This Saturday’s attempt by the English Defence League to return to Walthamstow marked another chapter in the decline in fortunes of the organisation. Time was when they could get 3000 to a national demo. Now they only managed 60. After a previous national demo at Walthamstow where 300ish EDL were outnumbered by a couple of thousand opposition, leader ‘Tommy Robinson’ (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon to his mother) announced there would be a return to Walthamstow. A strange strategy… what made him think that re-running the whole thing two months later would change the result is mysterious.
Saturday also topped off a week of misfortune for the organisation – 53 of them all got nicked apparently on the way to do something to an East London mosque including glorious leader ‘Tommy’ who has been remanded till January. This meant that ‘Tommy’ and the leadership were unfortunately unable to attend the return to Walthamstow.
In the event, the Home Secretary proscribed all demonstrations in the Walthamstow area and the EDL were given the option of a static demo outside the Houses of Parliament for an hour. The UAF and community opposition held a victory rally in Walthamstow, while the EDL headed for Westminster.
So far so sorry for the EDL. However, despite their low numbers, the EDL in Westminster still managed to outnumber the opposition by some considerable number. It is a shame that more anti-fascists didn’t turn out to Westminster.
It was not entirely inappropriate to hold the victory rally in Walthamstow – it was by no means certain that all the EDL would go to Westminster and there was talk on the internet of some of them heading to Walthamstow anyway (apparently a grand total of two made it to Walthamstow!). Also it served a function in cementing alliances that have been made in opposition to the EDL.
However, the EDL are very good at bravado, so they made a lot of noise for a meagre showing and it felt dispiriting being in Westminster to oppose them. If a small fraction of those that went to Walthamstow or the Anarchist Bookfair had stopped by Westminster for an hour we could have comprehensively drowned them out and made them feel a little smaller and more insignificant. As it was, they got to shout their shouts, wave their flags, make some short speeches and retire to the pub mostly unopposed, with the added irony of a large anti-racist deaths in police custody demonstration just round the corner at Downing Street complete with SWP paper sellers selling copies with headlines calling on people to oppose the EDL in London (“they’re behind you!” I felt like shouting).
Perhaps it might have helped if an organisation had responded quickly to the change in location of the EDL demonstration and had announced a call-out for people to assemble at Westminster. However, of course, there was one organisation which did announce an official demonstration at Westminster – the EDL. You would have thought that that would be enough for anti-fascists. If the EDL have said they are going to be somewhere then we should try and be there too.
Some Objectivity Needed
It’s hard to get a very objective picture of the state of play between the EDL and the anti-fascist opposition because much of the analysis and opinion on both sides is designed for the other side to read and is essentially propaganda. In this brave new world of the internet and social media, both the EDL and the opposition are well aware that everything they say is in public and that many of the readers and posters on their blogs and forums will be trolls from the other side. Hence if there are failings on the anti-fascist side, no one much wants to discuss that publicly for fear of giving ammunition to the EDL. I’m sure the same is true on the nationalist side. So then on both sides you get a culture of bigging yourself up and mocking and denigrating the opposition, no matter what you do or what they do. Regardless of whether the EDL get a good turn out or a poor one, no matter whether they achieve their aims or not, often the commentary will be much the same – mocking them for being failures and hypocrites etc.
Some of the problems with this were made evident by online responses to Saturday’s demonstration. Some have been lambasting anarchists and anti-fascists for their failure to turn up to Westminster, to which has come the fairly reasonable response – “We’re constantly being told that the EDL are failures and are an irrelevant laughing stock. In which case why is it so important to get out to oppose them?”
Maybe we need to try and have a more objective look at the successes and failures of recent anti-fascism.
A Little Bit of History
The emergence of the EDL three years ago came like a bolt out of the blue and was a real wake up call for the left and anti-fascists. Prior to this there had not been any mass street mobilising of the far right for 20 years or more. The BNP had moved from street mobilising to an electoral strategy and was being opposed by the UAF and other anti-fascists on this ground. Anti-fascism had split into this sort of electoral politics on the one hand and on the other, the slightly underground world of AFA-style anti-fascism, where you had small closed groups of anti-fascists lurking round pubs looking for small groups of fascists, often where both sides were personally known to one another.
