Anti-fascism in the Northwest 1976-1981
The Northwest played an important part in the history of anti-racism in the 1970s. The threat of fascism was greatest in this area, and the largest ANL groups were also based here. There had been a National Front presence in the region since the late 1960s. One of the first NF initiatives outside London had been to establish a front organisation in Oldham, TRUAIM, 'Trade Unionists Against Immigration', led by former supporters of Oswald Mosley. In 1973, the National Front again attempted to establish a branch in Stockport. Later groups were set up in Liverpool and Manchester. By 1976, the National Party had two councillors elected in Blackburn. Along with the West Midlands, the Northwest was a key target for the National Front. If the NF were to establish a permanent presence outside London, this was their best chance. So how then did anti-racists respond to the challenge?
So this is Manchester
In most towns outside London, the ANL was able to build like a conventional united front, bringing together the traditional organisations of the British left. But in Manchester the scale of the problem was deeper. The National Front had attempted to organise in the region from as early as 1969. The NF had contacts, resources and people on its side. Its attempts to organise were also aided by local geography. At various points between 1969 and 1981, the Front would establish branches in Manchester. But as these were challenged, the NF was able to fall back on its smaller groups in the surrounding towns - Oldham, Stockport, and so on. In this way, anti-fascism was a difficult, arduous task. People had to keep their eye on different areas. Sometimes, the National Front would pretend to call a demonstration in one place - knowing that if anti-fascists then went there, they would not have enough people to prevent another meeting elsewhere. There was also a long tradition of fascists and anti-fascist street-fighting in Manchester. Someone had to disrupt the Front's activity, but if the task fell on too few shoulders, then there would be problems.
The task of organising anti-fascism in Manchester was perhaps more difficult than elsewhere. But the local ANL was able to call on a long tradition of united left anti-fascist work. The treasurer of the Manchester branch, Martin Bobker, was a former Young Communist from the 1930s. Another person who gave his backing to the League was Sam Wild, the former commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades in Spain. One key activist among the younger generation was Mike, who had been a member of every joint committee since the 1960s. Indeed his anti-fascist work went back to an earlier generation of democratic protest - the campaign against neo-Nazism in 1950s Britain. Another leading figure was Graeme, a former member of Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League, later a member of the SWP. By the early 1970s, Mike, Graeme, and a number of local anti-fascists had been able to establish a permanent organisation, the Manchester Anti-fascist Committee (MAFC). This was just one of a series of joint initiatives against racism. The North Manchester Campaign Against Racism (NORMANCAR) was established in 1972. Its secretary Colin Barnett was a leading member of Manchester Trades Council. Paul Rose, Labour MP for Manchester Blackley, also helped to establish another network, Democratic Defence, following threats from local fascists. One early clash outside Houldsworth Hall in 1974 demonstrated the strong feelings against the NF in Manchester. In other words, by the time that the Anti-Nazi League was launched, the movement could drawn on a long experience of joint work in the region.
The local committees set out to base themselves on the trade union movement. There had been a series of major strikes in the city from the late 1960s, with a peak coming in 1972 when 60,000 engineers working at several dozen factories across Manchester staged a series of occupations in support for higher pay. The strikes have been documented in Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon's history of the workers' struggles of 1972. They were an extraordinary protest, aimed in part against the Tories' Industrial Relations Act. The sit-ins took place at the same time as a national rail strike, and the strike action on the docks which was to lead to the freeing of the Pentonville Five. The occupations re-established a tradition of rank-and-file militancy in Manchester. The strikes also reinforced the prestige of the Communist Party, which possessed a network of supporters in the factories and remained the largest force on the left in Manchester.
The 1972 sit-ins were a proud moment in the history of the local trade union movement. But it is also true that the occupations were unsuccessful, at a time when most industrial action was ending in victory. Many activists from the non-Communist Party left recall that the party was still an important force in the late 1970s. But Geoff Brown from Manchester SWP argues that the Communists were over-represented at the head of the movement. Older CP activists had failed to recruit a generation of younger stewards, and now punched below their weight. 'The Communist Party was clearly an organisation in decline. The engineering occupations actually disoriented key cadre. They were so strong, why were they defeated? The strategy of depending on [such trade union leaders as Hugh] Scanlon was a disaster.' Geoff Brown suggests that the decline of the CP in Manchester was one factor which enabled younger militants to lead the campaign against fascism.
Following the 1974 elections, the MAFC came under attack. Their problem was that the National Front decided to challenge the group's campaign literature in the courts. One of the leaflets distributed by the committee had called on the electorate, 'Don't Vote Nazi'. But one of the tightest areas of law is the conduct of elections. Judges ruled that this leaflet was a contravention of the Representation of the People Act. The suggestion was that this leaflet effectively called for people to vote for other parties - and these parties had not reduced their allocation downwards, accordingly. Since then, a precedent has been established that such campaigning is legal, provided that the leaflets do not specify who else should receive a vote. But for the comrades in Manchester, these two years were a difficult time. They staggered from appeal to appeal, fully aware that if the case was lost, they could be personally liable for a bill running into tens of thousands of pounds.
With the court case resolved, the MAFC helped to organise protests after the NF attacked a meeting held at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, in November 1975. The meeting was a forum on 'The State, the Law and Northern Ireland', sponsored by the National Council of Civil Liberties and the white-collar union, AUEW/TASS, and with members of Big Flame and the International Marxist Group in attendance. Mike Herbert describes the clash, 'As soon as the chair of the meeting Tony Casson began speaking a group of about thirty men began hurling rocks, bottles and chairs at the platform and audience, some of whom were injured. The group smashed their way out of the building and were arrested by the police a short distance away.' Six people were badly injured, one of them needing nineteen stitches after a bottle was smashed in his face. Thirty people were arrested. A young, lawyer, Steve was one of the speakers that day:
I wrote the pamphlet on the Prevention of Terrorism Act for the NCCL which was to the subject of the meeting. The other invited speaker was the then Bernadette Devlin. Bernadette didn't make it but I'm sure it was her intended presence that provoked the NF. I never managed to get into the meeting as I was beaten up by the NF outside. My most vivid memory is then seeing an NF contingent line up alongside a UVF banner and then engage in a triumphalist march outside UMIST with the cops doing nothing. As I remember one of the people eventually charged with the assaults was from the North of Ireland and was killed before the trial. Incidentally after that meeting the NCCL refused to go on any kind of political offensive against what had happened (wanting to leave it all to the police). So a small group of us organised a meeting just a few days later - again at UMIST - to discuss what had happened. Heavy police vehicles surrounded the building. Pat Arrowsmith and I spoke.
