Some 75 years have passed since the historic victory at Cable Street. But before the anniversary celebrations could begin, anti-fascists and local people were once again called on to defend the east London borough of Tower Hamlets from the racists. On 3 September 2011 the English Defence League (EDL) said it was going to march through the borough.
The big one
Since the EDL’s formation, just over two years ago, it has attempted to strike fear and terror into the hearts of the Muslim communities in Britain. For them Tower Hamlets was going to be the “big one”, a time to settle old scores. If they got their way they would have assembled on one of the sites of the “Battle of Cable Street”, marched past Altab Ali Park, the spot where a young Asian man was murdered by racist skinheads in 1978, and then on past the East London Mosque, long demonised by Islamophobes.
One of the leaders of the EDL described Tower Hamlets as “the lion’s den – the heart of multiracial and multicultural Britain”. Another EDL thug posted the following message on the EDL’s Facebook site: “If we can march in Tower Hamlets, we can march anywhere – No surrender!”
But just like their infamous historical counterparts the British Union of Fascists, the EDL were defeated. Of course the numbers involved in Cable Street and today were very different and the police did not try to use force to clear a path for the racists to march, but on neither occasion did the racists succeed in demonstrating through Tower Hamlets.
For on the day of the EDL’s planned march, thousands of anti-fascists took to the streets to oppose them. Black, white and Asian, trade unionists, socialists and those of faith and none, stood together and ensured that the racists did not take one step inside their borough. An editorial in the Morning Star newspaper captured the importance of the day: “Victory for the anti-fascist movement, victory for the labour movement and above all victory for the East End in all its vibrant array of races, religions, languages and communities.”
The Tower Hamlets demonstration is now a benchmark for the anti-fascist movement. Its success can teach us much. Yet this victory against the EDL has been a long time coming and a long time in the making. There are parallels with the past. Phil Piratin, Cable Street veteran and former Communist Party MP for Stepney and Mile End, wrote a wonderful account of the period in his book Our Flag Stays Red. He argued the key to the success at Cable Street was unity: “Never was there such unity of all sections of the working class as was seen on the barricades at Cable Street. People whose lives were poles apart, though living a few hundred yards of each other, bearded Orthodox Jews and rough-and-ready Irish Catholic dockers.”
The key to our more recent victory was also unity. In the run-up to the Tower Hamlets counter-demonstration a united campaign came together to oppose the EDL, one which involved Unite Against Fascism (UAF), local trade unions, the mosques and other faith groups. It evoked the spirit of Trotsky’s theory of the united front. Put simply, it is where revolutionary socialists propose to join with workers belonging to other political parties or organisations or none, in order to defend their immediate common interests.
The idea of a united campaign to stop the EDL seems straightforward. Yet its application has proved to be much more complicated. Again in Our Flag Stays Red Piratin argues, “We have all learnt a lot since 1934, yet so much has had to be learnt the ‘hard way’. It is true that when you have learnt something by experience it is well learned, but the world would never have moved forward if each one had to learn from his own experience.”
Over the past two years we too have had to learn the hard way. There has been a concerted attempt to break the unity of those who want to oppose the EDL. The police have tried to break up our counter-protests, the government has banned our anti-racist marches and anti-fascist organisations such as Hope Not Hate/Searchlight have argued for an “Ignore the EDL and they will go away” strategy. The authorities have also used every weapon in their armoury to keep Muslim and anti-fascist protesters apart.
The unity in Tower Hamlets was built on a simple but principled basis. UAF and United East End (UEE) came together to unite communities against the EDL. Some in this coalition supported the call for a ban on the EDL; others such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) opposed it. Regardless of each organisation’s position on the ban, the basis of that unity was that if the EDL were going to try and demonstrate in Tower Hamlets we would hold the biggest possible counter-protest against them.
Coalition in crisis
At key points the SWP played a crucial role in holding this united front together. The coalition almost fragmented when Tory home secretary Theresa May announced she was banning the EDL march and with the same stroke of the pen declared she was also banning the UAF/UEE protest (she in fact banned all protests in six London boroughs for 30 days). Some in the coalition, including many Labour councillors and Hope Not Hate, said the job was done and argued that everyone should now stay at home. The Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, issued a statement calling on anti-racists to “stand down”.
