Over 600 anti-fascist activists from around the country met in London on Saturday of last week for a lively and determined conference organised by Unite Against Fascism. The conference discussed stopping the British National Party (BNP) at the 4 May local elections.
The conference saw a large turnout of young people and students, many of whom had got involved in Unite through the Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) campaign against the BNP in schools and colleges.
Dominique Walker, the sister of teenager Anthony Walker who was murdered by racists in Liverpool, gave a moving speech to the conference.
She paid tribute to the anti-fascists who had helped organise a concert in Liverpool for black and white unity in the wake of Anthony’s murder. “Love Music Hate Racism would have been really special to Anthony,” she said. “It’s something the family are behind in a big way.”
Several speakers highlighted how the BNP was seeking to exploit the current climate of Islamophobia, especially in the wake of the anti-Muslim cartoons row and the recent acquittal of BNP leader Nick Griffin on four race hate charges. The Nazis are trying to bill the May elections as a “referendum on Islam”.
The conference was the largest of its kind for over a decade, attracting a third more delegates than Unite’s previous national meeting held in February last year.
The unity and diversity of the campaign was reflected in the speaker line up, featuring trade unionists, MPs, representatives of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu organisations, LGBT rights groups, as well as Holocaust survivors Henry Guterman and Leon Greenman.
Salma Yaqoob, vice chair of Respect, won a standing ovation for a blistering speech highlighting how George Bush’s “war on terror” was fuelling the anti-Muslim racism that gave succour to racists and fascists.
She described the isolation and fear felt by many Muslims in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, but added that campaigns like Unite could deliver solidarity against racism: “The majority of people here are white – but that’s what gives me hope.”
Weyman Bennett, joint secretary of Unite, underlined how much the national campaign had acheived in the two and half years since its formation. Despite all their efforts, the Nazis had failed to win any MEPs or London Assembly members, he noted.
The BNP had also been held back at last year’s general elections, he added, especially in areas with strong Unite campaigns. He urged delegates to get involved in three national days of action against the fascists called by Unite on Saturdays 25 February, 25 March and 29 April.
All the speakers stressed the necessity of uniting anti-fascist forces into a single national campaign against the BNP. But several pointed out how neo-liberal policies were fuelling the inequality, racism and resentment that the Nazis thrive off.
The Labour MP Sadiq Khan warned his party not to take its voters for granted. He added, “All three mainstream parties need to analyse what they have said and done, and whether there’s a correlation with the rise of the BNP.”
Trade unionists at the conference also delivered hard criticisms of the government and established parties. Barry Camfield, assistant general secretary of the T&G union, noted how the Nazis “see a vacuum opening up from Labour’s move to the right”.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service workers’ union, pledged to use the union’s new political fund to campaign against the BNP.
Martin Smith from the Unite steering committee warned that the BNP could only sustain its current electoral tactics for so long. “Hitler spoke of how Nazi street marches could ‘turn worms into dragons’,” he said. “The BNP is going to want to march—they cannot rely on electoralism alone.”
The threat of a demonstration against a planned BNP rally in Keighley last year had resulted in it being banned, he added. Unite activists had to be prepared to take to the streets if the Nazis tried to mobilise again.
Overall the conference was marked by a renewed and heightened sense of political focus, unity and determination to beat back the fascists in May. Previous arguments over the need to take a principled anti-racist stance against the fascists had been won comprehensively – and the campaign was larger, younger and livelier.
Sharp discussion about music and fighting racism
Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) hosted one of the most vibrant sessions at the Unite Against Fascism conference.
Speakers included Mobo award winning grime star Lethal Bizzle, singer Lisa Moorish and DJ Dave Haslam, formerly of the legendary Hacienda club in Manchester.
The discussion was sharp and politically sophisticated, with young people speaking of their experiences putting on gigs and club nights to raise awareness and funds for the struggle against the fascist British National Party (BNP).
One debate concerned the way different forms of music appealed to different crowds and the potential for creating black and white unity.
Dave Laser, lead singer of rock band Dustin’s Bar Mitzvah, said he often felt the audiences he played to at LMHR gigs were dominated by “middle class indie kids” and wondered whether the campaign was “preaching to the converted”.
Others replied that nobody should take it for granted that “middle class indie kids” were necessarily anti-racist. Moreover, they pointed out that despite the “middle class” label, many suburbs and small towns had severe problems with poverty and alienation.
Another strand to the debate concerned institutional racism in the media and perceptions of violence in the predominantly black grime scene. Lethal Bizzle described how racism had dogged his work, with his latest single “Pow!” being banned by many clubs.
One young woman said that she had seen “Pow!” kick off violence in clubs and asked Lethal Bizzle how his often dark and bleak lyrics sat alongside LMHR’s message of positive unity against racism.
Lethal replied that his lyrics reflected his experiences growing up in east London and denied that they incited violence. He added that while “Pow!” had been shunned by many clubs, it had crossed over to the indie scene and appealed to people beyond musical dividing lines.
Dave Laser added that kids often slamdanced and acted boistrously at his band’s gigs—but this attracted no attention because they were white. “But when it’s black kids, people say they’re getting ‘violent’. The media plays a big role in stereotyping people,” he added.
Martin Smith spoke about how the Nazis have recently been trying to use race hate music CDs to get themselves established in schools and colleges. Love Music Hate Racism could play a crucial role in blocking this effort, he added, just as Rock Against Racism had done in the 1970s.
Louise Thomas, 16, came from King James’s school in Knaresborough, north Yorkshire. Two boys at the school had turned up with BNP literature. She said, “We’ve got a Love Music Hate Racism gig. We want to raise awareness and money for the campaign against the BNP.
“Four local bands will be playing, including one with their debut album. We’ll also have a Unite stall there.
“I’ve learned a lot from this conference. It’s good to see the bands speaking out. Music is the best way of bringing people together.”
Go to www.uaf.org.uk