Manchester Trades Council demanded an inquiry into the causes of the violence, and the attitudes of the police towards NF aggression. The case was directed by then-Deputy Chief Constable James Anderton. On his advice, the Director of Public Prosecutions refused to press charges, but UMIST brought a private action, and four members of the National Front were eventually found guilty of assault and criminal damage.
Even as the Manchester Anti-Fascist Committee was re-established, attention began to move elsewhere. In the local elections of April 1976, John Kingsley Read, the leader of the National Party (NP) and John Frankham, were both elected as NP councillors in Blackburn. The National Party was a hybrid organisation, seemingly a more-Conservative split from the NF, the NP claimed to have 'a much harder line on immigration' than its parent. Read responded to the news of the racist murder of Gurdip Chaggar by saying 'One down, one million to go.' Later Frankham was forced to resign his seat, when it was discovered that he had stood under an assumed name. But the effect of their election was shocking. These were the first democratically-elected fascist councillors in Britain, certainly since the second world war. Blackburn itself acquired a reputation as a major fascist base.
Anti-fascists attempted to organise against the National Front threat. One focus was a large NF demonstration through Blackburn, which was announced to take place in September 1976. A protest march was organised by local anti-racists, with Blackburn Trades Council, the IS and Communist Party all pledging their support. The Black socialist paper Samaj urged its readers to attend. In Manchester, Big Flame organised a meeting to build support for the Blackburn protests. There were speakers from Race today, the Brixton/Croydon Collective, the Rochdale Youth Organisation, and the Manchester Anti-Fascist Committee. The leaflet insisted that 'This demonstration is of NATIONAL significance. It is taking the fight into one of the strongholds of the enemy.'
When 11 September 1976 came around, two very different mobilisations took place. Several hundred supporters of the National Party and National Front congregated outside the city centre. Carrying placards including 'Free Robert Relf', 'Scrap the Race Act', and 'No more mosques in Blackburn', the fascists were led off by Kingsley Read wearing a full uniform-style jacket, and in front of him, four police on horseback. All police leave was cancelled for the day. Four thousand anti-fascists occupied the town centre. There were trades council banners from Manchester, Stockport, Glasgow, Liverpool, Crawley, Preston and Skelmersdale. Mobilised by left groups and the mosque, it was a very Asian protest. In contrast to the racist march which was stopped outside central Blackburn, the anti-racists were good-humoured, confident that the NF would not pass. At the end of the day's protests, the police waded in to attack the anti-racists, but only three arrests were made.
Mike remembers taking part in several anti-fascist protests through the summer of 1976, 'I was involved in the Blackburn thing, travelling up their most weekends Read wanted to be the biggest fascist in the Northwest. The NF had several impressive mobilisations, but they had relatively little support in the town. We were able to organise in the Asian community and the labour movement.' A key moment was the by-election in which Frankham was forced to contest his seat a second time. 'They did try to intimidate people, on the polling day, but we stopped them. We always had the upper hand.' The National Party lost the election, and its earlier momentum began to wane.
The nearest equivalent in Blackburn to Manchester's Anti-Fascist Committee was Action Against Racism (AAR), another umbrella organisation. One of its highest-profile activities was a delegate conference held in Blackburn in June 1977 to discuss racism in the workplace. Key-note speakers came from Bradford Trades Council, Ribble Valley Trades Council and the Commission for Racial Equality. The conference was opened by an AAR speaker, who pointed out that the level of fascist street activity had fallen sharply over the previous 12 months. The reason for calling this meeting had been a fear that this decline had linked to a rise of fascist effort elsewhere. From the floor, Victor Earnshaw of the GMWU described how one worker in his factory had been held in detention for three and a half months. An unnamed Labour Party member described how at Tranmere Textiles there was not a single immigrant worker on the pay-roll. Another speaker, described only as 'A white collar union delegate', said that 'there was no evidence of actual National Front [or] National Party membership among union members. But chief questions included the very small number of immigrant workers employed by local authorities, and the hidden prejudice in the conservative attitude of members.' Judging by this contributions, and other made at the conference, the consensus appears to have been that although organised fascists were less visible than before, workplace racism was as much an issue as ever.
Nowhere to Hyde
The focus of attention soon returned to events in Greater Manchester. Activists learned in autumn 1977 that the National Front were planning a march through Hyde, a small industrial town on the outskirts of Manchester, which had been called for October 8. Protests against the National Front march received the backing of the left-cultural magazine, New Manchester Review. The September issue ran a long editorial criticising the police for using the Public Order Act against a small knot of republicans, who had protested against the Queen. The article then raised the question of the pending National Front demonstration,
The NF can claim to be merely exercising its right to make a political point. But even in the absence of any counter-demonstration by the Socialist Workers Party, the avowed policies of the NF which include the forcible repatriation of all Black immigrants, can hardly be calculated to stir sympathy among a significant and hitherto peaceful and industrious section of the community. Even Voltaire would have approved of the use of Section 5 here.
The follow-up issue (which appeared two days before the planned march) went even further in supporting calls for the National Front march to be banned. 'It is also worth recalling for the benefit of members of Tameside Council that Mr Webster is interested not so much in free speech as "Kicking our way into the headlines". That can best be done on marches and rallies such as the NF had planned for Hyde. Victims and traders face being driven off the streets; opponents are determined. Can they really be blamed?'
