A new racist political group is organising on the streets. They call themselves the English Defence League, but who are they and what do they represent? Martin Smith investigates
Alan Lake is a middle aged English businessman. Last September he addressed an anti-Islam conference organised by the racist Sweden Democrats in Malmo. This shady figure told delegates that it was necessary to build an anti-Jihad movement that was "ready to go out onto the street". He also claimed that he and his friends had already begun to build alliances with football supporters.
One month later Lake told a Daily Telegraph journalist, "We are worn out with words. You need to have people on the streets. You have to get the message out." The article went on to claim that Lake was seeking to harness football hooligan "firms" by timing demonstrations to coincide with matches. Lake boasted, "These guys [football hooligans] are prepared to demonstrate, and they are already there because there is a match. This is a dirty, nasty, difficult struggle and you have to work with what is available."
Alan Lake is a key financier of the English Defence League (EDL).
The EDL's last day of action took place in Stoke on 23 January 2010. But it wasn't a protest - it was an anti-Muslim riot. Groups of football hooligans from 22 clubs rampaged through the streets. Prominent British National Party (BNP) activists, and an assorted bunch of racists and fascists, joined them. Worryingly, a couple of coachloads of "off duty" soldiers from two regiments joined the mob.
These thugs tried to attack a counter-protest called by Unite Against Fascism (UAF). The EDL smashed their way through two police lines, overturning riot vans, but were blocked by a third police line. They then directed their anger on the Asian community, smashing up shops and attacking Asian people.
Stoke is a warning to every anti-fascist and socialist.
The Scottish Defence League (SDL) and its counterpart, the Welsh Defence League (WDL), have now also spawned from the bowels of the EDL. All of them have staged a number of violent anti-Muslim protests around the country.
The roots of the EDL go back to Luton, March 2009. On that day troops from the Royal Anglian Regiment held a parade to welcome soldiers home from Afghanistan. As they marched through the town's streets a small group of young Muslims protested. An angry crowd set upon them, also attacking other Asians watching the parade, including Luton's mayor. Hoping to capitalise on the situation, a group of football hooligans and fascists organised two anti-Islam protests in Luton on 13 April and 24 May. The protest in May saw hundreds of thugs rampaging through the town's Asian area.
In an attempt to build on the "success" of Luton, the EDL organised a protest in Birmingham on 8 August. Unite Against Fascism organised a counter-protest. Thousands turned up and the EDL were run out of town. When the EDL organised a second protest in the city, on 5 September, some of the local UAF officials refused to call a counter-protest, worried that it would lead to a riot. This was a mistake. So as not to allow the EDL free rein, the Socialist Workers Party and groups of Asian youths organised a counter-protest. Hundreds of people turned up and once again the EDL were forced to flee the city.
An organisation calling itself "Stop the Islamification of Europe" (STIOE) tried to jump on the EDL bandwagon and called a protest in Harrow, north west London, on 11 September. Again thousands of black, white and Asian youth supported UAF's call. They drove the thugs off the streets.
The EDL were clearly put on the back foot. But a series of protests over the next few months enabled them to build up their forces. An EDL demonstration in Manchester on 10 October saw 700 EDL members take to the streets and 1,400 joined the UAF counter-protest. The WDL then organised marches in Swansea on 18 October and a week later in Newport, South Wales. Once again they were opposed by large numbers of anti-fascists. On 31 October about 900 EDL supporters protested in Leeds and up to 1,500 UAF supporters held a counter-protest. This was followed on 5 December, when about 500 EDL protesters assembled in Nottingham following an earlier parade by members of the 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment returning from Afghanistan.
Who are they?
The movement around the EDL appears to be escalating. The central question is, what kind of organisation are they? The foot soldiers are clearly drawn from a number of football hooligan "firms", including Chelsea, Queens Park Rangers, Luton, Aston Villa, Bristol Rovers, Wolves and Preston North End.
The media like to portray these hooligans as working class "yobs". No survey has been conducted on the class base of the EDL, but what little we know about them suggests that many come from "petty bourgeois" professions - the classic base of fascism. The leadership of the EDL clearly comes from the "petty bourgeois", but as they grow they are atracting more working class support.
