“We Are Bradford” demonstrates winning tactics for the anti-fascist movement

The We are Bradford event, supported by Unite Against Fascism, has clearly demonstrated the tactics required to defeat the English Defence League. We are Bradford staged a one day 1500-2000 strong rally and celebration of multiculturalism in Bradford city centre at the same time as approximately 800 thugs gathered, chanting racist slogans, for their EDL “protest”. The We are Bradford rally took place roughly half a mile from the EDL enclosure and passed peacefully. The rally heard speakers from all sections of the community voice their opposition to the racist politics of the EDL. It gave a clear, unambiguous message that racism of any kind, including Islamophobia, should not be tolerated, and that Bradford’s Muslim community should not be afraid to enter their city centre.

In order to combat the racist politics of the EDL, we have to understand their ascendancy as a street movement and its relationship to wider political forces. The rise of the EDL is certainly linked to the electoral success and breakthrough of the British National Party in the European elections. Under Nick Griffin, the BNP has changed its strategy. Eschewing the jack-booted violence used by organisations like the National Front, it now seeks legitimacy through electoral means. This has necessitated a re-orientation of its fascist political agenda to emphasise more publicly acceptable forms of racism – Islamophobia. A fact acknowledged in leaked BNP memos.

Mainstream political attacks on the Muslim community in the name of the so-called “War on Terror” have lent legitimacy to the racist position of the BNP. This explains the electoral rise of fascism over a period of relative economic prosperity. The gains of fascism in this time also dismantle the economistic arguments of both the ultra-left and the right, who say that the BNP have grown as result of working class disillusionment with the Labour Party. This flawed explanation fails to account for the Islamophobic character of a vote for the BNP. YouGov found that 79% of those polled who voted for the BNP saw Islam in any form as the greatest threat to western civilisation. If disillusionment with the Labour Party alone is the source of supposed working class support for fascism, why is there no similar exodus to the Left? “Legitimate” mainstream racism, with its roots in wars abroad, is the cornerstone of BNP electoral success.

Following their election to the European Parliament, the BNP’s new found legitimacy, and the public visibility this engendered, rallied those on the far-right who were willing to engage in more violent, extra-parliamentary activities – the EDL. Far from being a separate strategy, this complements the BNP’s electoral politics. It’s no accident that EDL organisers have links with the BNP and other European nationalist groups. The EDL are the street wing of the broader fascist movement in Britain. As the precedent of Nazi Germany illustrates, fascist politics cannot be successful without an extra-parliamentary movement to intimidate, demoralise and physically attack the groups it scapegoats. Tactically, this division of labour suits the BNP because it allows the disavowal of any relationship with violence and overt forms of “illegitimate” racism on the streets, thus maintaining their “legitimate” parliamentary persona.

Like the BNP, the alleged purpose of the EDL – to campaign against Islamic extremism – is partially legitimised by mainstream politicians. In Holland, the electoral gains of EDL hero, Geert Wilders, the islamophobic leader of the Party for Freedom (unless you’re a Muslim, of course…), is a symptom of the broader political attacks on Muslims in the European mainstream. All of these attacks are committed under the guise of rooting out extremism.

Anyone who’s seen an EDL action knows Islamic extremism is not the intended target. You only have to listen to the racist chants or witness the Nazi salutes of EDL members to see this. Criticism of Islam functions as a smoke-screen for out-and-out racism. While not all members may be hardened racists, the EDL, as an extra-parliamentary wing of fascism, puts those who attend its rallies on a racist political trajectory. The EDL functions as the recruiting ground for future fascist ideologues. After all, it’s absurd to imagine anyone emerging as a paragon of liberal, enlightenment rationalism after attending EDL meetings, even if their only concern beforehand genuinely was with religious extremism.

It’s with all this in mind that the tactics employed in Bradford were correct. If the role of the EDL is to act as the street wing of British fascism, it was crucial to argue for a ban on the march (which both UAF and Hope not Hate did). A march would further serve to intimidate Bradford’s Muslim community and could easily turn into a physical assault. However, the Bradford police refused to entertain a ban on a static demonstration. If the role of the EDL is to promulgate their racism under the auspices of campaigning against “extreme Islam”, some kind of anti-fascist presence on the day is necessary to challenge, expose and marginalise this position. It’s also necessary to say quite explicitly that the Muslim community should not be hounded from the centre of their own city – intimidation of this kind is precisely the aim of the EDL.

In this respect, the critical difference between We are Bradford and HnH was their respective attitudes to an anti-fascist mobilisation on the day. HnH argued that a mobilisation could lead to a repeat of the riots ten years ago – they urged people ‘to leave the EDL and UAF to it’ and, presumably, stay at home. To this writer, this seems like a tacit capitulation to the EDL agenda. In contrast, We are Bradford and UAF correctly and consistently argued for a city-centre presence. Doubtless, there would be people who wanted to confront the EDL. Violence is engendered by disorganisation. Without an organised, positive pole of attraction, there definitely would be a repeat of the riots. We are Bradford’s tactics were vindicated when roughly 200 locals spontaneously confronted the EDL. The We are Bradford rally acted in exactly the way it was intended – as a positive pole of attraction for this group of people.