Tameside Council had approved a National Front meeting in Hyde Town Hall. Colin Grantham, the Tory leader of the council, explained that the Front were only marching (in his words), 'for free speech and against red terror'. When it came to a vote on Tameside Council, the meeting split along party lines - Labour voting against the march, the Conservatives for. In the weeks following the announcement of Tory support, racist graffiti went up and National Front stickers. The small number of Black and Asian people living in the area spoke openly of their worries. One resident, Abdul Jalil told the New Manchester Review, 'We're frightened, and we've never felt that way before in Hyde.'
Geoff Brown, who was to become a full-time worker for Manchester Anti-Nazi League, had recently returned from several years spent working abroad. He suggests that the events at Hyde need to be seen through the prism of the NF's defeat at Lewisham on 13 August 1977. 'Webster was trying to regroup the Front after Lewisham. That's why they put so much effort into Hyde.' In London, the negotiations that would lead to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League were already taking place. But they were not yet complete. Local activists determined to prevent the Front from marching, although there was not yet any one umbrella group to co-ordinate the movement. The local Communist Party specifically turned down the suggestion of joint work, Mick Murray saying 'we are opposed to adventurist and isolationist tactics which only strengthen the forces of reaction.' According to Geoff Brown, 'Steve Jeffreys [of the SWP central committee] and I walked around Hyde for a day, to plan the protest. What we saw was that it would be easy to block any march. The main road goes through a series of underpasses, we would have four opportunities to block the road. [Manchester Chief Constable] Anderton and his assistants also must have done the same, and thought it through like us. I'm sure that's why they banned the march.'
In response to the protests, the Greater Manchester Police announced that the National Front would not be allowed to march in Hyde. This ban was announced publicly, receiving the full support of local press. Even the Communist Party's paper, the Morning Star applauded James Anderton's seeming about-turn. Mick Murray, Secretary of the Greater Manchester Communist Party, wrote that 'The ban on the National Front's meeting in Hyde on October 8 has lifted a storm cloud from over this small northern town.' But the Manchester police were able to organise a back-up plan. The NF would in fact be allowed to march, and would receive full protection on a different route. Unlike the ban, this deal was never publicised, and the agreed route remained of course a closely-guarded secret.
Local activists were less willing than the press to take the police announcement of a ban at face value. Different groups continued to build protests, including the Anti-Nazi League, the SWP, the North West Trades Union Congress, the North West Standing Committee Against Racism, Manchester City Labour Party, the Manchester Anti-Fascist Committee, and the North Manchester Campaign Against Racism. Geoff Brown remembers buying in flares and £20 of rotten tomatoes from the street market to throw at the NF. 'The stallholders could tell what we were up to!' Activists realised that some sort of deal had been struck between the police and the National Front, even though the terms only became clear after the event. John W was one of the young anti-fascists who attempted to prevent the National Front from marching. He remembers that no-one knew for certain the revised route of the demonstration. Anti-fascists therefore divided into three groups. The largest contingent of anti-fascists, marshalled by the SWP's national organiser Jim Nichol, headed for Stockport. Press information seemed to suggest that if there was going to be an Front march, then it would begin there. Another, smaller section of about 200 people remained in Hyde - in case the National Front attempted to march there. Another group, of about the same number, waited in Manchester town centre. They were to be kept in reserve - in case either of the other two contingents were caught out.
These three groups of anti-fascists were to have very different experiences. The first group of comrades in Stockport found themselves waiting for a march that did not appear. Roger was then in his early twenties, and a student at Salford University. This is how he remembers the protest, the 'SWP and other groups gathered at the Town Hall, but it was very much a cat and mouse affair as the planned NF march was re-routed and most of the afternoon was spent with groups of anti-NF demonstrators scouring Stockport being tracked overhead by police helicopters and on the ground by police squads. Eventually the NF march was discovered but [it was] very well protected by police lines and from where I was there was little which happened.'
The second group were no more successful. In Hyde, Martin Webster of the National Front conducted a one-man march, defended over 2,500 officers (similar numbers were employed at each of the predicted flashpoints - with one newspaper estimating the total police presence at an extraordinary 9,000 officers). As he walked, nervous and sweating past the distant jeers of the protesters, it must have occurred to him that rarely in the history of public order have so few people owed so much to so many. Without the police to protect him, his 'march' could not have begun. Ramula Patel of the Asian Youth Movement walked in front of him the whole way with a placard, saying 'This man is a Nazi'. Anti-fascists were able to heckle Webster and disrupt his parade, but could not prevent such a large contingent of police officers from demonstrating. Declan, a rail worker from Longsight SWP was also involved in the clashes at Hyde. 'I got within twenty yards of Webster at one point. He didn't look much like a Führer to me.'
The third group of anti-fascists - the reserve - found themselves in the thick of the action. Seven hundred members of the NF assembled in Levenshulme. They were dressed up for the day, several in paramilitary fatigues. According to the journalist from New Manchester Review, 'One or two NF marchers were warned by their escorts, but there were no arrests - for incitement or for the paramilitary uniforms. Even a refrain or two from a Simon and Garfunkel song, perverted as "I'd rather be a nigger than a jew" passed off without comment from the guardians of law and order.' By the time that the word came out that the fascists had assembled in Levenshulme, marching to central Manchester, it was too late for the Stockport contingent to prevent members of the Front from marching. Despite the disparity in numbers, the one-hundred-and-fifty or so anti-fascists in reserve attempted to block the Front. There were scuffles through Levenshulme and along Kirkmanshulme Lane towards Belle Vue. But 'road diversions and well drilled marching columns of police four and five deep siphoned off the SWP column into an aimless tour of side roads.'
