Stopping the BNP and EDL: Strategy of patience and small deeds

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Paul Sillet, UAF national campaigner

When the EDL first emerged in 2009 we thought, "What is this new beast?" We noticed that there were former BNP, Combat 18 and National Front types around the demos, if not necessarily on them. Those on the demos were mainly from the "firms" - football supporters involved in inter-club violence - and others.

The EDL were attracting supporters to the prospect of launching mini pogroms in places like Luton and Dudley. At the time we were facing a possible BNP electoral breakthrough alongside a growing fascist street movement.

The alarm bells started ringing after the EDL's Manchester demonstration in October 2009. We realised that they were mobilising large numbers at short notice. It was clear that the EDL were operating a "march and build" strategy - recruiting supporters and building up momentum for the "big one", to march on places such as Bradford, and Tower Hamlets in east London.

The real hard work in turning the tide was not so much the big mobilisations, although these were important. It was the protests in small towns that now tend to be overlooked, places like Wellington near Telford in Shropshire. The EDL mobilisation there attracted some 300 thugs. We called a local demo alongside the trades council that drew some 400 people. What was significant was that the Bucks - supporters of AFC Telford - came out on the day to oppose the EDL.

In Cardiff the football supporters known as the Soul Crew helped run the Welsh version of the EDL out of town. It was a similar story in Portsmouth. Again a militant and determined local demo opposed an EDL march to the war memorial. After the demo the local paper ran the headline, "Goodbye EDL - and don't come back". These were the small victories that began to wear them down.

When the EDL marched in Preston, near Manchester, the police used the government Prevent Strategy to instruct all mosque goers not to join the UAF counter-mobilisation. On that day we only managed to turn out some 200 people, while around the corner the EDL had some 2,000. We were also terribly outnumbered in places such as Dudley. This was a war of attrition, and did not always go our way. So we had to be clever about choosing our battles.

The UAF national office would be inundated with requests from around the country for us to call national mobilisations, because people were worried when their town or city was singled out. Instead we insisted that UAF groups had to mobilise from within the communities and the labour movement. In this way our local groups began to sink deep roots. This became part of our winning strategy.

An important tactic was to play on the divisions inside the EDL. The movement was attracting large numbers of followers, but not all of them were hard core fascists. We had to find a way of creating a division between them. Ahead of the EDL demo outside Parliament in March 2010 we created a placard that announced, "EDL + BNP = racist Nazi thugs". It was designed to split them down the middle - and half of them were saying, "Yeah, this is what we want", while the other half were horrified at being associated with the Nazis.

A second coup was associating EDL leader Tommy Robinson with Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik - "Different faces, same hatred". They hated it because it exposed the logic of their politics.

Our strategy had to take in another important factor, the state - with today's levels of surveillance, intelligence teams, CCTV cameras, the Prevent Strategy used to intimidate communities, and anti-terrorism laws that targeted young Asians, among others. In the 1970s it was common for anti-fascists to take a more "direct" approach. You cannot simply replicate the past; you have to take into consideration new conditions and new factors.

We have to be political and tactical in our approach, and when we use direct action we must have a huge number of people with us - as we did with great effect in Waltham Forest. Victory in Tower Hamlets came when we stopped the EDL setting foot in the borough - there were no big street confrontations. This was not simply a symbolic gesture, but for the locals it was a total and real victory - the EDL were stopped from marching on the mosque.

We had a long-term strategy and patience. It was not simply about the big events; it was also about the small deeds, the local demos in rain-swept car parks in small towns; it was the leafleting outside football matches, making links with local unions and the councillors who stood with us. It was about making real links with the forces in society that can make a difference. One of the most significant moments in the first major Tower Hamlets demo was when rail workers shut the tube stations to keep out the EDL. All these small acts paved the way for the major victories.