It was important that the We are Bradford rally was peaceful and didn’t itself confront the EDL. As previous demonstrations have shown, UAF haven’t summoned the requisite number of activists willing, or able, to clash with the EDL, and by extension, the police. This is no failing. Contrary to the views of some, it would require 10s of 1000s of activists to accomplish this – such extraordinarily large numbers of people rarely turn out for any kind of demonstration. If they did, we’d be living in an entirely different political situation! In any case, UAF is itself a disparate “united front” campaign. It does not have the discipline required to engage in any kind of street battle with the police or the EDL. Calls for it to do so, even in the event of a massive mobilisation, are therefore pure fantasy. The anti-fascist movement must use the resources it has, not those it wishes it had.

Given the absence of a mass mobilisation of disciplined activists, the key task for anti-fascists– to which other considerations are subordinate – is to mobilise the broadest possible support for a multicultural rally which explicitly opposes the racist politics of the EDL. The origins of the EDL are in the legitimacy Islamophobia has gained in public political discourse. The breadth of support for the rally therefore determines the extent to which this legitimacy is challenged. In lieu of the huge numbers of disciplined activists required for an actual physical confrontation, the role of the We are Bradford rally was political – to marginalise the EDL and consolidate, in the broadest possible terms, opposition to its racist agenda. The breadth of the platform and the respectable turnout at the rally itself certainly meant it fulfilled this role.

The tactics of We are Bradford are an instructive lesson in how UAF can campaign effectively in the future. Anti-fascist tactics should relate to both a plausible explanation of the twin racist political movements of the EDL and BNP, and a realistic assessment of the resources available to the anti-fascist movement. The We are Bradford rally certainly fulfilled both criteria.

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Venezuela and the Media

I recently spoke at a showing of Oliver Stone’s new film, South of the Border, in York. The opening scenes of the film comically highlight the delusional things that are said about Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President, and the huge American media bias against him and the governing Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV). The media distortions surrounding Venezuelan politics, particularly Hugo Chavez himself, are not just peculiar to Venezuelan and American television, but also the so-called Left/liberal media in Britain. In recent times, the views expressed have been far from the comedic “satire” constituting Stone’s introductory sequence, but supposedly serious critiques of Chavez’s alleged “dismantling” of democratic processes. Unfortunately, these “critiques” are often one-sided or neglect to mention the context to a particular event in Venezuela’s political history. Most interesting, and ideological, is the failure of these reports to accurately represent the relative power of the state, the government and the interests of private capital. Indeed, sometimes these power relations are represented as fantastically inverted.

A paragraph from Francisco Toro’s latest comment piece in the Guardian is a case in point:

The five state TV channels, the dozens of state-backed “community radio” stations and a slew of state newspapers are unembarrassed to act as the propaganda arm of the ruling party, openly campaigning for the ruling party. Meanwhile, people who oppose the government on TV find themselves facing obscure criminal charges and radio stations that broadcast critical content are shut down en masse.

The BBC, to whom Toro links with the words “themselves facing obscure criminal charges”, goes so far as to say the following in relation to the arrest of the businessman, Guillermo Zuloaga:

Mr Zuloaga owns Globovision, the only television channel to remain openly critical of the government.

The suggestion that there is only one television channel that remains “openly critical” of the government is a fantasy. The last report from the European Union on Venezuelan elections said the following:

The Venezuelan media display a great diversity of political opinions. However, considered individually, the main media outlets only exceptionally referred to the various political actors in a manner which could be considered both fair and balanced. Most of the private media tended to offer more space to the views of the political forces critical of the Government, and when expressing their political preferences, they often disregarded basic journalistic principles.

Even the measured words of the EU report to an extent belie the reality. RCTV, one of Venezuela’s largest privately owned networks was instrumental in the coup d’état of 2002. The coup ousted Chavez for a mere 47 hours, until nearly 1 million people marched on the Presidential Palace, many of whom came from the poorest barrios of Caracas, to demand his reinstatement (in 2009, it was my privilege to visit Caracas and meet some of these people). The private media actively militates against Venezuela’s legitimate government – the PSUV (both the Carter institute and EU observers have indicated Venezuelan elections are free and fair). In this respect, one can view the so-called propagandising of the state media as the ideological self-defence of the elected government. Without it, opposition propaganda would hegemonize all public discourse.