Owen was another student from Salford University. He had never been in a situation like this before, 'There were some NF and that was the first time I had seen the steel pointed Union Jack DMs and shaved heads up close. I had shoulder-length hair and was busy growing my first beard (like you do) when this NF guy made eye contact with me and shouted "you're the next Kevin Gateley, you're gonna die you long-haired communist bastard". Needless to say I found this quite disturbing and was somewhat nonplussed by the total indifference of the constabulary standing in between me and this guy.' One of Owen's friends, Rob, was a Young Liberal form Manchester. 'He managed to get in and talk to some of the NF as they were not all shaven haired thugs. He spoke to a couple of very confused older people who had been bussed in by the NF did not know what they were getting involved in. They expressed concern over urban decay, family of theirs who had been mugged by Blacks, unemployment etc'. In short, the National Front succeeded in holding their march. Their numbers were down. Anti-fascists harassed them and received good TV coverage. But the mood on the left was mixed. According to John W, 'Not even Oswald Mosley had managed to march through Manchester.'
Having praised Chief Constable James Anderton's decision to ban the original National Front demonstration, the local press was quite rightly outraged when they learned of his complicated deceit. The Stockport Express reported the anger of the local Labour group, and their desire to find out what the police operation had cost. 'Now that it is all over', recorded the New Manchester Review, 'the point has been well made that the events in Hyde and Levenshulme were organised not so much by the National Front, but by the police.' The Manchester Evening News was no more endeared to the police. Following a serious assault on one of their reporters, Peter Sharples, Dennis Ellam of the Daily Mail told the National Union of Journalists' newsletter, 'I have never, even during two years in Belfast, seen such displays of official aggression towards newspapermen.' Anderton ordered an internal inquiry. Bert Ellison of Tameside TUC sent round a circular letter listing fifteen complaints against the Manchester police, who had frisked anti-fascists, and detained people without arrest. Some officers had even illegally removed their identity-numbers so that they could not be subject to prosecution. Despite these and other protests, Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees declared his support for the police action.
Through the winter of 1977, attempts were made to set up a number of Anti-Nazi League groups in Manchester. SWP activists naturally wondered whether members of the existing anti-fascist committee would give their support. A meeting was held in the Hog's Head pub, to decide whether or not to back the ANL. One influential player was Maurice Ludmer, the editor of Searchlight. Graeme remembers Ludmer with fondness, 'Maurice was a firm part of the Labour movement. He was a Communist, and the President of Birmingham Trades Council. The people who initiated the Anti-Nazi League had to have Maurice's support.' Once word was out that Ludmer had given his backing to the League, then the existing activists in Manchester were always likely to follow his lead.
Another group formed about this time was a Longsight branch of the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. This group was established as a response to the successful NF march through South Manchester. According to Steve, 'Longsight / Levenshulme CARF was deliberately community based. A lot of time was spent in support of families under racist threat - whether from the NF or elsewhere - and not just responding to NF mobilisations This CARF was very involved in fighting state racism in terms of immigration laws. There were numerous campaigns, starting in the late 1970s, in defence of those threatened with deportation. The first was that of Nasira Begum.' Many of the local CARF activists came from a background in the direct action wing of the peace movement. Politically libertarian, they organised campaigns against the recruitment of soldiers for Northern Ireland. Activists also came from left parties and the Asian Youth Movement. For Steve, it was a surprisingly exciting milieu to work in after the frustrations of being a member of the International Marxist Group. 'It wasn't the big politics I had aspired to, but it was worthwhile We held huge organising meetings. We were clearing off the racist graffiti in the area. CARF had a lot of respect among Black people. You'd be approached in the street, people would open up a bit.'
Music Against the Nazis
Because the task facing Manchester ANL was greater than the task elsewhere, so the alliance had to be more imaginative and broader in the way that it worked. One conference from May 1978 acted as parliament for the movement. The list of speakers gives a sense of the breadth of the coalition that was mobilised. Steve spoke for the Manchester Law Centre, Dave Hollett for the Merseyside Anti-fascist Committee, Colin Barker for the Anti-Nazi League and Les Kay for the TGWU. Similar joint anti-fascist committees were represented with speakers from Longsight and Oldham. There were also speakers from the Campaign Against Racism in Education, Chile Solidarity, the Jewish Socialist Group, Manchester Gay Activists, the National Union of School Students, Socialist Unity, Tameside Trades Union Congress, Manchester Women and Socialism, and Dave Hallsworth spoke on behalf of a local branch of the engineering workers' union, the AUEW.
According to Geoff Brown, 'People need to learn the flexibility and imagination of what was going on.' One part of this was the decision to decentralise organisation - there was no single branch of the ANL that met in Manchester. 'We deliberately played down formal organisation. The phrase used was, "Lots of activity and few meetings."' Did people understand the League's style of organising? 'Lots of different left groups had difficulty in coping with this. They were used to long meetings, they thought that nothing could be sorted in an hour I remember one meeting in early '78. I said to a friend, if we go through things quickly, I'll be able to see the film on television at 9. Everything was discussed, and we reached the end of the agenda, so the meeting was closed. A whole bunch of people couldn't believe that the meeting was over, as if any meeting could be done that fast.' So what were local activists doing? In Levenshulme, the local Anti-Nazi League was faced with the problem that the youth group had been successfully infiltrated by members of the NF. 'We leafleted the whole area door-to-door. Then we called a meeting in the same club that they used to use. It was a very local meeting. We went from that meeting to a Saturday paint-out. We emphasised local involvement. If we wanted to remove some graffiti, we made sure to ask the people in the local shop if they would help.' Different elements of the Anti-Nazi League worked in various campaigns, 'A large part of it was wearing and selling the badges. For some groups it was almost all they did. By summer '78 you couldn't walk through Manchester without seeing loads of ANL badges. There were so many people in the movement. That and the Carnival destroyed the NF in Manchester.'
