Trying to earn a bit of popularity
What is the role of Unite Against Fascism now that the SWP is prioritising Stand Up to Ukip? Daniel Harvey investigates
On June 14, Unite against Fascism, one of the Socialist Workers Party’s best known fronts, had another ‘conference’. At least that was what it was called, but as usual there were no motions or votes. It was fairly obvious that the SWP had mobilised for it and as a result there were about 400 comrades present. There had been strong encouragement in the internal Party Notes beforehand: “Bring people from your workplace, union and community. Every district needs to have a good delegation at the conference. There will be a workshop on Sutu [Stand Up to Ukip], which is essential for every district.”1
The question is, however, what was the purpose of the event? What is UAF supposed to do now? Clearly the British National Party has disappeared as a serious force on the right (and it had long ceased to be fascist in any case) and, in as far as fascism was discussed in the workshops, it was in relation to the situation in the rest of Europe. Jean Lambert, the Green Party MEP, claimed there was now a 55-strong explicitly fascist group in the European parliament. A speaker from Greece, Petros Constantinou of the KEERFA anti-fascist campaign, supported the SWP/UAF position of referring to far-right organisations as “Nazis”, and described Golden Dawn’s eagerness to disassociate itself from the label.
Back in Britain, UAF is keen to celebrate its own role in supposedly defeating the “fascists” - on May 22 the BNP lost its remaining MEP, Nick Griffin, and is now down to its last councillor. According to the SWP, its drastic reduction in support has nothing at all to do with the rise of the UK Independence Party, Griffin’s disastrous roasting on Question time in 2009 and the BNP’s own political as well as financial bankruptcy.
However, earlier this year, the SWP launched its latest front, Sutu, and this is now the group’s number-one priority. So the aim of this ‘conference’ seems to have been to translate the ‘success’ of UAF in having ‘defeated the BNP’ into the new campaign against the “racist” Ukip. Not even the SWP is silly enough to claim that Ukip is fascist (although the ‘racist’ accusation does not really stand up to serious scrutiny either). The SWP mission with its new Sutu front is to create an “anti-racist core in the working class”.2
The reality is that, following the SWP’s own internal crisis, the leadership is attempting to lift morale by throwing foot soldiers into a hyperactive but largely pointless campaign. After all, everyone is against racism, aren’t they? And no-one either in mainstream politics or on the left likes Ukip. So maybe Sutu will earn the SWP a bit of popularity. In one session Atul Hatwan of the think tank, Migration Matters, put it perhaps rather too bluntly for the SWP: in order to isolate the racists it may be necessary to ally with the Tories and big business.
Throughout the day the evidence of this popular-front approach was apparent - although for the SWP, of course, opposition to immigration is itself “racist”. Therefore, one of the main lines of argument that the UAF popular front wants carried over into its Sutu twin is to ‘disprove’ all ‘racist’ claims that migration could adversely affect the host country. So the comrades stuck to the line that immigration is always “beneficial to the economy”, bringing with it jobs and investment, and even - in the words of Steve Hart of Unite - actually “driving up wages” through some as yet unspecified means. UAF vice-chair Hugh Lanning had plenty of empirical studies to quote on this subject.
Of course, as communists we support open borders, but this has to be based on reality and the need to speak honestly to the working class. We must not berate people for their illusions in the xenophobia peddled by the likes of Ukip - to many it seems obvious that wages and conditions are being driven down through the extra competition for work that immigration frequently brings with it. The argument must be: Migrants are not to blame - the problem is capitalism. Open borders puts the onus on us to attempt to organise migrant workers as part of a united movement.
Diane Abbott, in one of the main sessions, stressed the need for Labour not to chase after Ukip voters by “wringing its hands” over immigration, but to concentrate on winning migrant voters in working class areas. She too referred to the “racism” amongst Ukip members - half of them supported “voluntary repatriation of minorities”, after all. On the other hand, she also stated the importance of demanding the living wage and trade union rights for all, and talked about the history of xenophobia ever since the mass migration of the Irish 150 years ago.
Abbott was one of several speakers who wanted to play down Ukip’s support. Winning 166 councillors out of the thousands up for grabs hardly constituted the earthquake being described in the media, she said. Steve Hart claimed that the increase in support for Labour among ‘C’ and ‘D’ band voters was greater than Ukip’s (but, according to the figures he quoted, support for Ukip has trebled since the elections, so I did not quite follow his logic). Comrade Hart also thought there was a general trend of the population becoming more tolerant and progressive.
Since Ukip is not fascist, SWP dogma insists that the ‘no platform’ tactic cannot be applied to it. Fascists like the BNP, on the other hand, must be denied the ‘oxygen of publicity’ on every possible occasion. It was utterly wrong to give the BNP the opportunity to look stupid on television, as happened to Nick Griffin on Question time. The fact that this appearance coincided with the start of the BNP’s decline must be disregarded, according to the same dogma. Many years ago some SWP members demanded that Mein Kampf be withdrawn from bookshops: only “bona fide students” - and certainly not impressionable members of the public - should be able to access it.3
But some speakers favoured state regulation of other views, not just those of alleged fascists. Azad Ali of the iEngage project, a Muslim campaign group, called for much tougher regulation of the press to reign in its Islamophobia. He used the example of the front cover of The Spectator to illustrate his point: in reference to the Birmingham ‘Trojan horse’ controversy over Islamic schools it published a cartoon under the headline, “Taught to hate”, depicting a bemused Muslim boy holding a Quran under one arm and a scimitar sword under the other. One SWP speaker from the floor said that Ukip representatives should be tried under the racial hatred legislation passed by the previous Labour government.
The reality is that the rise of Ukip has everything to do with the left’s failure to present a credible alternative. Admittedly this did creep into the discussions, but for the most part it seemed agreed that the job of UAF and its Sutu offshoot was mainly to bludgeon Ukip to death with accusations of racism until everyone agreed.
UAF joint secretary Weyman Bennett was adamant about the success of this kind of approach in the past. It was a myth, he said, that the National Front declined because of the rise of Thatcherism. In fact it was “beaten off the streets” by the Anti-Nazi League, together with the black and Asian street movements of the 70s. But at the same time he condemned the police for upholding the right of the English Defence League to assemble in city centres. So really it should be the job of the state to beat fascists and Nazis off the streets, it seems. Comrade Bennett insisted that Nick Griffin had said he “hated” UAF and had admitted it was the UAF that “destroyed him”.
With or without such hyperbole, will the SWP be able to convince the allies it accrued in Unite Against Fascism to switch to Stand Up to Ukip? Surely yelling “Racists!” outside every possible Ukip meeting will soon become rather tiresome. In other words, I guess Sutu is not long for this world.
1. Party Notes June 9.
2. Socialist Worker May 6.
3. See ‘Witch-hunters, censorship and the holocaust’ Weekly Worker December 21 2000.