Stoked by government ministers

Kevin Bean reports on the Knowsley riot, its causes and the inadequacies of the economistic left’s responses

The bare facts about the events that took place in Knowsley on Merseyside on February 10 are clear. A crowd of about 450 people gathered in the early evening to protest outside Suites Hotel which is being used to house asylum-seekers. A group of counter-demonstrators in support of the refugees, numbering some 150, was there, although separated from the larger crowd of protestors by police lines and vans.

In the days leading up to the protest, leaflets and social media posts from far-right groups, such as Patriotic Alternative, had circulated in the area, linking the asylum-seekers to the alleged sexual harassment of a local girl and calling for action against “ISIS nonces”.

As the evening progressed, tensions grew. Chants of “Send them back” were interspersed with attacks on the hotel and police. Fireworks and other missiles were thrown, along with attempts to break into the hotel. Clashes happened with the police, a number of people were injured and a police van was set on fire.

With police dressed in riot gear and equipped with batons and riot shields running towards the crowd, and flames lighting the night sky, it all made for dramatic footage. Initial media reports were unclear about the nature of the violence, but it was entirely between the crowd opposing the presence of asylum-seekers and the police. The counter-demonstrators were effectively corralled off, though later they took steps to defend themselves from possible attack by constructing a makeshift barricade with large wheelie bins, empty beer kegs and fencing. In the midst of this mayhem, the faces of asylum-seekers could be seen anxiously observing things, doubtless wondering what they had got themselves into.

Left ‘analysis’

Naturally, government ministers and Labour spokespersons tried to spin the whole affair for their own ends, while the Morning Star was predictably liberal in simply blaming the rightwing rhetoric and policies of Tory ministers for the spread of racist ideas on Merseyside and elsewhere.1

The militant left cannot be content with that sort of ‘analysis’, but neither can it be complacent about the seriousness of the attempted attack on Suites Hotel. Both on the night itself and subsequently, many local leftwingers saw the riot as largely being orchestrated by fascists and suggested that the far right had been bussed in from far and wide. While it was true that there were people with Lancashire and Yorkshire accents, overwhelmingly most of the crowd came from Knowsley itself.

The local nature of the participants was perhaps confirmed by the way the police followed up their operation with arrests in the Knowsley area, although one person from neighbouring Liverpool was also amongst those detained. Moreover, clips circulating on social media show largely young people watching proceedings, with a much smaller group actively attacking the hotel and the police. The boasts of Patriotic Alternative and Britain First about the level of support they enjoy in Merseyside are certainly overstated and false, but the size and attitude of the crowd does need some explanation - beyond the ridiculous idea that the youth of Knowsley has suddenly gone over to fascism.

Nevertheless, some on the left will be tempted, as always, to predict a sudden surge in support for the far right and the threat that this poses for democratic rights and the working class movement. For these comrades, 1933 is always just around the corner, so they argue that there’s ‘no time to lose’: we must ‘act now before it’s too late’ and smash the fascists before they smash us. However, if we are going to undermine the traction that the far right has gained with the issue of asylum seekers, we have got to get the politics right, not simply parrot alarmist slogans.

Small fascist groups will, of course, try to use refugees and migrants as scapegoats, blaming unemployment, low wages and a lack of decent housing on immigration. They are aided in this by sections of the ‘respectable right’, the Tories and the Reform (formerly Brexit) Party. There are also the headlines in the rightwing press, which stoke xenophobia and racism. Rishi Sunak’s promise to “stop the boats” is merely an echo of Nigel Farage’s well-publicised patrolling of Kentish beaches to repel “the invaders”. Add outlandish conspiracy theories about the ‘great replacement’ of the indigenous population by growing waves of immigration to a prurient focus on allegations of sexual assault on ‘our girls’, and you get the poisonous mix that we have seen in some of the videos and leaflets circulating on Merseyside and elsewhere in the last few months.

