By Johnny Lewis
In the space of four months London has seen three counter-demos against the far right, and next month there will be a major mobilisation against racism. Yet the aims and tactics of those opposing this right wing threat remain confused.
For a number of trade unionists a response is taking shape, the origins of which are to be found in events surrounding the right’s mobilisation on July 13th and the poor, ineffective, counter-demo: this set off several alarm bells, which have not stopped ringing despite some less disastrous mobilisations since.
The July demo found us confronted by a large force of right wingers, a mix of Tories / UKIP, Tommy Robinson fans, football hooligans, and overt fascists. They outnumbered us, had an élan, and out-gunned us in intent and organisation. The main features of the counter-demo were its small size, the age of its participants and its lack of class politics.
This inadequate response led some London trade unionists to press for the setting up of a labour movement-based organisation to combat this threat. The two tracks of this approach are (1) to confront the right and (2) present a political alternative.
If formed, such an organisation would become the centre of any response to the right, drawing in its wake the vast majority of those who want to oppose them. Of course many on the organised left would not be happy with such a development, as it would not be based upon their favoured programmatic demands.
Whether the unions and Labour Party can develop such an organisation — and if they do, whether it meets such goals, remains to be seen. But even if it fails to get off the ground, two questions will still have to be faced by any organisation that hopes to challenge the right: what in practice does it mean to confront the right, and how does this relate to a presenting a political alternative?
The question of confrontation is not a clear-cut one as the right we’re presently facing is a movement in formation, rather than being a hardened fascistic organisation. What we know is that different right wing ideologies and organisations (at least one which began its gestation with the calling of the EU referendum) are vying for the ear of a potential working class base. Fed on the toxic mix of racism and nationalism, the type of monster which eventually emerges will in no small part be determined by the Brexit settlement. If such a movement is able to consolidate itself then surely it will take on a populist, not fascist, character: this has already been the case in Europe and America and there’s no reason to think it will be any different here. We are then trying to disrupt and destroy what is not primarily a fascist movement but a populist one in the making; this means we should not raise the ‘no platform’ slogan/demand.
There are two reasons for this, the first is it is a free speech issue: we aim to stop fascists on the streets because we understand they present a mortal danger to the working class, minorities and democracy itself. We have no right to attempt to ‘no platform’ non-fascist organisations – which doesn’t mean we don’t demonstrate against them, or physically confront them; it just means we don’t raise ‘no platform.’
However, much of the left, are obsessed with stopping anyone they disagree with. Recently, for example, the unfortunate AWL saw their literature stall outside the ‘Marxism 2018’ event overturned by SWP members, so why wouldn’t such left wing ‘tough-guy’ types not want to ‘no platform’ right wing bigots? While such a view is wrong in principle, outside of student politics it is also inept: it prevents you dealing with the fact that bigotry and xenophobia infects huge numbers of workers.
In trying to deal with this embryonic populist movement we are also trying to answer a different question: how do we relate to workers who are already under the influence of the populists or at least potential recruits to their ranks? It is this question which links the practical reason why we should not attempt to ‘no platform’ them, with the requirement to offer a political alternative.
The populists have learned from the left and liberals, and redefined themselves as the defenders of a white culture and identity. We have seen how successful this has been in Europe and in the US, where populist movements have mobilised an impoverished and resentful white working class with the claim that they (the populists) can rescue workers’ living standards and their decaying way of life.
If we are going to stop this happening here, then our primary duty is to speak to workers who have been taken in by the populists’ rhetoric. We are in an extremely favourable position to do this as we have in the Labour Party something approaching a social democratic alternative. However much the readers of this blog may look down their noses at Labour’s programme, if enacted it will change the material conditions of workers lives.
One of the main ways of putting forward this political alternative is by talking past the populists, to their working class base. Such an approach was exemplified in the speech by Unite’s London Secretary at the Stand up to Racism demo. I think he should have gone further, though, and demanded the populist leaders call on their base to vote Labour.
Taking such an approach poses the question of whether an anti-populist movement should have any engagement with ‘the enemy’: many people I have spoken to believe it should, however distasteful that may be. In fact this has already happened, in the build- up to the most recent demo, trade unionist pushed back against the populists’ social media posts which were telling anyone who listened, that the unions supported the counter-demo because we supported ‘extremism’.
While it is possible for the Labour movement to undertake the tactics outlined here, it presents real problems for much of the left. Not only do they not have access to many workers — so how can they talk to them? — but their practice is one of shouting down and denouncing anyone who disagrees with them. While any direct engagement with the populists would be visceral and largely undertaken on their terrain (because that is where the workers are), these will not be the type of discussions the left is used to. Yet if we refuse to take such an approach, what does it say about organisations which aspire to lead the working class?