Welcome
Anti Nazi League
Research
Hegemon press
Books
Socialist history
Journalism
Biography
Migration
Media
Trade unionism
Family History
Links
Search
Sitemap
Feedback

'The Part Played by Labour': working-class anti-fascism in 1945-51 and 1974-9

These two post-war campaigns against fascism represent some of the largest protest movements that Britain has ever seen.  The first campaign started with a trade union-based protest against the release of Oswald Mosley from detention in 1943.  After 1945, with Mosley at large, former supporters of the British Union of Fascists attempted to organise street meetings to raise the profile of a series of fascist groups.  Protests included letters sent in to the Home Secretary by trade union branches and individual anti-fascists, calling for a ban on Mosley's new supporters.  There were street-level demonstrations against Mosley, organised by groups such as the militant Jewish anti-fascists of the Forty-Three Group.[i]  There were public meetings, called by the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women.  Political parties, including Labour, the Communist Party (CP) and others to the left also organises against the threat.  The activity of the anti-fascist is not a complete explanation of the failure of Mosley's Union Movement.  Clearly, there were other factors that contributed to the defeat of the fascists.  The legacy of the war and a growing (if till incomplete) consciousness of the events of the Holocaust forced fascism onto the defensive.  The ending of the British presence in Palestine in 1948 also meant that there was no longer a wellspring of popular anti-Semitism on which fascists could draw.  Yet the activity of many thousands anti-fascists undoubtedly contributed to the demoralisation of many of Mosley's key activists, including Mosley himself, who left Britain in 1951 promising never to return.

            The second campaign was of similar size.  It reached its height during the decline of the 1974-9 Labour government.  The far-right National Front received 119,000 votes in the May 1977 Greater London Council elections, and almost quarter of a million votes in local elections, nationally.  During this period, the Front claimed to have up to 20,000 members, while it had the money and the resources to distribute five million leaflets each year.  The NF stood 413 candidates in local elections in 1977, and promised to stand 318 candidates in the 1979 General Election.[ii]  National Front activity often took place at football grounds or in workplaces.  It was closely associated with racist violence.  Anti-fascist responded with an extraordinary range of local initiatives.  The single largest campaign, the Anti-Nazi League, counted fifty local Labour Parties among its affiliates, along with 30 branches of the engineering workers' union the AUEW, 25 trades councils, 13 shop stewards committees, 11 NUM lodges, and similar numbers of branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE.[iii]  Between 1977 and 1979, around nine million Anti-Nazi League leaflets were distributed and 750,000 badges sold.  Around 250 ANL branches mobilised some 40,000 to 50,000 members.  On the strength of individual donations, the League raised £600,000 between 1977 and 1980.  Meanwhile, the work of the League was complemented by the activity of Rock Against Racism (RAR).  In 1978 alone, RAR organised 300 gigs and five carnivals.[iv]  Probably around half a million people were involved in anti-racist activity, joining demonstrations, handing out leaflets or painting out graffiti. 

            The purpose of this paper is first of all to draw attention to working-class involvement in these campaigns.  This contribution has been defined deliberately narrowly.  The emphasis here is on trade union involvement.  That is not to say that other forms of working-class contributions were insignificant.  It would be just as feasible to emphasise the role of community activism based on working-class districts, or the role of particular women's groups often with a strong socialist-feminist or working-class tinge.  Yet trade union activity is a particular indicator of class involvement, a sign that any campaign was not just rooted on the edges of working-class experience, but involved some of the central organisations.  Taking such a method also enables us to avoid important but tangled definitions of class location and consciousness.  Faced with the involvement of an occupational group such as the Amalgamated Engineers' Union or Miners Against Nazis, it would be hard for anyone to quibble that these were anything other than groups of working-class origin.

            Second this activity is examined critically.  Emphasis is placed on the contradictions of the two campaigns, especially the complex relationship between activists and the leadership of the Labour Party.  Both campaigns took place while Labour governments were in office.  Each originated with activists critical of Labour, often organised in far-left parties (including the Communist Party in 1945-51 and the Socialist Workers Party in 1974-9).  On both occasions, people from such backgrounds attempted to work in close alliance with other activists, from the trade union and Labour party mainstream.  Such alliances always had the potential to break down under the pressure of the different strategies of those involved and given the different interests represented by rival traditions.  Alongside motives for fractiousness, there were also impulses towards unity.  The chief of these was the threat represented by the right.  As long as that continued, the alliances tended to hold.  Yet strong or weak, both campaigns raised the question of whether Labour was responding to its roots?

