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the National Front in Newham, Wood Green and New Cross; she helped organise marches after the murder of Altab Ali in Whitechapel; she participated in neighbourhood police-monitoring groups, at a time when the Metropolitan police faced intense criticism from black and Asian community groups for its failure to adequately investigate racist murders, its protection of the NF from counter-protesters, and inflammatory “swamp” style policing. I grew up listening to her stories with the sense of awe you might feel when hearing about the labours of Hercules: these feats are impressive, but ultimately consigned to the past. Skinheads, swastikas, Paki-bashers – such monsters had long been laid to rest. The past felt so distant, it may as well have been myth.
These days I find myself punished for my childhood complacency. Antisemitic incidents are at the highest recorded level since 1984; reports of racially motivated hate crime have increased since the EU referendum; and as public discourse has become poisoned towards refugees and asylum seekers, these vulnerable migrants have become targets for violence and verbal abuse.
This hostile climate has emerged hand in hand with the growth of a politically organised far right in the UK, both online and on our streets. The Football Lads Alliance (which has defended calls for Sadiq Khan to be hanged, and described its rallies as “anti-Islam” events) has an online membership of 65,000 Facebook users. Bankrolled by an American far-right thinktank, Tommy Robinson has seen his profile skyrocket in the past year. His prison homecoming video racked up 4.1m views; a London demonstration demanding his release in June saw outbreaks of mass disorder and violence. Steve Bannon’s meetings with the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson had an immediate pay-off for the neo-fascist fixer – just a few weeks later, Johnson penned his notorious “letterboxes” article, emboldening racists up and down the country.
It is no surprise then that prominent figures – such as the shadow chancellor John McDonnell, former Labour minister Peter Hain, activist Paul Holborow and musician Jerry Dammers – have called for the creation of a new national campaign to oppose “all forms of racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism”. The founders of the Anti-Nazi League (who linked up with Rock Against Racism) have suggested that a revived cultural and political movement, involving artists, rappers and musicians, would be an effective force to fight “a growing and serious challenge from the racist and fascist right”.
While I agree that embracing vibrancy and joy is an essential bulwark against the left’s tendency towards energy-sapping endless meetings, pop culture alone won’t save us from racism. Just look at the United States – the culture industry is undoubtedly progressive in its output, and yet the combined forces of YG, Mark Ruffalo and Beyoncécouldn’t keep Donald Trump out of the White House. We need more than just a reiteration of the values of diversity and cosmopolitanism. We need a truly radical anti-racist network that’s capable of mobilising mass opposition when the far right march, as well as being able to embed itself in communities to frustrate the far right’s ability to present itself as the champion of a downtrodden working class. Its favoured terrain is the culture war; instead, we should be out to gain territory.
It’s important to recognise that opposing racism isn’t just about presenting an alternative set of values; it’s about looking at how the far right play on people’s hardships in order to nurture a sense of enmity between white people and those racialised as migrants. In both the UK and in Europe, attempts have been made to set up foodbanks that exclude migrants and/or people of colour from using them. A genius strategy. It posits the far right as a benevolent force helping impoverished people, presents a microcosm of the worldview that foreigners are parasites taking food out of the mouths of deserving whites, and puts progressives in the uncomfortable position of having to criticise a charitable undertaking.
This is the kind of ground that anti-racists should be winning on; and indeed the city of Liverpool has shown us that such a thing is possible. Fans Supporting Foodbanks brought together supporters of Liverpool and Everton to provide food for some of the city’s most economically vulnerable residents. What started out as a collection of donations outside football stadiums has become a city-wide endeavour partnering with local mosquesto nurture inter-faith understanding. Football fans were even invited to the Abdullah Quilliam mosque for screenings of World Cup matches to support the foodbank scheme. This endeavour shows that football doesn’t have to be the domain of racists and Islamophobes, and that mosques aren’t some culturally alien and terrifying enclave. By addressing the immediate economic conditions of the neighbourhoods around them, anti-racist activists can bring together seemingly opposed communities and close down the gaps where the far right are able to organise.
There’s no reason why this can’t be rolled out to other towns and cities, to other football clubs, to other faith groups. Indeed, it doesn’t have to stop at foodbanks – for too long, the housing crisis has been a crucible for xenophobic and racist sentiments. In 2006, the BNP campaigned hard on housing scarcity in Barking, stoking resentments against the borough’s non-white residents. This in turn forced a sharp rightwards tack from the Labour MP Margaret Hodge who called for “natives” (ie white Brits) to be given priority in council housing. The reality is that Barking’s housing issuesstemmed from Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy, which decimated local authority stock.
The demand for adequate social housing provision is something that transcends race, religion and settled status. The London Renters’ Union aims to bring together tenants from all walks of life to collectively agitate against extortionate rents and rogue landlords. If projects such as these can link up migrants and people of colour whose conditions are hobbled by right to rent legislation with economically precarious white Brits who’ve been taught to blame foreigners for the scarcity of cheap homes, then the far right is effectively outflanked on what has been some of its most secure terrain.
The left has gambled that the progressive economic platform offered by Jeremy Corbyn would be enough to mitigate against the allure of violent and exclusionary far-right politics. But we might be waiting another four years for a general election; even if Labour were nailed on for a win, it’s essential we start to transform the political landscape that a Labour government would inherit. Momentum has shown it has both a robust national infrastructure and powerful local clout. But so far it has limited itself to producing informative agitprop online, and hustling for the left faction in various internal Labour party fracas. Which is a shame: Momentum is superbly well placed to link up activist groups and civic-society organisations across the country for a revived (and radical) anti-fascist campaign. If the promise of hanging out with Owen Jones can get hundreds of activists to Unseat Mansfield, the same mobilising strategy should be implemented to defend mosques and synagogues from racist demonstrations, to organise inter-community events and language exchanges. Corbyn is the promise of “jam tomorrow” – the far right urgently needs defeating today.
A revived Anti-Nazi League doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, or wait for that all important Stormzy endorsement. Winning the culture war simply isn’t enough. Instead, anti-racist organising must be rooted in the experiences of working-class people, in all their diversity, and work on ameliorating the most debilitating economic conditions now.
• Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media, and lectures in political theory at Anglia Ruskin and the Sandberg Instituutsee source