These factors are certainly at play in Knowsley - an area of social and economic deprivation, which is usually near the top of the table of all the national disadvantage indices. As with similar incidents recently in Scotland, Kent and the Midlands, the immediate focus of the events in Knowsley was the government’s dispersal policy for refugees and asylum-seekers. They are accommodated in hotels and the like, often in areas of high deprivation. In that sense the dynamics in Knowsley are almost a classic case of the effects of this policy and provided a fertile example for fascists, who contrasted ‘migrants living in luxury hotels while Brits freeze’ and whose banners tell the ‘invaders’ that ‘This is our city’.

In the immediate aftermath of Knowsley there seemed to be two main responses on the left. While in themselves not wrong, there were key elements missing in what should be a Marxist response to the far right and their campaign against migrants and refugees.

The first approach is a type of humanitarian solidarity with other people who have been forced to leave their home countries by war, persecution or economic collapse. This is encapsulated in the slogan, “Refugees welcome here”, which was on display at an anti-racist rally held in Liverpool on February 18. Nothing wrong with concern for other human beings, but where are the class politics here? Do we only show solidarity with ‘refugees’? What about workers who migrate looking for work or a better life? In that case, are we not accepting the distinction between the deserving refugees and the underserving ‘economic migrants’, along with the Tory and Labour leadership’s witch-hunting of ‘bogus asylum-seekers’?

The second approach was to combine some arguments about class solidarity with a rather vulgar economism, which suggested that the current strike wave and opposition to the Tory government could overcome divisions and counter the ‘divide and rule’ politics of the far right. Hence the Socialist Workers Party’s call to “build strikes and fight racism at the same time”.2 These arguments appeal to economic interest, not political interest. And, at present the strike wave is, in reality, sectional. Nurses are fighting as nurses, railworkers as railworkers.

Alongside solidarity with all workers who want to come to live and work in Britain, the working class movement needs to explain how and why capitalism and imperialism create the conditions for mass migration and population movements. Migration is a fact of human history, but has intensified under capitalism from the mid‑19th century onwards. As the working class movement developed internationally, it had to grapple with the issue in countries like the United States and Britain. The demands to ‘send them back’ we heard in Knowsley were also shouted in the streets of New York and the East End of London in the 19th and 20th centuries. Know Nothings, the Ku Klux Clan, the White League, the British Union of Fascists and the National Front attempted to stir up hatred against migrants and outsiders who, it was alleged, undermined wages and conditions, and brought innumerable social ills along with them.

Second lessons

Although some sections of the labour movement responded to migration by backing restrictions on immigration, the position adopted by the leadership of the Second International was thoroughly progressive in recognising the realities of capitalism and supporting the free movement of workers, while opposing attempts at ‘divide and rule’. This was not simply a pious expression of internationalism and class solidarity: it rested above all on the need to integrate migrant workers into the organised working class and prevent the bosses from using immigrants to undermine wages and conditions. The positions adopted by the international workers’ movement in response to chauvinism and hostility to migration in the early 20th century still hold good and show the liberal limitations of merely asserting that “Refugees are welcome here”.3

Rather than shying away from supporting the free movement of workers, we must be upfront about it and respond to the reality of contemporary capitalism and how it impacts on the working class globally. Moreover, while the state’s official anti-racism obscures the class politics of migration, the moralising tone of groups like Stand Up To Racism champions popular fronts with liberal capitalist politicians, religious and self-appointed ‘community leaders’.

Moral panics about ‘racism’ and the ‘rise of the Nazis’ are not the basis for a militant working class response to anti-migrant protests. Neither is the crude economism that simply equates strikes and calls for unity with socialist politics. Instead, our approach should be that of developing a revolutionary political programme and building a militant Marxist party. Like the international working class movement of the early 20th century, whose resolutions and debates still provide a valuable guide for the position we need to take on migration, our task remains that of fusing the class struggle with a developed socialist consciousness that can both challenge the far right and overcome the divisions sowed by capitalism.

  1. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/e/merseyside-far-right-and-spread-racist-ideas.↩︎

  2. socialistworker.co.uk/what-we-think/build-strikes-and-fight-racism-at-the-same-time.↩︎

  3. M Taber (ed) Under the socialist banner: resolutions of the Second International, 1889‑1912 Chicago 2021, pp41-43,54-55, 64 and 109-11.Note the London conference 1896 reference to anti-immigrant riots in Zurich.↩︎