The rise of Donald Trump is symbolic of a growing confidence on the populist right. With elections approaching in Europe and Theresa May heading into the Brexit negotiations with the aim of restricting migration, Michael Bradley lays out a plan for the kind of anti-racist movement we need.
The election of Donald Trump has sent shockwaves across the world. For many, Trump’s victory is part of a seamless growth in support for the populist right. His demagogic rants about “building a wall” and protecting US workers by “putting America first” have been reflected by similar figures in country after country.
We saw British politics descend into the gutter during the EU referendum as both the official Leave and Remain campaigns outbid each other to denigrate refugees, Muslims and migrants. The campaign was so toxic that it led to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, targeted as a “traitor” because she worked to support refugees.
Worries that Norbert Hofer and the Freedom Party would win in Austria’s second presidential election of 2016 proved unfounded but Geert Wilders and the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) are high in the polls just weeks before voting and Marine Le Pen has high hopes for a breakthrough in France’s presidential elections.
With the coming of Trump some have even have made comparisons with 1933 and the coming to power of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. While Trump is no Hitler (even if some in his cabinet are associated with the far right) and has no army of storm troopers ready to smash the unions, it’s true that the period smells of the 1930s.
The centre of the political system is under strain and populist racist rhetoric is at the heart of political dialogue. But just as in the 1930s there is more than just despair; for every Wilders and Trump there is a Bernie Sanders and a Jeremy Corbyn.
The protest movement that has exploded onto the streets in the US and worldwide since Trump’s election has lifted some of the gloom felt by much of the left. Resistance is possible after all.
In this country the chaos that has threatened the Tories after the referendum has seen Theresa May shift further and further to the right, holding hands with Trump, using EU citizens in the UK as bargaining chips and pushing for a “hard Brexit” to
keep her supporters on board. The reversal on the “Dubs amendment” must be a new low for the Tories, who failed to accept even the pitiful numbers of unaccompanied refugee children they had agreed to bring into the UK.
The Tories believe they can survive (and marginalise UKIP) if they are seen to be at the centre of holding the line against immigration and therefore pointing the blame for cuts and the suffering of working people at migrants, refugees and Muslims and not at the bankers and politicians who are really to blame. This means that for May opposition to the free movement of labour comes first, even if it means, against the wishes and needs of the bulk of the British capitalist class, losing access to the European single market.
Meanwhile many on the left have reacted by all but labelling working class Leave voters as mainly racist. For some this has translated into arguing that the Labour Party has to move away from supporting the free movement of labour.
Part of Owen Jones’s critique of Corbyn is that he has failed to adapt to the new realities on immigration and free movement post-referendum (while also attacking Corbyn for failing to oppose Article 50).
In the Stoke by-election in February Labour defeated UKIP’s Paul Nuttall (who still got 5,233 votes, 24.7 percent of the vote). But that won’t stop the pressure increasing on Corbyn and Diane Abbott to move away from a principled position on immigration.
It is worth noting that Nuttall’s failure, despite his claim to be spearheading UKIP’s assault on Labour’s base, gives the lie yet again to the idea that every Leave voter is simply a racist. UKIP mopped up just 25 percent of those who voted Leave in Stoke in the EU referendum.
Alongside the constant media bombardment on migrant workers “undermining wages” and refugees “swamping” the NHS we also see a systematic attempt to portray Muslims in the UK as a potential enemy within. The Prevent agenda is at the heart of this process. This targeting of Muslims is common currency on the far and populist right, from the dressed up modern fascism of Le Pen and the Front National to the Freedom Party, and on to Trump.
But Islamophobia has also been at the heart of the mainstream justification for decades of Western backed war in the Middle East.
While in France, Greece, Austria and elsewhere there are organised fascist movements like Golden Dawn, in the US and Britain it is the state, backed up by populist rhetoric, that is at the heart of the racist offensive.
However, it’s important to note that in France and Greece as elsewhere it has been social democratic parties that have legitimised the targeting of Muslims and the treatment of migrants and refugees and have provided a breeding ground for the fascists. The fate of thousands of refugees who have died on the journey to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa shows the reality of “fortress Europe”.
Of course the issues of institutional and police racism in the US pre-date Trump. The birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement developed in the years of America’s first black president. In a similar way racism and the targeting of refugees, migrants and Muslims in Britain pre-dates the “Brexit” vote. After all it was David Cameron who described refugees in the Calais “jungle” as “a bunch of migrants”. His government spent years scapegoating migrants and getting “tough” on immigration.
That is not to deny that the aftermath of the EU Referendum campaign has made racists more confident and seen a spike in racist attacks. In these circumstances it’s well worth reminding ourselves that millions of ordinary people in the UK have supported refugees and that the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has consistently associated himself with anti-racist activism, from the moment of his election back in 2015.
Millions of people, whichever way they voted in the EU referendum, fear the rise of racism and that fear has intensified after Trump’s election. Leading figures in mass organisations, such as the trade union movement, worry that workers could be won away from Labour by the siren song of UKIP or worse if racist ideas are not countered.
The urgent need and the potential to create a mass anti-racist movement in this country on the scale of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) in the late 1970s and early 1990s clearly exist. Stand Up To Racism is in a good position to generate that movement.