The SWP and UAF had to patiently explain that the ban did not apply to static protests and therefore just like Leicester, Stoke and Luton the EDL would still be coming to Tower Hamlets. The coalition held together and some including the mayor then joined the UAF/UEE demo on the day. Theresa May’s banning order was another victim on the day. When it became clear that the EDL were not going to enter Tower Hamlets and that they had dispersed, thousands took to the streets in a victory parade and the Tory ban was broken.
Another important tactic was developed in the battle to keep the EDL out of Tower Hamlets – people power and working class power made it difficult for the EDL to assemble. In the run-up to the EDL’s rally of hate, UAF discovered that the police were going to let them assemble on top of Sainsbury’s multistorey car park in Whitechapel, overlooking the East London Mosque. Immediately a “Boycott Sainsbury’s” campaign was launched and within hours this giant corporation issued a statement making it clear that the EDL would not be using the car park.
Likewise when UAF discovered that the police wanted to use Liverpool Street station as a rallying point for the EDL we contacted the rail union, the RMT. Workers threatened to shut the station on health and safety grounds if the racists turned up. Again the station became off bounds to the racists. The importance of the RMT action should not be lost on anyone. The last time workers took collective action against the Nazis was 1993, when council workers in Tower Hamlets struck for the day in protest at a BNP councillor getting elected on the Isle of Dogs.
Finally, when the EDL announced it was going to meet up in six pubs near King’s Cross station, UAF activists made it clear they would organise a boycott of the pubs. The next morning all six pubs barred the EDL from their premises. One landlord even put up a poster in his window declaring, “No dogs, no Nazis”. The impact of the worker’s and community boycott campaigns both demoralised the EDL and confused many of their supporters, who did not know where they should assemble. Only around 600 EDL thugs turned up that day, far less than the 2,000 they boasted would come. Our united campaign had split the hardcore thugs from their softer periphery.
Yet out of the victory in Tower Hamlets, new arguments and some old ones have emerged. The call for the EDL to be banned is now taking a new form. Billy Hayes, the general secretary of the CWU union, is an implacable opponent of racism and fascism and someone I have immense respect for. I recently spoke alongside him at a TUC conference fringe meeting. There he argued firmly against the banning of anti -racist marches, but he also argued that the EDL should be banned under legislation proscribing them as a violent and dangerous organisation. In my opinion the problem with this strategy is twofold. Firstly the EDL will just march under a different name. Secondly you can’t ban fascism; it has to be beaten both politically and physically.
Clearly people who support the call for the EDL to be banned do so for different reasons. The vast majority do so out of a genuine desire to stop the EDL from marching; others have a more cynical agenda, one designed to stop counter-protests taking place. I believe the call for a ban is a bankrupt strategy. Recent history has taught us that bans don’t stop the EDL from holding static protests; they are used by the police and authorities to curb anti-racist protests and they demobilise our protests.
The political and economic conditions that enable the EDL to flourish are not going away. Only a few months ago Anders Breivik went on his murderous killing spree in Norway. Yes, Europe’s leaders have condemned his actions, yet there has been little or no condemnation of his political motives. The ranting found in Breivik’s “manifesto” was not created in a vacuum. Across Europe we are seeing the development of an axis of Islamophobia. This runs from violent street movements, through fascist and far-right racist populist parties, to mainstream political leaders.
Many of Europe’s political leaders including Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy are whipping up Islamophobia with ever greater ferocity and denouncing multiculturalism in the crudest terms. They show no signs that they are going to back off from their attacks. The victory in Tower Hamlets was a small blow to this “axis of evil”. But we have to be clear that one major setback for the EDL does not signal their defeat.
In the aftermath of the Tower Hamlets demonstration I was invited to speak to a mixed group of young people in Wapping, east London. The mood of the meeting was electric. The young people rightly felt proud of what they had achieved that day and their mood was one of confidence. One young Somali boy said, “We got them good, didn’t we?” Yes, we did get them good on 3 September 2011, but we are going to have to repeat it again and again. The difference is now we have a model: Tower Hamlets. We showed that through unity, organisation and by taking control of our streets we can defeat the new racists.
