LONDON'S ASTORIA club rocked last week with 2,000 people determined to beat the British National Party. The event was the London launch of the new Unite Against Fascism coalition. It is campaigning against the British National Party, which is targeting the elections on 10 June. Both the audience and those on stage marked this out as no ordinary political meeting.
Packed into the club were 16 to 20 year olds, many of them confident young black women. There were also large numbers of trade unionists. These included delegations of the CWU postal workers' union from London, Cardiff and Newcastle, and the whole shift from a London fire station.
Campaigners inside City and Islington College asked the college to book a coach, and filled it with students and lecturers. This mix was reflected on stage. Speeches from trade union general secretaries, campaigners and celebrities meshed with urban music acts.
Members of So Solid Crew and the group Bigga Fish, who did several different sets, entertained the crowd. Lemar, the Fame Academy contestant who recently won a Brit award, also came. He spent time in the audience and said he was committed to supporting Unite. Unfortunately due to contractual problems he was not able to perform on stage.
The event was a showcase for young talent-black and white, men and women. They brought whoops and applause from the audience. And many of the speakers were surprised that they got a similar response.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of the Natfhe college lecturers' union, had the audience chanting with him when he said, 'If the BNP come to our schools, we will stop them. If they come to our colleges, we will stop them. If they come to our neighbourhoods, we will stop them.' He won applause for saying, 'If the BNP come we should do what the school students did when the war started. They walked out of their schools and colleges, and said we are not having this.'
Seven trade union general secretaries lined up on stage to speak. Billy Hayes from the CWU union had the audience cheering when he said, 'For any postal worker-if you don't want to deliver any racist filth, you have got my backing.
'The BNP don't like to be called fascists. But I say if it walks like a fascist and talks like a fascist, it is a fascist.' He and Dave Prentis, leader of the giant Unison public sector workers' union, announced their unions were each donating £10,000 to Unite.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber was applauded for his 'message of support from the whole trade union movement for the campaign'. Weyman Bennett from the Anti Nazi League raised the roof when he said, 'When my parents came here to Britain, they came to give, not to take. Look at what David Blunkett says. We should defend people coming here to give, we should welcome them. 'The people who aren't welcome are the Nazis.'
He went on to urge people to get active in the Unite campaign against the BNP. 'We have to put up leaflets, stickers and posters everywhere. We have to send out the message that the BNP are finished,' said Weyman.
Other speakers included London mayor Ken Livingstone, Abdul Mbari from the Muslim Council of Britain, and several Labour MPs and MEPs. Lee Jasper from the National Assembly Against Racism compered the evening. Singer Billy Bragg was also warmly received. He pointed out that the BNP weren't just racist:
'When I went to my first Rock Against Racism concert in 1978 in Victoria Park I was 19 years old and Tom Robinson did 'Sing if You're Glad to be Gay'. And I asked, 'Why are there gay men here?' And I understood that the fascists hate anyone who is different, anyone who doesn't toe the line. I promised to be as different as I could and challenge them. Music can't change the world but it can change people's perception. I'm so proud to see so many young people here, the next generation. When the fascists raise their head, it's good that people like Unite start organising.'
Billy introduced on stage Jerry Dammers as 'the man who wrote the song 'Free Nelson Mandela',' to cheers from the audience. Jerry argued, 'The fascists talk about freedom of speech. They are the enemies of freedom of speech. They only want it for themselves and to take it away from others. I feel the government should be doing a lot more against these people. I'm sick to death of this shit, and I don't want to have to be here in ten years saying the same things.'
Hundreds of people ensured the event carried on until midnight as they danced to music from Choice FM DJ Emma Feline.
'I'm a postal workers' union rep. I'm going to tell my members they have to vote against the BNP. The BNP are no friends of the trade unions, let alone black people'
'This is the first political event I've been to. Racism is wrong. We need to bring the movement to schools and colleges'
Dominique, student, City and Islington FE College, London
A winning formula: a united and popular campaign
THE ASTORIA event shows what a breakthrough the Unite Against Fascism organisation is. It has given confidence to the many people from across the political spectrum who have been alarmed at the rise of the BNP but have not been convinced that the Nazis could be driven back.
Unite has brought together forces from the mainstream of the labour and trade union movement, anti-racist organisations, socialists and many young people. Leading trade unions and the TUC have stated that Unite and taking on the BNP is the top priority for them in the run-up to the election. Natfhe has given Unite an office in its London headquarters free of charge.
Each component of Unite saw it as their responsibility to build the Astoria event among their own networks. Trade union leaders sent out mailings to their members, and urged unions at regional and local level to take up Unite with enthusiasm. Youth clubs and student organisations ensured the publicity about the Astoria event got a high profile among their networks. Posters and leaflets were circulated among varied groups of people.
'The Unite campaign is not just down to the 'usual suspects' who are known to longstanding campaigners,' said Weyman Bennett, joint secretary of Unite.
'There is a new layer of activists, particularly young people. They had been radicalised by the war on Iraq, and that is branching out into other areas.' This buzz around Unite means many imaginative ideas and initiatives are coming forward.
The Astoria is not a typical venue for a political meeting, but it helped create an exciting atmosphere for the event. The promoters Leftfield, who organised a stage at the Glastonbury festival, and workers at the Astoria helped ensure the venue was available for a fraction of the normal £15,000 price tag.
The experience of the Unite events in London and Manchester in January shows that the mix of youth and trade unions, music and speeches is a winning formula for a popular campaign against the BNP. It is a model Unite aims to repeat across Britain to drive fear into the BNP and build confidence among anti-Nazi campaigners.
'It's so important to get involved. People don't just want to see old men talking. They can get the anti-racist, anti-BNP message through music as well'
Claire, Bigga Fish
'Burnley will have a place in the history books. Our ultimate aim is an all-white society'
BNP Führer Nick Griffin, speaking after the election of three Nazi councillors in May 2002
'Unite is bringing different groups together. Hopefully we can decimate the BNP's vote in June'
Jason Flemyng, Whose films include Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and From Hell
Contact Unite Against Fascism, PO Box 36871, London WC1X 9XT. Phone 020 7833 4916 or go to www.uaf.org.uk