Fighting racism on two fronts

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When the racist English Defence League (EDL) announced it was going to hold a demonstration in Luton on 5 February everyone knew that it was going to be a big test for both the anti-fascist movement and the racists.

In the run-up to the demonstration the EDL boasted that it was going to put 8,000 people on the streets. But on the day it claimed 2,500 turned up.

However, anti-fascist protesters outnumbered the EDL two to one. Around 2,000 activists gathered at the official Unite Against Fascism (UAF) rally in the town centre and up to 3,000 people joined the joint UAF/community protest in Bury Park, the predominantly Asian part of the town.

But that was only half the story. The spirit of the student protests and the Egyptian Revolution had buoyed our side. For over an hour 400 anti-fascist protesters blocked Luton railway station, forcing the London divisions of the EDL to get off at an earlier station.

On the day the police refused to allow the two anti-fascist protests to join together and there were a number of spirited attempts to link both protests. As usual, the police spent much of their million pound budget on persuading Muslims to stay indoors and away from the UAF counter-protest. The police didn't seem to be able to do anything about EDL thugs daubing Asian houses in Luton with racist graffiti in the aftermath of the protest.

The UAF counter-protest was an important step forward in another way - it had a broad base of support, and this had a lot to do with the excellent work the local group has done over the years. The local MP and MEP both spoke at the UAF counter-protest, a large number of councillors were present and every union in the town backed it.

Judging by the comments on the EDL online chat rooms, many went home dispirited, with many complaining that they were outnumbered by anti-fascists. Their leader, "Tommy Robinson" (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), was punched by one disgruntled EDL supporter.

But the EDL were saved by two connected events. The first of these was David Cameron's speech attacking multiculturalism, which hit the front pages of almost every national newspaper the same day as the EDL demonstration in Luton. This was not lost on the EDL. When Robinson spoke in Luton, he said of Cameron's speech, "He's now saying what we are saying. He knows his base." Robinson is a vile racist, but he is right on this point - Cameron's speech helped legitimise their racism.

The other event was the Daily Star newspaper running the front page headline, "EDL Chief: Vote Us Into Parliament". It's a rare thing for the Daily Star to run anything on politics - its front pages are normally reserved for half-naked women and football stars. The day before this it carried a phone poll that found that 98 percent of its respondents said that "they agreed with the EDL's policies". This is depressing and has echoes of the way the Daily Mail supported Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.

The EDL may have failed to make the breakthrough it threatened in Luton, but it has gained credibility from both Cameron and sections of the media. Our movement faces two key challenges: one is to halt Cameron's attacks on multiculturalism and the other is to build a broad movement against the rise of the EDL.