Both these forms of anti-fascism were inadequate for dealing with the emergence of the EDL, who were both ideologically different from the old far-right and also practically mobilised in different ways. They were confrontational and on the streets in numbers. Ideologically opposing them as people had been doing with the BNP was not effective, neither was having small semi-underground groups of militant anti-fascists when faced with hundreds or thousands of the far-right marching through city centres.
The left in general were caught on the hop and were very slow in catching up. It seemed for quite a long time that people were crossing their fingers hoping the EDL would prove to be a flash in the pan and burn themselves out quickly so that we would be spared the effort of having to confront them.
The emergence of the EDL marked the coming of the New Right to Britain. Across Europe this new form of far-right politics had emerged that ditched many of the symbols and preoccupations of the traditional far-right. Out went anti-semitism, in came support for Israel and counter-Jihad politics. Out went talk of race and in came talk of ‘culture’ and ‘values’ and even ‘anti-capitalism’ and opposition to globalisation. Out went the boots and braces skinhead look and in came a variety of different images from respectable suited politicians to the black bloc-style ‘autonomous nationalists’ of Germany. You had politicians like Geert Wilders presenting themselves as defending liberal Dutch cultural values against Islam. This shifting ground of the far-right had the potential to short-circuit traditional left responses and arguments against the right.
Luckily the EDL weren’t quite smart enough to pull it off and were hamstrung by their reliance on traditional racists to make up the numbers on their demos.
However, initially at least, this confusion over what exactly the EDL were added to the delayed response from the left. The right had innovated – politically in their language, technologically through the use of social media – and we were playing catch up.
You had the phenomenon of people shifting the goal posts and celebrating the fact that the EDL ‘only’ got 500 people for a march whereas two years before the idea of 500 overt racists marching through British city centres would have been inconceivable. You still have that phenomenon now – although we can all pat ourselves on the back about what low numbers the EDL managed on Saturday, that’s still 60 loud overt racists going mostly unopposed the centre of London.
Although it is traditional amongst anarchists to slag off the more mainstream left anti-fascist organisations such as UAF, Hope Not Hate, Love Music Hate Racism and all their various incarnations, it has to be said that this time round the UAF have been instrumental in regularly opposing the EDL wherever they go and in getting some numbers on the streets, where often anarchists and other non-aligned or autonomous anti-fascists have managed only small groups.
For a while the EDL were making all the running. There was a turning of the tide however and it seems to have come about through a number of factors…
What Turned the Tide?
Over the last year or so the EDL have notably declined, with Saturday’s ‘national’ demo probably marking the lowest point so far.
A combination of factors has led to this. Which seem to be, briefly: the EDL’s own splintering and internal acrimony; a change in the initially uncertain media coverage of the EDL to a fairly unanimous representation of them as racist thugs (with the possible exception of the Daily Star’s attempt to make itself the house paper of the EDL); ‘robust’ policing of EDL demos resulting in them being increasingly less fun to go on; and continuous and increasingly effective anti-fascist opposition.
To take these in turn…
For those who follow these things, there has been ongoing and increasing diet of tales of woe from within the EDL. Individual people and entire ‘divisions’ have been leaving in droves. Some of this was inherent in what allowed the EDL to expand so quickly seemingly out of nowhere in the first place. As an extremely loose organisation essentially focussed on a single issue and a single tactic, they could draw people in very quickly, who have then left again just as quickly when things started going in a direction they didn’t like.
Equally the attempts of the leadership to square the circle of keeping their core constituency of thugs, racists and nazis on board while also trying to deny their existence and to present themselves as merely ‘peacefully protesting against militant Islam’ has resulted in mass defections to the more overtly racist Infidels.
And as usual in the far-right, individual egos and arguments over money have also played their part. As the EDL has slowly become a Tommy Robinson personality cult, people who didn’t like this have marched off to found rival sects.
The change in media representation and public perception of the EDL has made a big difference to their fortunes. Initially people were not sure what to make of them and many people took their statements and public pronouncements at face value. There was a possibility at one time that they could have gathered much wider public support and sympathy.
Luckily, the EDL have been their own worst enemy in this respect and have unfailingly revealed themselves to be nasty bigoted racists. Again some of these problems were inherent from the outset – with an organisation that largely exists on internet forums controlling the ‘message’ was always going to be difficult.