Stand Up To Racism is supported by leading figures across the movement including the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott. Its conference last October was massive, with 1,600 activists cramming into Friends Meeting House in London to hear, among others, Jeremy Corbyn, found a new movement against racism.
This year has seen support for the organisation explode with the TUC supporting national demonstrations in London, Cardiff and Glasgow on 18 March and backing a packed Stand Up To Racism Trade Union Conference. Union after union has affiliated. Stand Up To Racism has organised public rallies from Glasgow to Portsmouth that, in many areas, have been the biggest anti-racist meetings for years.
And alongside the growth of Stand Up To Racism we’ve seen the re-emergence of Love Music Hate Racism, pulling in a whole new generation of musicians into anti-racist activity. The cultural wing of the anti-racist movement is absolutely crucial. The legendary rise of Rock Against Racism (RAR) was at the very heart of winning the ANL a mass youth following in the 1970s. The same process is vital today.
What’s needed now is a truly mass movement, embracing the trade unions and students unions, community and faith groups on the same scale as was achieved by ANL/RAR. We need to make it impossible to get on a bus or train without seeing an anti-racist badge; to enter a college, school or a campus without seeing anti-racist materials.
The politics of anti-racism needs to be made accessible, not just the preserve of the left. It has to involve all those communities that are under threat and break through to the mass of young people. The alternative is to lose the battle and for those communities who have been “left behind” by austerity to become easy meat for right wing populism.
This will take imagination and flare.
We need trade union branches affiliating to Stand Up To Racism and getting workers to join in with days of action and campaigning. We need the anti-racist message to reach into school and college curriculums and for workers to react to racist scapegoating like the attempts to brand “health tourists” in the NHS.
We know that the issue of anti-racism is a massive mobilising factor. It was at the heart of the anti-Trump protests that swept the country in January and February, including the magnificent 40,000 strong “No Muslim Ban” demo in London on 4 February, called by Stand Up To Racism, Stop the War, the People’s Assembly and many Muslim organisations.
For trade unionists anti-racist activity can and does feed back into and strengthen trade union organisation. At the Stand Up To Racism Trade Union Conference many spoke of organising delegations to Calais and many trade union reps had been recruited directly through such campaigning activity.
The commitment shown by leading trade unionists like Unison’s Roger McKenzie, the NUT’s Kevin Courtney and the TUC’s Wilf Sullivan, along with many others, to speaking at Stand Up To Racism rallies shows just how seriously the movement is taking the growth of racism and the need to combat it.
A glimpse of the possibilities came on 20 February when workers joined students when they walked out to join the anti-Trump protest in London. Back in 2003 tube workers made announcements calling for commuters to join the 2 million strong Stop the War demo against war in Iraq.
It was an example of low level unofficial action that developed out of anti-war agitation by activists over months. The basis can be laid for similar activity or even walkouts if campaigners build now by doing the work of using petitions, selling badges and leafleting for protests at work.
In some ways Britain looks very different to the rest of Europe. At present there is no mass fascist movement here. That’s not an accident. The political strategy of the united front, a genuine alliance in action between socialists, trade unionists and campaigners from “above” (MPs and trade union leaders) and “below” (activists on the ground) proved immensely successful with the Anti Nazi League and Unite Against Fascism.
These organisations helped isolate the National Front and later the British National Party and the English Defence League, and break them from a mass base of support. The BNP is a shadow of its former self, the EDL splintered and not capable (at present) of mass mobilisations.
This is not to say that we can be complacent about the possibility of the Nazis rebuilding in Britain. Success for Le Pen can see a surge of interest in the far right and the remnants of Britain’s fascists continue to attempt mobilisations centred on the issue of immigration. Unite Against Fascism is organising a major national conference in May to look at the fallout from the French elections and the next steps in combating the far right.
However, while we need to be vigilant about the threat of fascism, the priority right now is a much broader front to combat a gathering racist offensive. We have to help arm a new generation of activists and campaigners with the responses to common claims — that migrants undermine wages, “health tourism” is to blame for our declining NHS, that refugees are “flooding in” and taking our housing.
Some like to argue that Stand Up To Racism is a “front” for the Socialist Workers Party. A quick glance at the steering committee members should give the lie to this. The fact that most UK unions have affiliated to the campaign and that the TUC is involved in backing its key mobilisations also show a different story.
But those who make such accusations misunderstand the nature of what a united front campaign is all about. Any attempt by a minority to control or manipulate such a broad campaign wouldn’t be tolerated by the majority involved and would make it ineffective in mobilising broad layers of people.
The anti-racist movement needs to give confidence to anti-racists everywhere and put them on the front foot. Rallies, gigs, events and demos can show that we, the anti-racists, really are the majority. The protests in London, Glasgow and Cardiff on 18 March will play a pivotal role in this process.
If just days short of the invocation of article 50 the news is dominated by mass anti-racist protests it will change the nature of the dialogue around Brexit in the movement and the media.
There is a lot at stake here. The ideas of multiculturalism and solidarity between black and white, migrants and those born here are under systematic attack. Those who rule us think they have found strategy that can divide us and break our ability to resist. If they succeed then the rise in racist attacks over recent months and the growth in support for Le Pen, Wilders and Trump is only the beginning. But if we can stem the tide of racism and build a genuine mass movement the confidence it give ordinary people can feed back into their ability to resist austerity too.