 

All political bodies without discrimination

 

One indication of the nature of the postwar campaign against Oswald Mosley is the collection of letters and petitions, numbering some 302 items all told, collected by the Home Office between January 1945 and December 1948, and now deposited with the Public Records Office at Kew in London.[v]  This material has already been analysed in some depth elsewhere,[vi] this paper just summarise those findings.  In general, the material must be used wit some caution.  We might expect it to reflect the uneven geographical distribution of the fascist campaign.  There would also have been political pressures from the left and right influencing the desire of anti-fascists to express themselves or not.  It also seems from the notes on these files that many of the original documents have been lost.[vii]  Despite these drawbacks, this sample remains the best single source of information on the background and nature of the anti-fascist movement.  Signing a letter of protest was just about the minimum activity that might have been taken by someone opposed to the threat of fascism.  It could be possible to look at other evidence, such as arrest figures or membership files.  Yet such records would tend to draw attention primarily to the most active individuals.  The distribution of letters points more closely to the rank-and-file of the campaign.

            The items include 90 letters from individual trade union branches, 14 letters from co-operatives or branches of the Co-operative Party, 21 petitions, and so on.  Twelve were letters from town meetings, 27 were trade union motions sent by trades councils and stewards' bodies, 106 were individual letters, 46 items were motions passed by political parties, resident's associations, debating societies and the like.  Even this brief summary makes it clear that working-class organisations were the one group most likely to protest.  Of the 302 letters and other items, one third came from trade union branches and districts.  If we were to add the letters from groups of workers and socialist organisations, from tenants' associations and from individuals rooted in working-class campaigns, the proletarian aspect would represent a clear majority.  Yet while working-class bodies did take full part in the campaign, middle-class and popular front anti-fascists were obvious by their absence.  There were no letters or motions from branches of the National Council of Civil Liberties, no petitions of churchmen, no expressions of outrage from Liberal MPs.  Only two student bodies sent protests, Ruskin College, and the pupils of the Princeton School of Languages.[viii]

            Shop stewards' organisations or trades councils passed several motions.  Hounslow Trades Council called a joint meeting with Heston and Isleworth Labour Party, and other 'social, political and religious' organisations to discuss how fascism could be beaten.  Birmingham Trades Council went further.  As well as calling for a ban, the council sent a circular letter to local unions asking their members to keep an eye out for fascist activities, and proposed setting up a Birmingham 'anti-fascist league'.[ix]

            There were of course obstacles facing the campaign.  While many of those who sent letters were individual members of the Labour Party or affiliate members, through their union, few felt much identification with the national government's strategies for limiting fascism.  Their main complaint was that no obvious strategy could be found.  The Home Secretary Chuter Ede opposed any purge of fascists from the Civil Service (while sanctioning a purge of suspected Communists).  He opposed police actions to prevent inflammatory speeches, or to harass the right.  In particular, he refused to support any new legislation outlawing racism or fascism.  It was this refusal in particular that sparked the anti-fascist campaign.

Of all the correspondence recorded in the files, the most heated took place between Julius Jacobs of the London Trades Council and Chuter Ede.  Jacobs initially wrote in April 1946, forwarding a motion calling upon the government 'to make all forms of fascist activity illegal'.  Ede replied two weeks later, arguing that 'this would be a restriction of the wide freedom of opinion, enjoyed by all political bodies without discrimination, which has contributed greatly to the development of healthy democratic public life'.  Jacobs asked 'whether or not that ... is the opinion of HM Government?'  Ede insisted that it was.  In July, Jacobs suggested that the matter at stake was not whether the law should be extended, 'but rather whether or not organisations propagating fascism can rightly be considered as political bodies who should enjoy the wide freedom of expression of opinion without discrimination?'  Finally, four weeks later, Chuter Ede brought the discussion to an end, insisting that the government saw no need to take any further steps against fascism.[x]

            The issue raised by this exchange, the question of how working-class activists responded to the actions of 'their' party in power, is discussed more fully later in this paper.

 

Rail, school, firefighters

 

Turning now to the equivalent campaign in the 1970s, one is struck by the same quality of working-class participation that characterised the anti-fascist movement.[xi]  In November 1978, for example, Bill Dunn of the Communist Party of Great Britain, wrote an article for the Morning Star reporting on successes of anti-fascists, including members of the Anti-Nazi League, in winning the support of trade unionists for their campaign.  Twenty trade union executive committees had voted to back the League.  Six hundred trade union and workplace organisations were 'in direct contact' with the ANL.  'Among them are ANL groups working in massive factories like British Leyland Longbridge or Fords of Dagenham, Yorkshire miners, civil servants and local government'.  Bill Keys, general secretary of the print union SOGAT, had addressed anti-Nazi rallies in Northern England, as well as marches in London.  There were also Anti-Nazi League blocs among the print workers of Fleet Street, and among technicians and journalists working on television.[xii]

In Preston, the fire-fighters union and the postal workers' union backed the League, as did the joint shop stewards' committee at Leyland motors.  The convenor at Leyland's Len Brindle backed the ANL.  In Nottingham, the League received support from the white-collar union ASTMS, and the teachers union.  One of the most important members of the League in the city was Don Devin, an activist within the National Union of Hosiery and Knitworkers.  In Manchester, supporters included FBU members from New Mills Fire Station.  Elsewhere, the technicians' union ACTT worked with the League in arguing that the National Front's broadcasts should be banned.  One journalist Francis Wheen rang Alan Sapper, general secretary of the ACTT to suggest that such disruptive action would only make martyrs of the NF.  'Democracy is threatened', Sapper replied, 'We don't need to bother with philosophical arguments.  We can discuss democracy until the concentration camps come in.'[xiii]

