackburn and now Halifax. The Nazis want to start establishing the kind of strength their counterparts in Europe like Le Pen's National Front have achieved. Ten years ago the BNP Nazis thought they were on the brink of such a breakthrough in Britain.

In September 1993 they won a council by-election in a previously safe Labour seat on the Isle of Dogs in east London. The following May they were confident of not only holding this seat, but of winning many more and establishing themselves as a significant force.

Mainstream pundits and media commentators shared that belief. 'They are all mine here in east London,' the Nazi councillor Derek Beackon boasted. But the Nazis were stopped.

They won no more council seats. Beackon and his Nazi minders were humiliated and slunk away, utterly dejected, when he too lost his seat. In the months afterwards the Nazis were beaten back across east London.

Socialist Worker spoke to five people who were involved at the heart of the fight, and looks at the lessons we can draw for the urgent task of beating the Nazis back today.

SIAN BARRETT was the Anti Nazi League organiser on the Isle of Dogs

'I FELT really devastated when the Nazis won. You felt really apprehensive. But we had to fight. The first thing was to connect with people in the area who were anti-Nazi but felt isolated and lacked confidence.

'We started knocking on doors. That was quite intimidating, especially when at first it was only a few of us. We weren't sure what response we'd get. We had to start doing things even with a few people, then we found people in the area who would join in and things grew from there.

'We got a good response from most people. Even when we met people who had voted for the BNP we could argue with most of them. They had only had lies from the BNP, and you had to stand your ground and put over the truth.

'It was important that we met and organised in the area where the Nazis were trying to build. This sent a message that we belonged there, and weren't going away.

'Once we started to get young people involved, that gave everything a real energy. We had anti-Nazi raves and young people would go away with stickers and have discussions in the schools and colleges.

'By the time the Nazis were beaten the area was covered with stickers and posters. We had reclaimed the area. Today we have to take on the Nazis in areas like Halifax. It won't be easy. The most important thing is to start doing small things and build the momentum.'

JOHN McLOUGHLIN is the chair of the Tower Hamlets council Unison branch in east London

'YES, THE first reaction was shock. We were fortunate in that the day afterwards the council management called a meeting at which someone suggested a protest walkout. That really lifted people.

'From that we forced the council to agree that no council worker had to deal directly with the Nazi councillor. Every time he went to a council meeting there were anti-Nazi protests. That was important in showing that the BNP was not just a part of the normal democratic process.

'In the council we produced anti-Nazi stickers. Lots of workers wore them and that built confidence. We signed up hundreds of people to Council Workers Against the Nazis.

'One of the key things was the sense of unity against the BNP. We built an attitude that the labour movement would not tolerate the Nazis. TUC leader John Monks and GMB leader John Edmonds came to the Isle of Dogs and talked to shop stewards. From that came the 50,000-strong TUC march, which was marvellous.

'We also took up issues the Nazis were trying to play on such as housing. We had protests outside empty luxury flats and offices, and pointed out the real reasons for lack of decent affordable housing in the area.'

Socialist Worker's PAUL McGARR lives on the Isle of Dogs

'SOME PEOPLE painted a picture of the area as a 'no-go' area for anti-racists, as though it was full of Nazis. That was nonsense. The vast majority of people were against the Nazis. You had to be on the streets and estates where the Nazis had won support. Leafleting is a start, but you have to knock on doors and speak face to face with people.

'It wasn't enough just to expose the BNP as Nazis. People were right to be angry about rotten housing, angry about cuts, angry that people in power didn't care. If you don't start from sharing that anger you won't get anywhere.

'Some people had been conned into blaming Asians instead of those really responsible. You had to stand and argue this face to face. It wasn't always easy but it was necessary. You also had to fight over the issues people were angry about. The council tried to close our local community centre.

'The BNP councillor saw it as a golden opportunity. But because we had built in the community we were able to exclude him from the campaign meetings and lead a fight which saved the centre.