The police have also gradually developed more strategies for dealing with the EDL and nowadays EDL marches and demonstrations are very restricted. This must also have played its part in their decline. A key attraction of the EDL demos of being able to gather together in large numbers, have a few drinks and go where you wanted, saying what you wanted has been largely curtailed. Travelling across the country to be frog-marched by hundreds of cops from a deserted car park 200 yards to another deserted car park, all the while inside a giant cordon or pen, before being hurriedly stuffed on to buses and packed off home must start to lessen the attraction of attending.
Some have claimed that the EDL are being used by the state. The traditional argument is that the state uses racism to divide and rule the working class, that racism serves the interests of the ruling class. While this may be generally true, in the specific case of the EDL I don’t see it. They have had fairly significant amounts of trouble from the cops and I certainly get the impression that the state doesn’t like them any much more than it likes anarchists or lefties.
From the anti-fascist point of view the key thing that changed was bringing back together the two sides of the split in anti-fascism. Having numbers out on the streets but also having those numbers committed to directly opposing the EDL – stopping them marching or haranguing them along the length of the route of their march. Previously any strategy of getting numbers out was tied to having a UAF ‘celebration of diversity’ rally or some such on the other side of town from where the EDL were. On the other side, any commitment to physically opposing the EDL was limited to small clandestine groups of militants. Bringing together the two sides of that equation, as has happened with more recent community mobilisations against the EDL (Bristol, Brighton, Tower Hamlets, Walthamstow), where you have had large, diverse crowds of people committed to filling the streets and stopping them marching has been a key factor in turning the tide of the EDL.
All these four factors have worked together and reinforced one another. For example, the policing of EDL demonstrations has become more restrictive for them partly because wherever they go they have been meeting counter demonstrations and protests. Also, the shift in public perception of the EDL has been aided by continuous anti-fascist opposition both physically and ideologically. All of these things have then put increasing pressure on the EDL, which has in turn been splintering and disintegrating as a result.
So the unfortunate truth is that although opposition has played an important part, anti-fascism cannot claim full credit for the decline in fortunes of the EDL and that this is probably as much a victory for their own crapness and for the state as for the massed ranks of anti-fascists.
It’s Bigger Than The EDL
The EDL calls itself a ‘grassroots social movement’ which might stick in the throat for those who normally associate these words with liberal or left politics, but is nevertheless more or less true. Following this thought I have sometimes found it helpful to compare the experience of the EDL to experiences of grassroots protest and activism familiar to people involved in anarchist or left politics.
Thinking about how it was that the EDL seemingly sprang out of nowhere, rapidly spread and circulated, why it is that it now seems to be in decline and what the future might hold, it seems useful to compare the experience of the EDL with other rapidly emerging, fast-circulating protest phenomena.
For example, the Reclaim the Streets movement in the late ’90s emerged very quickly, seeming to catch the zeitgeist, was copied very rapidly across the country and then across the world, expanded very rapidly and then went into decline.
Key to the growth and expansion of RTS street parties was the experience of being on the thing. This combined the opportunity for some fun, having a bit of a go at the cops, the chance for a bit of excitement, seeing all your mates, having a beer, being part of something a bit audacious, and seemingly being able to go where you wanted and do what you wanted and to get away with things you couldn’t normally get away with.
This has many similarities with EDL demonstrations I think. When they have attracted large numbers I think it has been for many of the same basic reasons, although the politics are entirely different of course.
People want to be on the winning side and to be part of things that feel successful. In their heyday, RTS events were seeming to build success upon success. You didn’t want to miss the next RTS event because you might be missing the best thing ever. RTS had somehow managed to create a virtuous circle and had created a buzz around their events – everyone was talking about them, asking when the next one was going to be…
Again, this has similarities with the EDL I think – at their height, the success of each large demo fuelled the success of the next.
The virtuous cycle of RTS events ended (in London anyway) with the Mayday event of 2000 which spawned the Maydays of 2001, 2002 etc. – each one promoted more and more as a riot, turning out less and less people and attracting more and more aggressive policing. Then a virtuous circle turned to a vicious circle as heavy policing lead to people staying away and it being less fun – the events started to be perceived as a probable arrest or a long kettling.
