Last week, a mob from the English Defence League (EDL), a rag-tag collection of football
‘service crews’ and other assorted hooligan and racist elements, mobilised in
the northern city of Leeds. Clearly hoping to capitalise on their ‘successes’
in Manchester (where they managed to mobilise several hundred people) and Luton
(where the absence of any counter-mobilisation by the labour movement allowed
the EDL’s thugs to attack Muslims in the street), several hundred of these
fascist yobs gathered in City Square.
On a busy Saturday afternoon, a huge police presence swamped
the city centre; roads were closed and pubs emptied. A counter-demonstration
was organised by Unite Against Fascism
(UAF), the umbrella organisation for the anti-fascist movement, and
supported by the Trades Council. Police estimated that around 900 EDL
supporters attended the fascist demonstration, and around 1500 anti-fascists
attended the UAF demonstration. The counter-mobilisation was ‘fed’ by several
marches from different parts of the city; this correspondent joined the march
from Hyde Park.
However, the outcome cannot be described as a clear victory
for the anti-fascist movement. Whilst the disgusting scenes we saw in Luton
were not possible here due to the size of the counter-mobilisation (and
resultant police presence), a significant section of the EDL crowd succeeded in
breaching the police lines and rampaging down Boar Lane, towards part of the
city’s gay scene. The police successfully ‘kettled’ the anti-fascist
mobilisation, forcing us into a small area without right of exit, thereby
keeping us out of the way whilst the fascists caused chaos. (The following Associated Press film clearly shows
Contrary to the propaganda of UAF, anti-fascist
demonstrations do little to convince those taken in by the arguments of the EDL
to change their views. Only attacking the arguments of the fascists, and
providing a socialist alternative, can do that. A fighting socialist leadership
of the labour movement is required to win over those who have turned to the likes
of the BNP and even the EDL for lack of an alternative.
As we saw in Luton, without a sizable counter-mobilisation,
the fascist thugs will attack Muslims and others with impunity. In this
respect, the mobilisation was of only limited success: it prevented the
fascists from being able to roam the streets unchallenged, but failure to break
through police ‘kettling’ meant that we were not there to stop that group of
thugs getting down Boar Lane with the intention of targeting the Gay Bars
So, what lessons can the labour movement draw from this
1. The police cannot be trusted to deal with the fascists.
The police demonstrated quite clearly that, whilst they may
have no love for “football hooligans,” they were prepared to let the EDL get
through their lines. Instead they poured huge resources into keeping the UAF
demo bottled in. It would be naïve to believe we can rely on the police to keep
us safe against the fascist hooligans. Were it not for the
counter-demonstration, there would probably have been no-one to stop the
fascists, as was the case in Luton.
2. The ‘elders’ and communal leaders of ethnic minority communites, such as the Muslim community, cannot be relied upon to mobilise against the fascists.
Following police advice, the local leadership of the Muslim
community advised Muslims not to mobilise against the EDL, in the name of
‘preventing violence’. This was a great shame – the young Asians who did turn
up were amongst the most militant on the demonstration. As happened in
Birmingham, where Muslim youth succeeded in driving the EDL from the streets,
had young Muslims been properly mobilised, the conservative leadership of the
UAF would not have been able to hold back the counter-demo and the EDL would
have been opposed properly. It is the responsibility of the labour movement to
make every effort to mobilise youth from Asian and other communities on a class
basis, despite the opposition of the community leadership.
3. UAF is incapable of organising a militant demonstration that
can confront the fascists and the police who protect them.
Which brings us onto the subject of the UAF itself. Despite
appearing to put some effort into this demonstration, including sending joint
secretary Weyman Bennett, UAF completely failed to offer any sort of leadership.
Content to wait for police permission to do anything, they were complicit in
the restraining of the demonstration. Had they called on the demonstrators to
march, they could probably have pushed back the police lines and challenged the
EDL mob. Instead, Weyman Bennett contented himself with ludicrously shouting,
“Where are you?” This obsession with always doing everything ‘legally’ leads to
only one thing: being completely out-manoeuvred by the fascists and the police.
UAF is a popular front, modelled on the ‘anti-fascist’
popular fronts in 1930s Spain and elsewhere. A popular front tries to bring
together all organisations that supposedly oppose fascism, regardless of their
class basis. The UAF therefore includes the Young Conservatives, and Saturday’s
rally featured a Liberal Democrat councillor. This might sound like a good
idea, bringing together the largest number of people to fight the fascists, but
in reality it becomes so broad that it has to be completely devoid of programme
or ability to fight.
The UAF are unable to answer the lies of the far-right on a
class basis, and are not prepared to do what it takes to confront the fascists,
or defy the law if necessary. For example, when the likes of the BNP seek to
blame heavily-exploited migrant workers for job losses, the UAF have no answer.
We should in response be fighting for unionisation and equal conditions for all
workers, local and migrant.
4. No small left-wing sect or group can substitute itself for the
Due to the lack of leadership of the UAF, some of the
left-wing sects tried to fill the void, shouting revolutionary slogans and
trying to rally the demonstrators to breach the police lines. It was completely
ineffective. The labour movement, in particular the local trades councils, have
a responsibility to mobilise the working class against the fascists
A real weakness of the demonstration was the absence of the
local working-class. A stirring speech by one of the striking refuse workers
(ironically followed by one of the Liberal Democrat councillors trying to cut
his pay) was the highlight of the afternoon, but very few workers were
mobilised. Though the Leeds Trades Council supported the UAF demo, it should
have done much more to mobilise the local unions and their members. The role of
a Trades Council is to coordinate the actions of the local labour movement, not
simply to turn up to demonstrations and cheer from the sidelines.
Many union branches which have the right to send a delegate
to the Trades Council fail to do so – there must be many militant workers,
particularly in the light of the refuse workers’ dispute, who could make a big
difference to the way the Trades Council works. These organisations are
inactive because they are cluttered up with people from the last period, the period
of inactivity. We need to appeal to a new layer of workers, steeled in current
struggles, to get involved.
5. We are not facing ‘the rise of fascism’ as was the case in the
1920s and 30s.
Finally, we should note that, contrary to the propaganda of
some left-wing sects, we are not facing the ‘rise of fascism’ in our time. The
EDL attracted virtually no support from people in Leeds, apart from a section
of football ‘supporters’ attracted by the promise of violence Most people this
correspondent has spoken to were rightly disgusted with their actions and angry
with them for causing such trouble.
We should not underestimate the damage the far right can do,
but nor must we paint it as something it isn’t. Many who sympathise with these
organisations are workers who have been disaffected by the failures of the
Labour leadership at national and local level. To them, we must give socialist
responses to the lies of the fascists. We must fight for the labour movement to
adopt socialist policies that benefit working people and their families.
Nothing else will do.