For example, one of the leading figures behind the Luton protest is a self-employed carpenter and another runs his own internet company. The spokesperson for STIOE at the Harrow protest was an American student based at King's College. Two well known Chelsea hooligans were spotted on the EDL protest in Stoke, one of whom works in the City of London and donates £500 a month to the BNP, and the other runs his own van driving company. At last month's UAF conference a journalist who is presently working undercover in the EDL told a group of delegates that the EDL were "little businessmen types". Although these young men are drawn to the defence leagues by the promise of violence, the political cement that holds them together is anti-Muslim racism - Islamophobia.
Across Europe we have seen a terrifying rise in anti-Muslim racism since 9/11. In
Switzerland the building of mosque minarets has been banned. In France there are attempts to ban the veil being worn by Muslim women in public. Here in Britain the Labour government has played a despicable role in fostering Islamophobia. The "war on terror" and the criminalisation of Asian youth have helped legitimise the ideas of the EDL.
The rise of the EDL is as rapid as it is shocking - but it is explainable. The EDL are growing in the wake of the BNP's electoral success. During the Manchester protest the BBC interviewed a number of EDL supporters. They all talked about the fear of losing their job or business and all of them blamed "foreign" workers. Again this is typical of fascist/ultra right wing nationalist movements. As their world is threatened their fears and frustrations are directed at a scapegoat. Today this is Muslims.
Another feature of the ideas that propel the EDL can be seen on their website. It is more than economic questions that motivate them. They argue that their sense of culture and self-worth is collapsing around them. So the EDL create an idealised view of a past Britain which they feel is threatened by both Islam and the left.
When Leon Trotsky looked at the emerging Nazi movement that mushroomed in Germany after 1929, he argued that the Brownshirt marches, parades and street violence had the effect of terrorising their opponents and giving political direction and the illusion of strength to the movement. He described this effect as "turning worms into dragons". Taking to the streets in large numbers and the thrill of street violence give the young supporters of the EDL a sense of power and prestige.
This is the perfect breeding ground for fascism. So it is no surprise that at the political heart of the EDL lies the Nazi BNP.
From its very beginnings the BNP has played a central role in building and directing the EDL. For instance, Chris Renton, the man behind the EDL website, is a BNP member, and so is Davy Cooling, the administrator of the Luton EDL site. One of the organisers of the Birmingham protests was BNP member Richard Price. Finally, at the Stoke protest, BNP councillors were seen directing the protests and two leading members of Combat 18 (C18), Alan Thompson and Barry Osborne, were in the thick of the violence.
Sections of the BNP see the EDL as their version of a "united front". The EDL is a place where Nazis can meet and recruit angry young people influenced by racist and right wing populist ideas.
Fascist infiltration of football hooligan firms is nothing new. Throughout the 1980s the Nazi National Front (NF) put a lot of resources into recruiting activists from the terraces. The NF's paper, Bulldog, ran a "racist league" table, where supporters competed to earn the title of most racist in the country. Again in the 1990s C18, the street fighting wing of the BNP, combed the football terraces for recruits and were behind the riot that took place at the Ireland v England game at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, in 1995.
How are the defence leagues organising? This is not a spontaneous movement. Clearly some of the EDL groups have come out of the so-called football hooligan firms. Over the last two decades football clubs have been determined to stamp out violence on the terraces. This and increased policing and surveillance at stadiums have forced the violence underground and away from the grounds. This in turn has led to the development of well-organised networks of football gangs who are able to organise fights in secluded areas and many of them have avoided police detection and infiltration.
The second factor that has aided the defence leagues has been the internet. Much of their organising has been done through the EDL website and numerous Facebook groups. More worrying has been the development of EDL branches, some of whom meet every month to plan activities and demonstrations.
It would be a mistake to write off the EDL. Yet this is what the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight appears to be arguing. In its February 2010 issue it stated, "The EDL continues to reflect the rising Islamophobia in society but whether it can be more than a rallying point for people with different agendas is unlikely."
Although today this movement is still in an embryonic form, we have seen this type of street-fighting gang before. The EDL has parallels in past fascist movements. For example, in 1919 a group of Mussolini's followers developed a new tactic in rural northern Italy: squadrismo. These strong-arm squads, squadre d'azione, attacked and beat up socialists, smashed up printing presses and terrorised anyone who stood in their way. And Hitler on his road to power was prepared to unleash his Brownshirts on socialists, Jews and trade unionists.