The idea of ‘moments of excess’ applies to the far-right as well as to the left. RTS brought a whole load of people into contact with politics, politicising a whole generation and gave them some really formative experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately I think a similar thing may be true of the EDL – even if they disappear now, their malign legacy will continue.
So the positive thing we can take from this analogy…
People were aware that one key way to fight the EDL was to make the experience of coming on the demonstrations dispiriting, boring and not fun – making them feel like a failure. Getting the spiral to flip the other way so that the less people come the worse the demos are and then even less people come next time. Having seen things work in this way with anarchist and left mobilisations, it’s applying the same thing in reverse. Through the combination of factors outlined above, this now seems to have happened.
And the slightly less happy truths we need to face also revealed by the analogy…
The EDL didn’t come out of nowhere – they emerged out of a much wider culture of Islamophobic, anti-immigrant racism sweeping Europe that is still there and that has been reinforced by the existence of the EDL.
In fighting the EDL and physically getting out there on the streets to put forward an anti-racist message we are fighting that whole culture of racism that has grown up and in some ways it’s a good thing that this media/ideological culture took physical form and manifested itself in the EDL to allow us to physically oppose it. It is easier in some ways than opposing that which surrounds us everyday.
Although harder to oppose, that whole culture is still there and needs opposing even if the EDL disappeared tomorrow. It is necessary to oppose this cultural background racism lest we wait until it spawns another proto-fascist monster like the EDL (and also because, as has been pointed out, it is actually more deadly than the EDL, for all their bluster – the EDL just talk about blowing up muslims, the British government actually does it).
Secondly, like RTS, through the EDL, thousands upon thousands of people have had this really formative, life-changing experience which they will not easily forget. Those people are all still out there – they haven’t gone away just because EDL demos stop being fun and successful feeling for them. And the unfortunate fact is that as I’m sure we know from our own experiences, for every 100 people who come on a demo there are probably hundreds more who would support it but not come on the demo. So there’s a lot of racists out there.
The EDL could turn its fortunes around – they could resurrect themselves. Pull off a success that turns their vicious circle of decline back around. Or there are all these splinter groups – one of them could take on the mantle of the EDL, perhaps a little smarter and less prone to self-destruction.
So to draw some brief conclusions from all of this…
We should beware of declaring victory too soon or of resting on our laurels (especially when they have not really all been won through our own efforts). We don’t want to have to rely on the inherent rubbishness of the far-right or on the cops to stop the nazis for us. If a smarter far-right emerges or elements of the state decide they have an interest in promoting them we would be in a very different situation.
Right now we need to…
Respond quicker to where the EDL say they’re going to be.
Make definitely sure that they can’t bounce back and resurrect themselves – all they would need would be one perceived ‘success’ and it could turn things around for them.
Ensure that we are not subsisting only on propaganda – it’s OK to mock the EDL but we also need to explain why they are a serious threat too.
Have unity with the UAF and other left anti-fascist organisations if possible, but equally we can’t rely on left groups to do all the big overt public organising so that anarchists and autonomous anti-fascists can then tail-end and lurk around the fringes of their mobilisations. We need to get stuck into mass public mobilising too.
And even if the EDL now disappear or become insignificant…
We need to remember the lessons learnt from this struggle against the EDL. We need to try and keep the memory of what worked and why.
Ideally we need to be quicker to respond to new threats and to try and maintain what level of anti-fascist organisation that has been achieved, as to counter the threat of the EDL we had to start almost from square one, reinventing the wheel as there was a very limited existing anti-fascist movement.
We can expect future far-right phenomena to spring up fast and circulate quickly using social media – we will have to respond quickly.
We need to try and fight the whole culture of Islamophobia and racism that spawned the EDL.
Although there are sometimes things to mock, far from being a joke, this phenomenon of the EDL, which is hopefully now dying a death, has been one of the most frightening and worrying developments in this country for many years. Equally worth remembering is that some of the victories against them have been amongst the most inspiring and invigorating mass community mobilisations we have seen in this country for a long time.
“The most important thing with anti-fascism is to show up. There are a thousand excuses we could give to other people and ourselves, so I believe the hardest part of anti-fascism is getting out of bed.“ – K. Bullstreet