Of course, this charged and polarised public sphere is not a desirable feature of Venezuelan political life. However, it is an obvious corollary of the political struggles occurring in Venezuela. Before Chavez’s ascendancy to power, 80% of Venezuelan’s lived in poverty or absolute poverty. Since 1998, the Chavez administration has pulled 2 million people out of poverty and levels of extreme poverty have been cut in half. Extensive social programmes, including the implementation of universal healthcare and an education system free of charge all the way up to, and including, higher education, have also increased the living standards of Venezuela’s poor majority. This radical social agenda has relied heavily on breaking with IMF economic policies and redistributing Venezuela’s oil wealth. Naturally, this has ruptured the Venezuelan political and economic consensus and attracted the ire of elite interests – the same interests controlling Venezuela’s privately owned media networks.

It’s in this respect that Toro’s scathing reference to the ‘community radio stations’ is misleading. The state facilitates the creation of TV and radio stations run by independent groups of Venezuelans. More often than not, these stations broadcast into, and are managed by those living in, the barrios. In this respect, it’s understandable that they have a pro-government bias. The PSUV draws overwhelming support from the barrios, for the reason that Chavez’s social and economic reforms have made the lives of millions of poor Venezuelan’s infinitely better. Support for Chavez is a result of common sense reasoning on behalf of these Venezuelans. To equate the limited broadcast range of these stations, and the interests they represent, with the economic might of the Venezuelan private media is certainly gratuitous.

Venezuela’s polarised public sphere, then, is not a function of a belligerent government, hell bent on turning Venezuela into a dictatorship. The use of state means to publicise the Bolivarian revolution’s extensive achievements is a reaction to the already existing, overwhelmingly hostile media environment. The PSUV and the interests of big capital are in the middle of an ideological war – the former is using its limited propaganda arsenal to defend itself from the media Howitzers of the latter. As in 2002, this struggle can break into open physical conflict (although it is worth noting that this was initiated by the opposition). This is by no means an ideal situation, but it is a reality nonetheless – a reality engendered by the very material antagonism between Venezuela’s poor majority on the one hand, and private, elite interests on the other. Given this political reality the fundamental question – and the 2002 coup indicates this is by no means overly reductive – is: whose side are you on?

Johann Hari sheds light on Blairite delusions

Readers probably won’t be surprised that I’m a “diane4leader” supporter in the Labour leadership race. However, Johann Hari’s endorsement of Ed Milliband in the Independant today certainly highlights the ridiculousness of Blair’s delusional perspective:

[Ed and David] also differ closer to home. Blair said this week that Labour lost because “it stopped being New Labour” – the argument that David Miliband’s team are echoing. He named two policies that he says lost the party support. The first is the decision to increase taxes on the richest 1 per cent from 40 per cent to 50 per cent. Yet in reality, according to YouGov, some 62 per cent of Brits want to go further and introduce the higher rate at £100k. Only 25 per cent are against.

The second deadly policy, he says, is that Gordon Brown started “identifying banks as the malfeasants” after the crash. Yes: Tony Blair thinks people didn’t vote Labour because the party was too critical of bankers. In truth, again, 76 per cent say Brown was too soft on the banks. Remember: these are Blair’s own examples, not mine.

This is a perfect illustration of the argument that Ed Miliband has been making throughout the leadership debate. He has claimed that New Labour’s initial instincts from 1994 have hardened into “ideological dogmas” that would leave the party “beached by history” in this decade. The more New Labour hardened into a right-wing caucus, the more it shed votes: by 2005, on Blair’s watch, it was down to 35 per cent, and only “won” because of an undemocratic electoral system that may not be there next time.

Hari also makes a further good point:

So what’s Ed Miliband’s alternative? Peter Mandelson and others have offered up a silly straw man, claiming he believes Labour should “abandon the middle classes”. In fact, he has a more subtle point. If you want to appeal to the middle class in Britain, you have to know what it is – and people like Mandelson seem to have forgotten in a blur of yachts and guacamole dips. The median wage in this country is £20,831. Only 10 per cent earn more than £40,000. So Ed Miliband wants policies that help the real middle – not the top 1 per cent that Blair, Cameron and co bizarrely class as “ordinary voters”.

This, the real middle class in Britain, has been stressed for a long time as their share of national income has been steadily transferred to the rich. Over the past 30 years, the proportion of GDP paid in wages has fallen from 67 per cent to 54 per cent, while the proportion going to the rich as income from dividends has sky-rocketed. They work the longest hours in Europe, but their wages are, relatively, shrinking. There’s a real redistributive will out there, waiting to be tapped.