The fact is that all major fascist organisations use both an electoral and a street fighting wing. Indeed, BNP leader Nick Griffin first started life in the street-fighting wing of the NF. He only came out and openly supported greater emphasis on electoral work and downplaying the BNP's fascist ideals in the mid-1990s.
Griffin himself admitted in a speech he made to activists in Kent in 2008 that he too needed to develop a security squad to protect BNP elected officials, meetings and events. But he also understands the real dangers that come with this. In the early 1990s the BNP encouraged the development of C18 to protect its meetings and canvassers. In a short space of time C18 were out of control. They were involved in protectionism, drug running and the lucrative European Nazi music scene. By 1995 they boasted that three quarters of all young BNP members had moved over to them. They even took control of Tower Hamlets BNP branch, at that time the biggest and most successful BNP branch in the country. A year later C18 were in tatters, ripped apart by internal feuds.
For the time being the BNP and EDL are reinforcing one another. But there is a tension developing in the BNP between those excited by the street fighting of the EDL and those who want to continue building up an electoral base and cultivating respectability. If Griffin is going to succeed in his goal of creating a mass fascist party he is going to have to try and ride these two horses at the same time.
The BNP have three aims for the forthcoming general election and council elections. First on their hit list is the parliamentary seat of Barking, presently held by Labour's minister for culture, Margaret Hodge. Secondly, the BNP have set their sights on taking control of Barking council. Their third goal is to win a dozen or so more council seats around the country.
On the surface, the BNP's first goal of winning the Barking seat looks impossible. At the last general election in 2005 Hodge won 47.8 percent of the vote and the BNP gained 17 percent (their highest ever parliamentary election result). But the rise of the Tory vote in the area and boundary changes mean the BNP could come through the middle and win the seat.
In response to these developments a new urgency is sweeping through the anti-fascist movement. The Nazis are making serious breakthroughs at the ballot box and are now marching on our streets.
We have to learn from our past campaigns against the fascists and develop new tactics to deal with a fast changing situation.
In the run-up to the general election, UAF will be campaigning hard to undermine the BNP's vote. Hundreds of activists will be taking the "Don't Vote Nazi" campaign into constituencies the BNP are targeting. We will be delivering hundreds of thousands of leaflets to homes across the country. UAF campaigners will be speaking at trade union meetings, to school kids and student meetings, and to faith groups. Research being carried out by the Labour Party in Barking has shown that UAF's "Don't Vote Nazi" campaign has been the most effective form of propaganda in putting people off from voting BNP.
Another tool in our armoury will be the carnivals and gigs organised by Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR). In the week before the general election LMHR will be holding events in Barnsley, Manchester and Barking. These events attract large numbers of young people and they carry a potent anti-fascist, anti-racist message. Two years ago LMHR organised a carnival in Victoria Park, east London, which attracted a crowd of over 100,000 and last year's event in Stoke pulled in 20,000 people.
The final problem the anti-fascist movement faces is the EDL. If this movement is growing on the terraces of football grounds across the country, then the anti-fascist movement will have to go to the grounds and take the anti-fascist message to the football fans. Already UAF campaigners have leafleted Aston Villa, QPR and Stoke grounds on match days. Clubs like Stoke and Northampton Town have invited UAF/LMHR speakers to address the crowds at half time. Supporters' groups, such as Preston North End, have also asked us to address their meetings. We need to encourage more clubs to do this. We also need to involve the players - football fans are far more likely to listen to their favourite player carrying an anti-EDL message than "Joe Bloggs" from UAF. UAF is also in the process of making an anti-EDL film to be shown at grounds.
Sword and shield
But just being against the BNP and EDL is not enough. UAF is a shield against the rise of fascism but we also need a sword. Resistance to the crisis sweeping Britain is every bit as important as the campaign against the BNP and EDL. Every strike for better pay and conditions, and every campaign to save a hospital or stop a deportation offers hope and undermines the despair the BNP are feeding off. Likewise, the setting up of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition offers a socialist alternative to Labour in a number of constituencies.
From his prison cell in Mussolini's fascist Italy, the revolutionary socialist Antonio Gramsci wrote, "One of our biggest mistakes was not understanding the sudden rise of the squadre d'azione, and in turn our failure to combat it." Of course, the situation in Britain is not as serious as Italy in 1920, but the danger signals are there and we mustn't underestimate the threat from the new fascists.