Over 450 activists met at the TUC headquarters in central London last Saturday for the largest anti-fascist conference in a decade.
The meeting, organised by Unite Against Fascism, was called to discuss strategies for defeating the British National Party (BNP) at the next general election.
Speaker after speaker stressed their determination to build a united national campaign against the BNP that brought together black and white activists on a principled anti-racist stand.
Union leaders such as Kevin Curran, general secretary of the GMB, Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, and Barry Camfield, assistant general secretary of the T&G, all threw their weight behind Unite’s campaign.
A key theme emerging throughout the day was the need to expose the BNP as a fascist and racist organisation.
“We identify the BNP as fascist,” said Paul Scarrott from Yorkshire Unite Against Fascism in a session on campaigning against the BNP. It is not enough to describe them simply as ‘extremists’ or ‘outsiders’ — which are ambiguous terms anyway.”
The need for a united national campaign was questioned by a small minority of those attending the conference.
But most people agreed with the strategy. Many speakers criticised the media for spreading racism and granting platforms to fascist organisations. Unite has launched a “Pull the Plugs” campaign calling on TV stations not to give airtime to the BNP.
Significantly, this campaign is backed by the NUJ and Bectu, the two main media workers’ unions. Both have recently toughened up their anti-fascist policies.
The conference drew together activists from across the labour movement, but also heard strong criticism, including from Labour Party members, of those who are capitulating to racist arguments.
Mohammed Azam, a Labour councillor from Oldham, noted that BNP leader Nick Griffin was standing against Labour MP Ann Cryer.
“The BNP sees Ann Cryer as a weak link,” he said. “Why? Because when you make concessions to racism, the BNP grows. We must challenge the racists head on. We will not pander to racism at all.”
Many Labour activists at the conference expressed their anger and dismay at the government for pandering to racism over asylum seekers.
Tony Blair’s recently announced election pledge to “protect our country’s borders” came under particular attack.
“I was at the Labour spring conference when Blair announced the pledge,” said one speaker from the floor, a black woman from Southwark, south London. “I could feel the discomfort in the audience.”
Fascists were organising in her constituency, she added, and Blair’s pledge was undermining the campaign against them. “What do we say to our people when Labour’s fifth pledge is about ‘protecting borders’?” she asked.
Her anger was echoed by speakers on the platform. “I agree absolutely,” said Barry Camfield. “This is pandering for all the wrong reasons to the view that we somehow need to show how ‘tough’ we are.”
Jennette Arnold, a Labour member of the London Assembly, called the pledge “disgusting”. A determination to undermine the BNP and its arguments ran through the day.
The conference ended with a moving speech from Leon Greenman, who survived the Nazi’s Auschwitz concentration camp and has devoted his life to campaigning against fascism.
A session by Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) was addressed by R&B star Estelle and others. The NUM mineworkers’ union pledged to help pay for major LMHR/Unite events in Keighley in April and Durham in August.