The Battle of Cable Street: 75 years on
On 4 October 1936, 1,900 supporters of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) attempted to march from the City of London through London’s East End only to find their way was blocked by a crowd of more than 100,000 anti-fascists at Gardiner’s Corner, the main route into east London.
Up to 6,000 police officers tried to violently disperse the anti-fascists. When their attempt to force a way through for the fascists failed, the police tried to find an alternative route for them through narrow residential streets, only to find that these were blocked by barricades including an overturned lorry. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game told Mosley, “You must call it off.” Mosley was forced to lead his supporters through the Sunday streets, finally dispersing near Charing Cross.
Cable Street was the second of the two key moments in the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s. The first had taken place at Olympia in 1934. For two years prior to Olympia, Mosley had set out to win the support of disgruntled Tories. Mosley’s best-known backer was the press baron Lord Rothermere, whose Daily Mail printed pro-BUF headlines (“Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”) and publicised Mosley’s meetings.
By the summer of 1934 the BUF had reached its peak membership of 50,000. Most of its members were middle or upper class. The aim at Olympia was to put this organisation on show in a mass rally of tens of thousands of Blackshirts. Anti-fascists who disrupted the Olympia rally by attempting to heckle Mosley were picked out with electric lights and beaten by the BUF stewards. Yet the violence of Olympia deterred Mosley’s passive supporters. Rothermere himself initially applauded Mosley for Olympia, before one month later ending his support for the BUF. BUF membership collapsed. Mosley then turned to seek working class support in the East End, targeting workers in declining trades such as clothes production or furniture making, some of whom were in direct competition with Jewish labourers working in the same industries.
The fascist plans for Cable Street were announced just a week beforehand. The London District of the Communist Party had intended for some time that on the 4 October there should be a youth rally in Trafalgar Square in solidarity with anti-fascist struggle in Spain. The London Communists still insisted that their event should go ahead as planned. But Communists in Stepney had other plans. The “official” Communist leaflets continued to circulate, but now overstamped with instructions calling upon activists to assemble not in Trafalgar Square but in the East End.
Before Cable Street began the Labour Party opposed the protest. In its immediate aftermath, Labour sought to claim the credit for its success. Soon afterwards Labour’s message was again that it had been the work of troublemakers, with Labour shadow home secretary Herbert Morrison denouncing both left and right, and calling for a ban on political uniforms. With Labour’s support, parliament passed the Public Order Act giving the police the power to ban all marches, not just racist or fascist ones. The act was first used in June 1937 to ban demonstrations in the East End. The first event to be cancelled was a recruiting march for Bethnal Green Trades Council.
The most far-sighted of the Communists could see that defeating the BUF would require far more than just physical confrontation. The BUF had to be challenged in the areas where it claimed the greatest support. The Communists targeted estates seen as no-go areas for the left. In June 1937 Communists living at Paragon Mansions in Mile End heard of the threatened eviction of two families who turned out to be members of the BUF. The Communists agreed to support them against eviction. The tenants barricaded the block against the bailiffs, who were held off for two weeks. The two families ripped up their BUF membership cards. This kind of political struggle, as much as the physical victory a year earlier, isolated the BUF.
Defeating the fascists politically was slow work. The BUF’s national membership grew in the aftermath of Cable Street by 2,000, with most of the recruits being picked up in London. This fascist revival continued until local elections in spring 1937, when BUF candidates won 19 percent of the vote in North East Bethnal Green, Stepney and Shoreditch. Yet this result needs to be placed alongside derisory BUF votes in the same elections in such former fascist strongholds as Leeds, Manchester and Southampton, and reports of BUF branches ceasing to exist all over southern England, outside London.
Two processes appear to have been at work. First, the BUF’s increasing notoriety as the “anti-Jew” party won it some recruits in the East End while demoralising members elsewhere. Second, the fascists were cannibalising their own organisation in order to mask the scale of their defeat, pulling in members from all over England to shore up the East End organisation. In doing so, they were weakening their party everywhere else. After Cable Street, British fascism was never as strong again.
The lesson of Cable Street is that despite the press and the police, fascism can always be beaten. But that requires our side to get organised.
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