As elsewhere in Britain, one means chosen to undercut racism was punk music. A Carnival was announced for 15 July 1978, and local activists worked to build it as big as possible. They wanted to win as wide a backing as possible from the formal structures of the trade union movement. One target was the Northwest Trades Union Congress. Colin Barnett, the regional secretary, was a Christian Socialist. Francis Deane, the secretary of Manchester Trades Council was a prominent member of the Communist Party, which was still mainly hostile to the Anti-Nazi League in Manchester. But several members of the League knew these leading figures, and contact was established through Colin Barker. According to Geoff Brown, the core of the united front in Manchester was practical agreement between the SWP and Colin Barnett. 'He was a NUPE official, ambitious, he wanted to be an MP. The CP deferred to him. We was a workaholic, a Methodist lay preacher. We were the unruly element. Yet he also recognised that you couldn't have an effective force without us. In return for his co-operation, he insisted on regular meetings with us.' Eventually, the Northwest TUC gave its support, and posters were put out under its name. The Northern Carnival was timed to coincide with a bye-election in Moss Side. The New Manchester Review was again generous in its coverage of the event - running interviews with local activists, and reggae band Steel Pulse, who were the headline act. 'The umbrella of the Anti-Nazi League thus embraces an almost unheard of cross-section; from the Church to the Communist Party, trade unions to the Tories, an alliance that is heart-warming in its camaraderie. Obviously the political groups of the left hope that an increased political awareness will result and that their support will increase, but such considerations are buried beneath an uncommon unity of purpose.'
'After the Carnival', according to John W, 'things were much easier. Some of the NF's periphery went to the Carnival. We could see them talking to people, dancing. After the summer of 1978 they were not a threat.' Geoff Brown agrees. 'At the Carnival, there were kids from every single school in Manchester. These kids would then go back into the school and say "Where were you?" to the local Nazi. After the July Carnival, there was no Nazi presence of any kind in central Manchester. Even now, they organise in places like Oldham. They're still cared to come back.'
Rock Against Racism established a separate group in Manchester at around this time. For these young anti-racists, Eric Clapton was a more immediate target than John Tyndall. One of the first leaflets was sharp in its criticisms of the official music scene, 'BLUES/SOUL/REGGAE/JAZZ/ROCK Have something in common, they were developed or were influenced by Black music, a music which developed out of struggle and oppression. Now white musicians, grown wealthy from exploiting music which has a direct descent from the blues, abuses the positions given them to their listeners.' What did the members of Manchester Anti-Nazi League make of Rock Against Racism? According to Graeme, there was a certain distance between Manchester ANL and RAR. 'It was something different. Ninety percent of the people who went were punks. They had safety pins, torn clothes and technicolour hair. We didn't quite fit into that.' Mike is more favourable, 'Rock Against Racism pulled people in ... The National Front had to appeal to a very limited set of ideas. Rock Against Racism used music first. Once you had linked the kids in, you could raise political questions.'
The Heavy Mob
Graeme remembers that the most militant Anti-Nazi League activists 'came from within the labour movement, dockers, miners, construction workers. As rank-and-file militants, they were outstanding.' Which unions provided the most activists? One Anti-Nazi League conference was backed by Dave Moreland, a prominent activist within the Communist Party and among the construction workers. Mike recalls that a disproportionate number came from one small engineering union, the CEU, which was Sam Wild's union. Bernard Regan, a Communist from the main engineering union was another who gave his backing. 'He always used to end his speeches, no matter what the demand was, saying that "if we don't get this demand, the result will be fascism." Maybe he could be a bit reductionist - but his support for the movement was useful!'
Some of the local activists who helped to build the Anti-Nazi League came from the Communist Party, but generally the party leadership in Manchester was unwilling to work with the young movement. Why was there such hostility? According to Mike, it was an extension of the hostile attitude which the Communist Party had always manifested toward rival left-wing traditions. 'All of us in the movement were dissident Marxists - dissidents who had been within the International Marxist Group, the Communist Party or the Socialist Labor League. You've got to remember who you're talking about, the Manchester engineers. If these working-class militants were tainted with Trotskyism - all the Communist Party's mis-education about Trotskyism would fall aside.'
The strength of anti-fascism within the trade unions was tested when Anthony Jones started work at Manchester Town Hall. Jones was a full-time organiser for the National Front, and by taking the job he was clearly hoping for a fight. Anti-fascists first campaigned to have Jones sacked. 'He was an infestation officer', Mike recalls, 'but he was never sent out.' For once, his memory is out - Jones was a member of the Council's Environmental Department, but his task was to enforce the Shops Act. He was no doubt acting in this capacity, when he wrote to the Jewish Telegraph, explaining that the NF was a legal party and could not therefore be responsible for attacks on Jewish property. Anthony Jones continued his letter, advising Jewish people not to take the 'side of political organisations with whom they would rather have nothing to do under normal circumstances.' The Manchester City Labour Party voted by 24 to 20 that Jones should be sacked, but the councillors responsible for the Environmental Health Committee would not act.
When it became clear that the council were not going to sack Jones, anti-fascists began a new campaign to have him isolated instead by his workmates. According to Mike, 'He would attempt to put resolutions about Ireland, through the council union meetings. We attacked him for that, but not just Ireland, for everything he stood for. Once or twice he was shouted down, not by the left, but by ordinary council workers, by popular acclaim.' Manchester ANL also organised a dance at the West Indian Centre to focus attention on Anthony Jones. The first hundred people who showed up were given a special badge, 'I jigged against Jones.' Later the fascist was moved to new work as an infestation officer. This was a dirty, unpleasant task, and anti-fascists interpreted the move as a victory.
