Racist EDL members aren’t ‘chavs’, writes Martin Smith, and banning them won’t stop them
In the aftermath of their Tower Hamlets debacle, one of the more thoughtful supporters of the racist English Defence League (EDL) wrote about how they “got it so wrong”.
“We overestimated our strength,” they wrote. “We underestimated the strength of our enemies. Now is not the time for recriminations and infighting, we need to learn lessons and learn them fast.”
Everyone acknowledges that the joint Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and United East End campaign in Tower Hamlets hit the EDL hard. It has become a benchmark for other anti-racist mobilisations. But with success comes new arguments.
In the run-up to the Tower Hamlets protest, 25,000 people signed a petition calling on the home secretary, Theresa May, to ban the EDL march.
Signatories included the mayor of Tower Hamlets, councillors, residents, trade unionists and some leading figures in UAF. They did so out of a genuine desire to stop the EDL from marching.
However, the Socialist Workers Party opposed the call for a ban. We argued that it wouldn’t stop the EDL from holding static protests—and that it would be used by the state to curb anti-racist protests.
Events proved us right. Theresa May banned the EDL from marching—but she also banned the anti-fascist protest, together with all marches in six London boroughs for 30 days.
This should have been enough to end the ban argument once and for all. But instead, the calls for the EDL to be banned are now taking a new form.
At last month’s TUC conference a number of delegates argued that the EDL should be banned under existing legislation, by proscribing it as a violent and dangerous organisation. We have to be clear that this will not stop them—they will just march under a different name.
The second argument is being promoted by the Daily Telegraph. In its attempts to smear UAF it has suddenly discovered a new-found love of the working class.
Under the headline “Is the EDL the new voice of the white working class?” columnist Damian Thompson laid into UAF. “There’s a YouTube video doing the rounds which ‘anti-fascist’ campaigners against the English Defence League don’t want you to see,” he wrote on his blog.
“It features a couple of young middle-class supporters of Unite Against Fascism sniggering as one of them describes a ‘horrible tattooed woman’ at a demo being punched in the face.” The article goes onto claim that UAF calls the EDL “chavs”.
Even since the posting of the video, both men have admitted they are not members of UAF and did not even attend the protest. They also rightly apologised for their comments.
For the record, no leading member of the SWP or UAF has ever called the EDL “chavs”. Unlike the Daily Telegraph, we have spent the last few years arguing against the working class being demonised and disparaged in this way.
But from “Blue Labour” through to Jeremy Paxman and the Daily Telegraph, there is a growing belief that the EDL is the legitimate voice of the “white working class”. Frankly, this is absurd. The vast majority of working class people reject the EDL and its racist agenda
Laurie Penny, a writer I respect, referred to the same YouTube video in her column in the Independent. “When I shared it on social media, asking for confirmation, a handful attempted to excuse the jeering with the mantra ‘a fascist is a fascist’,” she wrote.
“The implication was that violence, class prejudice and misogyny can be tolerated on the left as long as its targets have attended a terrifying racist intimidation parade.”
The anti-fascist movement always has and always will combat all forms of oppression. It would never tolerate misogyny, whether or not its target was a fascist.
That’s why on the Tower Hamlets anti-fascist demonstration there were speakers on the platform from the LGBT community, Jewish, black and Asian organisations and many women.
Our hatred of the EDL has nothing to do with their sex, class background or sexuality. It has everything to do with the fact that its supporters are violent racists and fascists.
We will only succeed if we break down the barriers that divide the oppressed and in the process unite the working class.