Socialist Worker

Fight the far right by challenging racism—not conceding to it

Some trade unionists want to talk to racist street movements. But victory against the far right doesn’t lie in compromise with its Islamophobia, argues Charlie Kimber

Issue No. 2622

Supporters of the Football Lads Alliance marching in central London last year

Supporters of the Football Lads Alliance marching in central London last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)


One high point of last week’s Trades Union Congress (TUC)—the gathering of Britain’s trade unions—was a motion supporting action against racism and fascism.

Passed unanimously, it called for support for the Stand Up To Racism conference on 20 October and the national demonstration on 17 November.

It was the union movement throwing its weight behind a serious response to the threat from the far right to migrants, Muslims and the working class.

Such a fightback is crucial, and the unity around it is precious. But the TUC also saw debates about anti-racism.

These should not stand in the way of united action. But it’s important to take the issues seriously.

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of the Unite union, made an unhelpful intervention in a speech supporting the motion backing the 17 November demonstration.

“It’s not good enough to organise another London demo,” he said. “And it’s a mistake to call all those who protest at terror on our streets or the grooming of vulnerable young women as racist, fascists and Islamophobes.”

He called for a broader discussion of how to reach those who were attracted by the “opportunism” of the far right. This had to include work in communities by the union movement.

Turner thought carefully about this. A couple of days earlier at a fringe meeting he said, “We need to stop talking to ourselves and talk to the people who are drawn to some of these organisations—for a multitude of different reasons.”

He said many who had been driven to far right groups had “genuine fears and concerns”.

Turner has been touted as a possible successor to Unite general secretary Len McCluskey.

The fascists and hardened bigots at the centre of the DFLA aren’t simply working class people who have been led astray by racist lies—they want to build a racist movement on the streets

He spoke about the “vacuum that we’ve left as a left” and that this was being filled by “the DFLA [Democratic Football Lads Alliance] and other organisations.”

Turner said he had met the DFLA and he clearly found some of its arguments worrying.

He wants to see at least some of those who join the DFLA mobilisations and marches for Nazi Tommy Robinson as concerned working class people raising reasonable issues.

The fascists and hardened bigots at the centre of the DFLA aren’t simply working class people who have been led astray by racist lies—they want to build a racist movement on the streets. By meeting its leadership, Turner helps to legitimise the DFLA and its project of regrouping the far right.

On its Facebook page the DFLA delightedly responded, “Steve Turner of the Unite union makes a good point.”

It is possible to separate ordinary people who are swayed by the DFLA's arguments from the committed racists at the centre of it.

That’s why anti-racist activists leaflet football grounds exposing the Islamaphobic lies that are used to build the group.

But making concessions to the racists does not repulse them, it encourages them. It makes their arguments seem more mainstream and credible. The Sun newspaper printed Turner’s comments about the DFLA.

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner (Pic: Rwendland/Wikimedia commons)


The racist rag isn’t bothered about tackling the ideas at the heart of this movement—they peddle the lies that directly feed into it.

When Boris Johnson launches an onslaught on Muslim women who wear the burqa, it doesn’t weaken the far right.

Fascism has always tried to gather together the justified resentments and fury of workers and sections of the middle class and turn them away from the real culprits—the rich and their system—and on to substitute targets.

These include Jews, migrants, disabled people, LGBT+ people and, in particular today, Muslims.

The demonisation of Muslims is central to the rise of the far right across Europe and they are the primary focus of the DFLA and Robinson’s supporters.

The agenda of far right mobilisations is not to raise debates but to encourage hatred of Muslims that leads to the burning of mosques, physical assaults and murder.

Mushin Ahmed was beaten to death in Rotherham in 2015, His killer called the 81-year-old a “groomer” before he launched his ferocious assault.

This followed repeated far right demonstrations in the area over child sexual exploitation that was blamed exclusively on Muslims.

Turner would be horrified and outraged as anyone else by such racist attacks. But they underline the necessity not to surrender to the Islamophobes’ arguments.

Turner further claimed that workers say, “You’re protesting austerity, I see you advertising the protest against Trump, I see you protesting against the Israeli government, against this, against that.

“Where were we when the Manchester bomb went off? Where were we on Westminster Bridge? Where was the left?”

Turner knows that after each of the attacks in the cities there were vigils organised—but that’s not what the debate is about.

Fascism and the far right are not a response to terror attacks—they existed long before any attack by groups that claim Muslim inspiration.

The left’s task is not to concede to Islamophobia but to strip away the myths.

To say, as Jeremy Corbyn did during the last election, that there are “connections between wars that we’ve been involved in or supported in other countries such as Libya and terrorism here at home”.

The unions should argue that child sexual exploitation is not the product of any particular religious or ethnic group, as the horrific revelations about the Catholic church, football clubs and many other institutions have shown.

There has to be an ideological and political counter-offensive against the racists’ lies, not half-acceptance of them.

Fascism will not be beaten by compromises or by concentrating solely on the economic hardship and dislocation that create a fertile ground for its propaganda.

Turner went on, “Where’s the left criticising the state of Iran for instance, who whipped trade unionists for taking strike action, who denies women human rights, who runs an obscene regime.

“Saudi Arabia, where we welcomed the head of Saudi Arabia to the UK. Did we protest? No we didn’t protest.”

The countries chosen—Iran and Saudi Arabia—are not random examples.

It’s a charge that the left never makes a fuss about repression in Muslim-majority countries and that this is part of its cover-up of Muslim crimes.

In fact the left did protest against Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman when he visited Britain in March.

While the Tories and big business fawned over him, and the media pocketed the vast sums handed over for adverts seeking to boost his image, the left were on the streets against him.

It was the same when Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to Britain in 2015. And when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was welcomed by Theresa May earlier this year.

But this isn’t the point—the DFLA, let alone Tommy Robinson’s supporters, won’t be deflected by evidence that the left has protested against these rulers.

They want demonstrations against Muslims because they are Muslims. They want pogroms and deportations and concentration camps.

After big far right marches for Tommy Robinson - how we can beat the Nazis
After big far right marches for Tommy Robinson - how we can beat the Nazis
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This argument about how to respond is taking place across Europe. Faced by the roaring threat of the fascists, can we unite against them and refute their lies or should we seek to weaken them by accepting at least some of their claims?

In Germany Sahra Wagenknecht, parliamentary co-chair of the left wing Die Linke party, has launched a movement whose central feature is an amalgam of leftist economic policy and anti-migrant scapegoating.

Launching the movement earlier this month, Wagenknecht pointed to the very real poverty and disenchantment of German working class people and said, “Many regard free movement and immigration as the main source of increased competition for low-paid jobs.”

She added, “The refugee issue has led to additional uncertainty” and that “many existing problems” were made worse by migration. This tirade was welcomed by Alexander Gauland of the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD). He praised Wagenknecht as a politician capable of “putting aside blinkers and identifying the real concerns and needs of broad sections of the people beyond pathos and ideology.”

Turner’s arguments rest on a pessimism about working class people and their ability to reject the racist lies of the DFLA, Ukip and Tommy Robinson.

Fascism will not be beaten by compromises or by concentrating solely on the economic hardship and dislocation that create a fertile ground for its propaganda.

It requires mass mobilisation against racism and fascist marches and relentless exposure of its lies.

Let’s build the fightback and make no concessions to the far right.


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