In easier times, such behaviour may appear intrusive. But there was every difference between the violence of the National Front, and the counter-violence of the left. For one thing, the violence had different targets. The Front deliberately took their members on drunken, racist stampedes - attacking young Black or Asian people without discrimination. When anti-fascists responded to this violence, they only ever targeted active members of the Front, people who had chosen to put themselves into the fray, knowing all the risks already. In addition, the hostility had different origins. The National Front were the ones who introduced violence as a political weapon, and anti-fascists were compelled to respond. It is also true that for every instance of left-wing intimidation against the right, there were a dozen examples of fascist aggression against the left. Graeme's face is still scarred by beatings he took from supporters of the National Front. As for Mike, he remembers a different kind of intimidation, 'I worked in the libraries then. The fascists would send letters to the Chief Librarian, trying to get me sacked. The council kept a close eye on me. Even my post out was scrutinised.'
By the summer of 1978, it was clear that the NF had ceased to grow in Manchester, in fact the local Front group was in retreat. In that year's council elections, six National Front candidates received just 81, 139, 91, 103, 97 and 125 votes - a fall from five per cent of the vote in 1977 to just two per cent one year later, where they stood. Members of the North Manchester Campaign Against Racism suggested that 'It is perhaps just as well that this motley crew of rabid racists doesn't believe in a democratic society.' Licking its wounds after the defeat of the Carnival, the Front prepared to retreat. Following a pattern established in earlier years, attention now moved from the centre to the periphery. The National Front already had a network of contacts, thinly spread across the region. As well as Liverpool and Manchester, the Front also had members in smaller towns, including Rochdale, Blackburn and Accrington. The city of Manchester itself became a less important focus, and the street conflicts dispersed across the region.
After Autumn 1977, the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists was at its sharpest in the smaller towns across the region. An election meeting held in Accrington in November 1977 ended in clashes between sixty-or-so anti-racists and a similar number of fascists. The local fascist candidate, David Riley, was employed in the accounts department of the British Aircraft Corporation. Coming from a very Conservative background, Riley may have appealed to local Tories. Certainly his speeches were reported verbatim in the local press, which was unusual for an NF candidate. In January 1978, a secret pact between Labour and Tory councillors ensured that a planned NF meeting in Bolton Town Hall passed through the council without discussion. Lawrence Cunliffe, deputy leader of the Labour group, resigned in protest. Also that month, activists learned that Tameside Council had again agreed to loan their Town Hall to the Front. That meeting was held on 26 January. The Bulletin of the North Manchester Campaign Against Racism reported that two thousand anti-racists protested outside, while two hundred supporters of the National Front met inside, and two thousand two hundred police were required to keep the meeting open.
The Bolton meeting was held on 10 February, culminating in further brawls. Three thousand five hundred anti-racists joined the picket, and succeeded in outnumbering 2000 police. Sadly, the contest did not go with the numbers. Traffic was searched, anti-fascists had their names and addresses taken. Outside the Town Hall, 20 mounted policemen were used to charge the protesters. Anti-fascists were held back for several hours after the NF had left. Eighteen anti-racists were arrested under public order statutes and charged without access to a solicitor. NORMANCAR estimated that the costs of policing three NF events in October 1977, January and February 1978, must have been over £250,000. Journalists from CARF observed that at the Bolton meeting, Chief Constable James 'Anderton got a reception from the anti-fascists that is only reserved for the likes of Tyndall or Webster.' Anderton was in plain clothes, and his explanation for the embarrassing outburst was that demonstrators must have thought he was a member of the National Front. 'Such a lot of trouble telling them apart these days!', one demonstrator thought.
Greg, a Big Flame activist from Manchester, took part in the Bolton events. He was impressed by 'how well organised and sophisticated' the local activists were. 'I remember one large protest, there we were all packed on the steps of the town hall, shouting against the fascists. But all around, people were watching us, and frankly most of them can't have had any idea of what the row was about. Eileen Murphy had the presence of mind to make a speech, explaining to all the passers-by, what exactly was going on. I was struck by what a different perspective it was. Most of the time we would confront the NF, but if you just take on the fascists, and no one else understands why you're doing it, you're not going anywhere. I later found out that she was a playwright, and that made sense to me. It was a different way of looking at the campaign.' Greg was also struck by the level of military technology available to the Bolton police, helicopters, horses and infra-red cameras were all employed in the police struggle against anti-fascism. Without the NF becoming a major force, the process of state repression was already under way.
From spring 1978, the conflict entered into a new period of local skirmishes. Anti-fascist from Bury spent most of their time picketing football matches in Tameside, where the NF enrolled a 'Lily-white' team in a local league. On one occasion, the Front were able to bring 150 supporters to defend their team. Anti-fascists were attacked, and their leaflets stolen The paper membership of the ANL was impressive. In 1978, Geoff Brown was able to draw up a list of local groups. There were Anti-Nazi League branches in Bolton, Bury, Stockport and Cheadle, Eccles, Heywood and Prestwich, as well as workers Against the Nazis groups for Crumpsall Hospital Workers, Manchester Teachers, Council Workers, Polytechnic Lecturers and Withington Hospital Workers. Tameside CARF was affiliated to the League, as was Longsight Anti-Fascist Committee and Salford Anti-Fascist Committee. Another set of groups including MANCAR, Middelton AFC and NWCAR, were sympathetic. Yet the tendency was for activists to return to their first political home. Activity dropped, while passive support remained high.
'There wasn't any big event', as far as Graeme remembers, 'We'd driven them out of the centre of Manchester. Next it was Oldham, Rochdale, Bury. By 1979, these fights wouldn't even make it into the local press. The NF was old hat, out of the news.' He recalls a succession of stop-start protests, all with the aim of preventing local Front groups from selling their papers. 'People would phone you up. Quite often by the time you got there, the fascists were gone. They weren't too much up for it.' The NF experienced two years of decline, 'They were broken by Thatcher, they were broken at a local level by quite militant anti-fascism. There were all sorts of internal divisions, between the National Front Constitutional Movement, and the New National Front. They had a base of activists, and tried to keep going, but slowly wound down.'