'I remember one small incident. A disabled man was desperate because the council hadn't done work to make his flat suitable. He turned to the BNP councillor. Fortunately we met the man too. We said what the BNP really stood for.

'We also organised a campaign, phoned the council and told them that unless the work was done we'd occupy the council offices. The council did the work. The man told the BNP to piss off and joined the Anti Nazi League.'

MARTIN SMITH is a former east London Socialist Workers Party organiser

'I REMEMBER the shock and paralysis when the Nazis won. People were stunned. The Nazis were cocky. We knew that the majority of people in east London weren't Nazis. But you only felt it when we started going out into the workplaces and communities. Just as today, there was a crisis in the centre of politics.

'The Tory government was in crisis. On the Isle of Dogs you had a massive transformation, with Canary Wharf, the Thatcherite wealth-dream all around. But the reality for working class people was run-down estates, insecurity.

'Locally you had the Liberals openly playing the race card too. Many individual Labour Party members and councillors were excellent. But there were some Labour councillors and leading figures in the area who pandered to racism.

'The key was finding all the people who were against the Nazis and uniting them, despite all our other differences, in a single campaign directed to one end- beating the BNP.

'We also had to confront the Nazis directly. This stopped them getting the respectability they craved. We had to disrupt Nazi meetings, disrupt council meetings when Beackon turned up, and protest everywhere they tried to organise. I remember one case when we had health workers and local tenants leafleting in a local market. About 60 Nazis turned up to abuse us.

'Firefighters came out of their station to join us with an anti-Nazi banner. We stood up to the Nazis, and suddenly they started sieg-heiling. People standing around gasped. Confronting them rips the mask off and exposes what these people really are.'

HUSSAIN ISMAIL was a local community activist

'IN THE run-up to the BNP getting in the level of racist attacks grew. Days before Beackon won Quddus Ali, a young Bengali, was beaten into a coma. Later on Mukhtar Ahmed was also beaten to within an inch of his life. The climate was awful.

'There was huge anger in the local Bengali community and we had to help reflect that anger. There was a militant protest outside the hospital where Quddus had been taken.

'In the month after the BNP got in racist attacks in the area doubled. The Nazis went on a rampage down Brick Lane, in the heart of the Bengali community, smashing windows. It was important that we mobilised, black, white and Asian, to say we wouldn't stand for it.

'The weekend after the BNP won 1,000 people drove the Nazis from the paper sale they had maintained at the top of Brick Lane for years, and which had been a real insult. They never came back. It was an important victory. One argument we had to have with some people was that you couldn't just beat the Nazis by mobilising in the Bengali community or by campaigning in areas where the Nazis had little or no base.

'We had to unite people-black, white and Asian-and take the fight into the mainly white working class areas where the Nazis had managed to gain a hearing. We had to counter the Nazi lies, argue with people about who was responsible for the problems they faced, and insist that we had to all unite against our real enemies.'

How we can do it again

WHEREVER the BNP seeks to build today we need the kind of campaign seen in east London in the 1990s. Local elections will be taking place in May in many areas. But the time for action is now.

The key is to get into the heart of the areas the BNP is targeting and begin building the local political forces which can challenge them. In the coming days and weeks some urgent steps need to be taken. For example, a few individuals can take the initiative to launch anti-war activity-street stalls, petitioning door to door, calling meetings.

That can draw together networks of people. Most of these people will be anti-Nazi. Some may have been conned by the BNP but can be won away from it in the course of a united anti-war campaign.

That kind of campaign will highlight where the real blame lies for the problems working people in Britain face. Building a network in the coming weeks can lay the basis for wider campaigns in the months ahead.

That means drawing together united anti-Nazi campaigns of local people focused sharply on the areas the BNP targets. It also means finding those people in each area who are ready to take up and fight over the issues affecting people's lives which the Nazis seek to feed off.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 8 Feb 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1837
Share this article



Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.