The fact that David appears to reject both these points because this this would mean “dumping on” the New Labour record is hardly a surprise – his backers are exactly the same bankers and high financiers as Blair’s. So much for a campaign that “looks forward” Dave…

Labour deficit hawks: Wrong about the economics and the politics

One particular paragraph that stuck out from Larry Elliot’s comment piece in The Guardian today was this:

Politically, a growth-based strategy makes more sense for Labour than a deficit-cutting contest with the Conservatives – provided the economic arguments stack up, which they do. Voters were unimpressed by the argument that Darling was planning slightly less pain than Osborne spread over a longer period. They are likely to be equally unimpressed by Osborne when they find out what he’s got in store for them – and for the British economy.

One of the factors contributing toward Labour’s electoral loss was its failure to articulate a coherent economic alternative to the cuts. The mixed message sent by Brown, who refused to repudiate or endorse Alistair Darling’s now infamous cuts “tougher and deeper than Thatcher” line, and disagreement more generally within the Brownite ranks, coupled with the rightwing, hawkish view of the Blairites (from the Blairite backbenches of the Labour Party, see this, and this from the man himself – granted he wasn’t making any decisions), led to a very confused political line indeed – are the Labour Party for the cuts, or against them? As Elliot points out, the message “we’ll hurt you, but not as much as the other guys” is hardly a vote-winner.

This view is also borne out in the polling data. Support for the Labour Party fell after the announcement of the budget (see here, also) – that is, when Labour stopped defining their economic policy in terms of Tory cuts versus Labour investment, and instead took a move to the right.

Not only is it sound economic sense to embark on a deficit reduction plan with public investment led growth at its heart, it’s also good politics.

The Graduate Tax: An Ideological Dead-End for Students

Discussion with several people around Sheffield Union indicates that some, wrongly in my opinion, see the graduate tax as a step forward for students. There are three points that are made to support this position. The first is that the tax is progressive – graduates would pay a sum matched to their earnings, as opposed to a blanket rate of interest that kicks in at a certain income threshold. The second is that there is a psychological difference between “debt”, on the one hand, and a “tax” on the other. “Debt” will deter prospective students, “tax” will not. The third is that the graduate tax, although not perfect, is the only politically viable option – to argue for a reduction in the contribution of graduates is wishful thinking. I examine each argument in turn.

Any discussion about the proposed tax has to be put within the more general context of the existing funding system. As it happens, the balance between the contribution of students, the state and the corporate sector is, in comparison to other European countries and America, weighted favourably toward the British corporate sector. British business, according to Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, has a good deal, paying on average 24% less towards the cost of the HE system than its continental comparators. Within this context, calls for graduates to pay more for their education cannot be seen as a step forward – a larger graduate contribution simply exacerbates the existing imbalances.

This is exactly what those proposing a graduate tax advocate. The NUS estimates that the majority of students will pay more under their plans for a graduate tax than they do under the current tuition fee system. Although the tax would link this payment to earnings, the vast majority of those leaving university would be worse off. In this respect, arguing for a graduate tax is akin to arguing for higher tuition fees for the majority of graduates – hardly a step forward.

Regardless of the psychological effects of re-branding an increase in tuition fees as a “tax”, increasing the graduate contribution is objectively an attack on the living standards of those on medium and, indeed, low incomes – an attack made all the worse by the imbalanced context in which it takes place.

Not all graduates leaving higher education go into medium income jobs. Graduates on lower incomes may face higher tax rates than colleagues earning similar amounts of money who have not been to university – this amounts to a selective tax hike on low earners. This iniquity is the natural result of any tax based on use, a concept which itself flies in the face of any progressive ethos of taxation.

It’s in this sense that the graduate tax proposal indicates a worrying attempt to ideologically entrench a consumerist view of taxation, as opposed to the historical use for which taxes have been used – redistribution. This consumerist ideology is contrary to the principle that any robust defence of a publicly funded HE system must adhere – that investment in our universities is good for the economy and therefore society, not just the individual. In this respect, the graduate tax is an ideological and rhetorical dead-end for the student movement.

Naturally, this ideological dead-end has political consequences. In winning their demand for a graduate tax, NUS would make it harder to argue for a greater contribution from the state or big business. To do so, after espousing the virtues of a system which charges graduates more, would be massively inconsistent.

It cannot be stressed enough that the participants in the HE funding debate also shape it. The demand for a graduate tax frames the debate in the wrong way – the fundamental issue for the student movement is not about what form a graduate contribution should take, but about how much that contribution should be. Arguing for a graduate tax causes the debate to revolve around the wrong choice – a choice between two ways of increasing the graduate burden. It moves the debate to the political right.

While some see Vince Cable’s endorsement of a graduate tax as a victory, it can be more accurately described, I think, as an indication that Cable sees the tax for what it is – a way of increasing the burden on students that engenders minimal political opposition. After all, the NUS leadership cannot oppose it because they endorse this form of increased graduate contribution. In this respect, they’ve made it easier, not harder, to increase the burden on graduates. This is a tug-of-war contest – the student movement cannot win by “triangulating” and giving ground. If it does, the rope will only continue to be pulled in the wrong direction.