On Merseyside, fascism was less of an immediate threat than it was elsewhere in the region. Yet there was a similar pattern to events in Manchester, in that groups of anti-racists and anti-fascists had been working away since at least the early 1970s. 'People had been working with the North west Anti-fascist Committee for several years', Tom of Big Flame remembers, 'and we sent six coaches from Liverpool to the Blackburn demo in 1976.' One important campaign was the movement to defend Gias Uddin, a local 19 year old restaurant worker, who was accused of having migrated to Britain under false pretences. 'Fishing' for illegal immigrants, the police found a letter addressed to Gias Uddin as 'Salik Miah', not knowing or deliberately forgetting that Bangladeshi people often have two names. In the words of one campaign leaflet, 'it is not exceptional for the Asian community to be raided, detained without trial and deported because the State claims to know better than parents who their sons and daughters are.'
The original umbrella organisation in Liverpool was the Merseyside Anti-fascist Committee. From this source sprang two separate, but allied groups, Merseyside Anti-Nazi League and Merseyside Anti-Racialist Alliance (MARA), both of which emerged in early 1978. There was a speaker from MANL at the first MARA meeting - and vice versa. The public personalities associated with MARA included Eric Lynch, Rashid Mufti, and Gideon Ben-Tovim, then an active member of the local Communist Party, later leader of the New Labour group on Liverpool Council. MARA also received the backing of the Community Relations Council, the Trades Council, the District Labour Party, the Tory Reform Group, Methodist Youth Centre, the Students Association, Wirral and Deeside Anti-Fascist Committee, Jewish Socialist Group, the Communist Party, the International Marxist Group, the National Association for Multi-Racial Education and the National Council for Civil Liberties. But an organisation which had no enemies sometimes lacked friends - when numbers were required on the streets, Merseyside ANL played a crucial role.
As early as autumn 1977, and perhaps in response to the events at Lewisham in South London, Liverpool Council's Policy and Finance Committee banned racist marches through the city. But there was as yet little need to enforce the ban. There was one National Front branch on Merseyside, but it was weaker than the group in Manchester, and many of the people who sold National Front News were in fact members of the rival British Movement led by Michael McLaughlin. Members of this latter group were jailed in 1979 for desecrating Liverpool's Jewish Cemetery. Perhaps this weakness illustrates a general point. The National Front was keen to ally itself with the various Loyalist factions in Northern Ireland - they had the numbers, arms, and the profile that the British group lacked. Yet those cities in Britain where religious sectarianism was strongest (including Glasgow, Belfast and Liverpool), were not generally home to strong National Front branches.
There were other ways in which Liverpool was unlike Manchester. Housing was more segregated. Around seven percent of the Liverpool population of 520,000 was non-white, a decent share, but years of segregated housing meant that sixty-three percent of the Black population lived in just four council wards, Granby, Arundel, Abercromby and Smithdown. People who lived outside Liverpool 8 could go years without seeing a single Black face. Typically, of course, racism thrives not in the areas with a high ethnic population (there people tend to live together, and also get on), but in the neighbouring districts. In addition, Liverpool politics were still marked by the strong traditions of militant trade unionism, which had been so important through the 1970s. There was nothing inevitable about the process, but people were brought up in a culture which emphasised the ways in which the state oppressed the local population. This feeling encouraged a certain identification with other marginalised groups. The sectional militancy found in the local factories and on the docks could perhaps co-exist with soft racism, but not with open fascism. For both these reasons the worst racism tended to be found in the middle-class areas, not inner-city Liverpool, but Chester, New Brighton and Southport.
There are few materials left from the conflicts in Liverpool, and it is now quite difficult to establish that the Front took part in any public activities on Merseyside at all. Surviving anti-fascists remember a tight knot of Nazis, including John Fishwick of Wallasey, the Hughes brothers, and John Blissett. Yet even at the height of their national prominence, the NF failed to recruit many members beyond this small core of hardened racists. The Front did stand in a bye-election in Vauxhall in 1978, winning less than 100 votes. There were also various attacks on Liverpool's Progressive Books, which were most blamed on the fascists. In February 1979, a representative from the National Front told Radio City that it would stand in three seats in the coming election. Shortly afterwards the NF held an election rally, which ended in chaos, as someone had cut the lights. In April, MARA and the Anti-Nazi League organised a joint protest outside a National Front meeting in New Brighton, with up to one thousand people taking part in the protest.
There were School Kids Against the Nazis groups in five schools across Merseyside, and SKAN members sold badges at the park end at Everton. Anti-racism in Liverpool meant protests, pickets outside NF-identified pubs, writers' workshops, and Rock Against Racism gigs. The largest of these was organised for September 1978 in Walton Hall Park. One local paper Black Links took up the story of what happened next:
Walton residents and a few Tory councillors tried to ban the concert (are they racists or do they just hate to see the kids enjoy themselves?), fearing that we would wreck the park, terrorise the old ladies, and frighten the cats, their complaints, however, wilted in the warm September sun as 5,000 people listened peacefully to eight groups rock against racism ... People came to hear the music but also to declare their rejection of racism. There speeches from MARA, ANL and RAR and plenty of leafleting. Nobody is saying that all the white kids came because they were convinced anti-racists or that they were suddenly converted to anti-racism as a result of the concert. But at least they listened, they wanted to be counted among the anti-racists and they wanted to declare their disgust at the racism of the National Front.
Albie was a member of the SWP's youth group, Rebel. His anti-racism went back to experiences in school, and especially his friendship with Joe, the toughest kid in his class. 'My dad was a docker and Joe's was a fitter.' One year, a number of Black kids were introduced into the lower years of the school. Some members of their class even called themselves Nazis for a week or two, before getting bored of the label. Albie and Joe were in the fifth form, and were among the only people who stood up consistently for the new arrivals. 'That was the only thing we heard about the Nazis until we joined the party.' It was after the anti-fascist mobilisation at Lewisham in autumn 1977 that they signed up.
I was part of a gang of about 20 people, scallies really. Two or three of us joined the SWP, then the rest of us signed up. Lewisham had a real impact on me. We were looking for a left group to join. On the telly it said that the SWP were the boot-boys of the left, and we were boot-boys, in Liverpool. We said we'll have a bit of this.
