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.