Defeating the far right

Unmesh Desai explains how London United can mobilise nationally

London United (LU) was formally launched at the 2019 London Labour Conference. A motion in support, unanimously passed, was moved by the Chair of Unite London and Eastern and now Chair of the London Labour Party, Jim Kelly, on behalf of Unite. The motion was seconded by Barking Labour Party. This was a symbolic move. The concept of London United is about united action against the Far Right and hate politics by all sections of the labour movement. Further, this unity was so successfully demonstrated in Barking and Dagenham when it saw off the BNP just under a decade ago.

There were a number of reasons for the launch. Firstly, the alarm in some sections of the movement at global developments over the last year. A series of demonstrations in the name of ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ – Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, founder of the English Defence League, who had been imprisoned for contempt of court over a grooming case – were attracting thousands. Robinson is now advisor to UKIP leader Gerrard Batten, himself fast becoming a cult figure for the international far right movement. Groups like the so-called ‘Democratic Football Lads Alliance’ were providing the numbers for the street movement that fascism and the Far Right need in terms of a street presence, with Robinson the equally necessary ‘charismatic’ leader.

Secondly, various alt-right groups with a sophisticated social media presence and money from America to fund ‘The Movement’ – a grouping to organise an assortment of right wing forces for the forthcoming European elections – provided a backdrop to attempts to latch on to very genuine concerns over Brexit uncertainties.

Finally, we had the coming together in meetings of the ‘populist’ and ‘respectable’ right in the form of Steve Bannon and Boris Johnson. Johnson has made inflammatory remarks comparing Muslim women wearing burkas to letter boxes and Jacob Rees-Mogg has approvingly quoted the leader of the German far-right AfD, senior figures from which have called for refugees to be shot – indicative of a political terrain where far right political discourse is now normalised. As David Lammy so eloquently riposted, ‘Our country’s proudest moment was defeating the far right… Now we are supposed to sit back while xenophobic nationalists and isolationists do their best to tear Europe apart again.’

It is against this backdrop that we have also seen a worrying rise in hate crimes and witnessed terrible incidents like Christchurch. In London alone there are 60 hate crimes reported every day and we know that most cases go unreported. The Metropolitan police warn that the threat of far right extremism is their biggest concern now with one-third of referrals to the Prevent programme from people attracted to white supremacist ideology.

So in the context of these very worrying developments how do we go forward? How can the visionary call by New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, for global action to root out racist right wing ideology be localised at all levels and the ‘hostile environment’ challenged in all parts of our public life? This is where LU, which has already attracted the support of major unions and the backing of Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has a role to play.

We need to spread the message underpinning the rise of the ideology we oppose to the six million members of the trade unions alongside the mass membership of the Labour Party.

Counter-demonstrations last year were by comparison small and clearly the first task is get our own members mobilised. The political will is there as exemplified by McDonnell’s calls for a new Anti Nazi League movement. Unions like the FBU and RMT have been instrumental in getting members to help steward anti-fascist mobilisations. Trade unionists marched in a fairly cohesive bloc on the recent International Day Of Action Against Racism. We need all unions to come together. Unions like Unite do some impressive educational work and this needs to be emulated everywhere. Hopefully the summer trade union conferences will further this process and the national Labour conference will add a national dimension.

At a party level, the resolution to conference calls upon London Labour through the Regional Board to join with the trade unions to form a joint trade union and party steering committee to coordinate the campaign and spread the same message via constituencies, develop a much-needed online presence, seek affiliations and, most important of all, change a still inward looking party culture to get our members out in mass mobilisations.

Valuable work is being done in other aspects of public life. Groups like Show Racism The Red Card in the football world do great work and LU should seek to develop partnerships and not duplicate. Music and culture is another arena and whilst it may not be possible to replicate Rock Against Racism – so crucial in its time to the ANL’s success – thought has to be given to reviving in the capital the Rise festival, initiated by Livingstone and ditched by Johnson. I have asked Mayor Khan to consider funding and organising an annual London cultural event bringing our communities together.

There are many challenges and LU has its work cut out. Maximum unity in action is the way forward. But the first steps have been taken in developing a unified and cohesive labour movement campaign and challenge to the far right, mainstreamed in all aspects of our work. The message of No Pasaran, enshrined in the history of our movement, has got to be translated into action and passed on to future generations.

Unmesh Desai

Unmesh Desai is a member of the Greater London Assembly