Building the anti-fascist fight in the UK

October 17, 2018

Across the globe, the far right is exploiting political polarization to build its ranks. In the UK, this includes the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), which promotes among soccer fans a violent, racist, Islamophobic and far-right agenda, couched in concern about sexual assault. Members of the group held a march in London on October 13, claiming that they were protesting against “returning jihadists” and “rape gangs.” Their followers became violent as police attempted to keep them separated from anti-racist marchers, which pursued different tactics in opposing the far right.

Longtime British socialist and anti-fascist campaigner David Renton makes a case for the necessity of confronting the DFLA and other far-right formations, in an expanded version of an article that first appeared on his blog Lives; Running.

I SPENT this Saturday marching against the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA). I was part of a unity demonstration which began at Portland Place (i.e., a little south of Regents Park) and marched very slowly from there to Trafalgar Square. Despite the slow progress (a deliberate move, intended to prevent the DFLA from marching past us), the protest was one of the most enjoyable I have been on in years. Young, very largely female, full of excited people. Among the friends I marched with were seasoned anti-fascists who go back to the campaigns of the 1980s, Marxist journalists, fans in football regalia, exiles from the left in America and Brazil, LGBT activists, a disabled singer, and a woman who hadn’t known about the march until she came into London that morning with her 7-year-old son to go shopping, asked the police who were demonstrating, and (despite the police’s best efforts) found herself joining what she soon realized was a joyous celebration of unity.

Protesters take to the streets of London against the far right
Protesters take to the streets of London against the far right (Steve Eason | flickr)

There were 1,500 people on the march, and the name “unity” is richly deserved. A very large number of groups — the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) trade union, Plan C, London Anti-Fascists, anti-fascists from elsewhere in the country, Jewdas, Palestine activist campaigns, and revolutionary socialism in the 21st century — had turned out, in each case, quite small numbers of people. The result of these many small mobilizations was a large and exuberant protest, with songs (“I will survive”), purple smoke from flares, and chants. The protest was led by Women’s Strike Assembly and placed women at the front, even pausing at one stage (as we approached the Brazilian embassy) to allow women from Latin America to rush to the front.

The unity march was youthful and vibrant. Its most interesting component was Women’s Strike Assembly, which, although a minority of demonstrators, had been allowed to set the agenda for the majority and lead them. Their idea is that anti-fascism should not simply react to far-right demonstrations, but set our own agenda. For six weeks prior to the DFLA event, they had held private meetings and public assemblies to discuss their plans. They organized child care, food for the demonstrators, cookies with arrest cards.

Because they have spent weeks planning for the demonstration, and because they talked to activists who weren’t initially planning to go on the demo, they were able to persuade sufficient numbers of new people to turn out so that the far right was badly outnumbered. Women’s Strike do not confront every single far-right protest (they haven’t tried, for example, to oppose the Tommy Robinson court appearances); they think that the left can mobilize in large numbers only occasionally. That calculation is probably correct. The movement is better if we focus on occasional large turnouts, rather than mobilizing small numbers of our older supporters on weekday stunts.

WE CONFRONTED the DFLA; at about 3 p.m., a group of around 200 supporters of the far right broke out of police lines and attempted to march on us. Outnumbered, their “Eng-ger-land” chants were drowned out by people chanting back at them the slogan of the Spanish civil war: “No pasaran.”

I waited with friends, and when it was clear that the far right was not going to break through, we set off through central London and took a good look at the DFLA. They were, unsurprisingly, the same far-right crowd that we have seen repeatedly over the last 18 months, predominantly male and middle aged, with a large number of football insignia (including, at one point, two men carrying what looked like West Ham shields carved out of a small wall of flowers). The DFLA’s strategy since the spring has been to build out of a women’s and children’s movement against rape. If that was supposed to bring in a new generation of activists, it hasn’t been successful yet. Of the 800 to 1,000 DFLA supporters we saw, just three women were wearing stickers which alluded to that recent campaign.

The DFLA itself faces an increasing threat from the right in the form of [British far-right leader] Tommy Robinson who spent last year tacking towards the DFLA and has recently moved away from it, leaving that campaign feeling like last year’s news. The stage was disorganized and the audience uninterested, as the DFLA gave a platform to its highest-profile remaining allies, the Justice for the 21 campaign in Birmingham, which campaigns for the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings and for the naming of the killers. Even with such mainstream allies, the DFLA seemed isolated and short of purpose.

As well as the main unity march, there was also a second protest, called by a longstanding campaign group Stand Up to Racism (SUTR). The organizers claim that there were 2,000 people on their protest and say that it was significantly boosted by support from the Labour Party. If so, then that it is to be welcomed. I wasn’t there for its start, which coincided with that of the unity march. By the time I had arrived at the SUTR event (i.e., two hours after the protest began), the numbers had had shrunk to around just 300 people.

The SUTR protest was very different from the unity march. It was older and predominantly male. The organizers were kettled, and made no effort to break out from the lines behind which they were constricted. There were, in effect, two stages — a DFLA stage on the North side of Whitehall, and a SUTR stage on the South side, with two sets of speakers pointing away from each other. The Unite Against Fascism (UAF) march did not confront the DFLA, nor did the organizers have any intention of doing so.

THE HISTORY of the left gives many examples of a campaign that was, at one stage, hegemonic on the left giving way to a younger, more political and more combative rival. After all, most members of the unity protest are veterans of previous SUTR and similar events. While SUTR was content behind its kettle, and the young were marching elsewhere, they were still chanting slogans first heard on SUTR protests.

Even SUTR derives its heritage, if increasingly distantly, from the Anti-Nazi League and the Socialist Workers Party of the 1970s—part of whose adoption of anti-fascism was part of a longer-term plan of replacing the ageing Communist Party of Great Britain as the largest organization force outside Labour on the left. It is hard not to feel that the British left is undergoing a similar generational and political recomposition now, albeit away from a model developed in the 1970s toward something new.

What is harder to ask is whether even a generational renewal of the campaign will lead to what we really need — i.e., a movement capable of stopping not only the smaller groups on the right, but the likes of Tommy Robinson. The big picture is that the far right of our own times organizes in ways different from the methods the left understands how to confront, through the adoption of a contrarian persona, anti-politically and principally online. Moreover, in so far as anti-fascism works by distancing the extremists on the right from their mainstream allies, a problem facing us is that the two wings of the right have been cooperating voluntarily. There is, in short, a battle of ideas taking place between the left as a whole and the right as a whole. In that context, even the best of the anti-fascism can be no more than a part of the answer.

First published at Lives; Running.

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