How important was Anti-Nazi League activity in the city? 'There were only about four Nazis in Liverpool - they were a very tight-knit group, but with no periphery. Sometimes one of the gangs round where we lived would decide they were Nazis, and fight us for a week or two, but there wasn't anything to it.' Not everyone in the region managed to get off so lightly. For another young Anti-Nazi League supporter, living in Chester, the late 1970s was a much harder time. His local group were caught up in a series of fights with the NF. 'The worst think was walking home one night and seeing a huge piece of graffiti, "Richard Atkinson must die" - and I thought, "fuck, that's me!".'
Ronnie, another ANL member in the region, was then working as an upholsterer in central Liverpool. Having drifted in and out of the SWP, he was happy to join the Anti-Nazi League as soon as he heard about it. 'In 1978, I was getting off a bus on Childwall Valley Road when Charlotte Anderson, now in the Labour Party I understand, asked me about an anti-racist badge I was wearing and invited me to an ANL disco they were having at Woolton Labour Club. Needless to say I went along and joined.' The ANL Bulletin was produced by a printer from the local left group Big Flame. The two largest ANL branches on Merseyside were Kirkby and Netherly. The former group was mostly composed of SWP members, the latter linked more closely to the local Labour Party. Some of this connection was accidental - the ANL used Labour Party rooms in Netherly to hold socials. When their presence was questioned, several activists joined Labour to prevent any ban being passed. Once in the Labour Party, they remained.
For the most part, the Netherly branch were inactive, but one member deserves mention. He was a Labour Party member who was fifty years old, Stan Clare. He hated fascism with a hatred which I could only imagine. He thought nothing of steaming into a fight with lads less than half his age. He had no fear. Another bloke was Dave Hollett who lived on the Wirral. His wife was a good'un too. He always brought his kids along as well. He was in the Jewish Socialist League, although he was not Jewish himself.
What comes out of Ronnie's memory of the local branch, is the sheer diversity of the anti-racist movement. Every local brand of socialism was involved within Liverpool Anti-Nazi League, not just different political traditions, but different styles of left-wing politics as well:
Maria [O'Reilly] started a Writer's Workshop which produced several booklets of poems and short stories. We affiliated with the Worker Writers Federation and teamed up with the Red Star writers workshop from the CP social club in Shaw Street. They had a young Jimmy McGovern in membership. There was also the Liverpool 8 writers workshop who had Dave Evans. He had to leave South Africa after carrying out acts of sabotage
Liverpool's Communists were perhaps more involved in the group than their counterparts elsewhere in the region, as Ronnie recalls. 'Eric Lynch was a CP member. One night, his son and his friends had been attacked by a group of fascists for no reason. A demo was organised quite quickly. The police near crapped themselves. The police estimate was 5,000 marchers, so draw your own conclusions about the real figure. The march ended at Pier Head with speeches from Bob Parry, Eric Lynch, Bob Wareing and a Chilean folk group who were in exile.' The local Anti-Nazi League also involved Alf Cottrell and Colin McGuire from the Irish Republican Socialist Party, as well as members of the Indian Workers' Association. The League organised gigs and paint-outs, discos at the Caribbean centre, and showed several films - including a World in Action film about the National Front, and another film about the Grunwick strike.
Clearly, the League was able to mobilise a very broad layer of activists. After 1978, members of the Anti-Nazi League could call on support from the local Trades Council. This body was still meeting regularly in the Everyman theatre, typically pulling well over a hundred people to its meetings. But the Socialist Workers Party members and allies who moved affiliation to the Anti-Nazi League faced the traditional hostility of a Communist bloc, which rejected all previous motions linked to themselves or other Trotskyist parties. What swung the Trades Council was the NF attack which sparked the big march to Pier Head. According to Albie, everything changed round after that, 'You can't imagine how surprised people were. It gave us a lot of leeway to build on.'
If the history of anti-fascism in Manchester is about set-piece battles, then the story in Liverpool is different. On Merseyside, the League devoted much of its energy to raising money for transport to anti-racist events, much to propaganda against fascism. There was no need to organise any more substantial campaign than that. Yet there are other ways in which the story was more familiar. In Liverpool as elsewhere, different pubs and venues were associated with different political groups. For example, the punk venue Eric's was a natural home of the left. Albie remembers Eric's as a tolerant, free space, 'The music that was played when no bands was on was heavy dub, the DJ had a mission to get people onto reggae. There was no way that the Nazis were going to get anywhere there.' Members of the Front might get slightly more hearing at the Swinging Apple, which Albie remembers as a 'real dive'. There were also left- and right-identified pubs.
One consistent flash-point was Church Street. The left traditional sold their newspapers here on the weekend. From summer 1979, a small group of fascists made an attempt to sell there every Saturday. Anti-fascists determined to stop them. Ronnie remembers the battles. 'It lasted for about six weeks. A group of us would meet in the Shakespeare, about twenty or thirty people. Then we confronted them. First off, they used to run away. After that, we had to steam in. Sometimes they'd kick off. One fella of there's was an ex-para, and very handy. But after he'd been knocked down, they didn't come back.' Although Ronnie remembers the street-fighting as decisive, the truth was probably more mundane. After a month of attempting to take this pitch, the Front were still unable to mobilise more than four or five people on their side. Faced with the evidence of their own failure to build, the Liverpool fascists gave up the fight.
So the key to the success of the League on Merseyside, was the same as it was everywhere else. Where the alliance was large, popular and confident, where it turned people out in sufficient numbers, in those areas the National Front ran out of energy, and was unable to push through the barrier of sustained opposition. The Anti-Nazi League in Liverpool was as varied and colourful as the left at its very best. Certainly the combined effect of all this activity - in Manchester, Liverpool, and across the region - was such to ensure that local fascist groups were forced onto the defensive and then into decline.