Some workplace ANL groups were little more than a badge, while others were able to establish an occasional paper or magazine.  The latter included Rail Against the Nazis, members of the rail union RMT, ASLEF and TSSA.  Their banner showed a high speed train knocking over gang of Nazis.  Members of Kings Cross ASLEF initially set up the branch.  One member of this union branch, Leno Carraro was arrested at Lewisham in 1977.  The branch took great pleasure in paying his fine.  When the ANL was established, a leading steward Steve Forey took a petition around his colleagues in the branch.  Badges were sold and stickers put up.  Forty people attended a meeting in the depot, to establish a local group.  Members of the Kings Cross branch took part in protests against the National Front at Brick Lane.  This activity then led to the formation of a national network.  John Robson from Wood Green was a key activist in this campaign.  'One day, I put up a poster saying that at the next meeting we would affiliate to the Anti-Nazi League.  About fifty people came, and there was a big row, but we affiliated.  After that the branch never looked back.'[xiv]

One industry were this support was especially important was education.  The Front made a series of attempts to recruit school kids, culminating in the publication of a Young National Front paper, Bulldog.  In response, the ANL dedicated resources to the formation of Skaters' and School Kids' sections.  SKAN had its own 16-page magazine.  Featuring  interviews with reggae bands like Steel Pulse or poems from Leon Rosselson.[xv]  The group Teachers Against the Nazis wrote education packs against racism and fascism, establishing a tradition of anti-racist education that would continue at least into the 1990s.  An ANL teachers' conference was held in Manchester in May 1978, with John Rowbotham speaking for the NUT.[xvi]  The follow-up conference in June 1979 was organised under the banner of Campaign Against Racism in Education.  Speakers included a school student from Soweto and A. Sivanandan of Race and Class.[xvii]  The first National Education Conference of Teachers Against the Nazis took place on 23 September 1978, the day before the second Carnival.  Many speakers were long-term anti-fascists, including Maurice Ludmer the editor of Searchlight and Joan Lestor the Labour MP.  Yet alongside traditional anti-fascism there was also space for a discussion of the broader issues of racism in education, with workshops on 'Asian Girls in Schools' and 'Why Schools fail the Black Community'.  As well as teachers, other white-collar workers contributed.  Following a National Front arson attack on the Anti-Nazi League headquarters in London, the Civil Service Union gave a one-off grant of five hundred pounds to the League, to pay for repairs.[xviii]  Ten national trade unions voted to back the League, and several more were assisted the anti-racist campaign.[xix]

            In February 1979, two hundred people attended a Miners Against the Nazis conference, held in Barnsley.  Speakers included Arthur Scargill, Jonathon Dimbelby, Paul Holborow and Alex Biswas.[xx]  It has often been said that members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) dominated the Anti-Nazi League.  For example, Richard Thurlow writes, 'the decline of the NF was partially due to the successful undermining of it by the Anti-Nazi League.  When the latter itself was blatantly taken over by the Socialist Workers Party the organisation folded as the bulk of the membership refused to tolerate being controlled by a notorious factional hard-line Trotskyist group.'[xxi]  The SWP did indeed play an important role in sponsoring and initiating a campaign.  Yet the movement could not have grown without the support of rival left-wing forces.  The SWP could count several dozen supporters in the mines, but not hundreds.  The turnout seen in February 1979 could only have been made possible by co-operation with Communist miners in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and elsewhere.

            In Manchester, the trades' council and the AUEW-TASS divisional council both affiliated to the ANL.  At other times, the Manchester Teachers' Association, ASTMS (Central Manchester) and COHSE (Ladywell Hospital) all gave their support.  The district council of the National Union of Railwaymen affiliated to the Anti-Nazi League. 

            Perhaps the most striking example of Anti-Nazi League success among industrial workers came on the docks.  Early on, socialist dockers set themselves the task of undoing the defeat they had suffered in 1968, when the dockers marched in support of Powell's racist 'Rivers of Blood' speech.  The port of London shop stewards committee voted to affiliate to the League.  Alongside Bob Light and Eddie Prevost, Mickey Fenn was a key activist.  Always at the front of the marches, he was arrested in June 1977 and accused by the police of assaulting fascists.  The charge was dropped.  In an important move, the London dockers provided the stewards for the first Carnival - and also loaned the ANL their banner, 'Arise Ye Workers.'  It was a massive turn-around after the defeat of ten years' earlier.

            As in 1945-51, the campaign was characterised by a certain tension.  The clear majority of those who took part would have voted Labour.  Many had canvassed for Labour in 1974.  Many others would go on to do the same in 1979.  Yet within the literature produced by ANL supporters (and certainly in the memory of prominent activists form the time), there is a strong sense of betrayal by the government.  The Labour Party had won the two 1974 elections on the back of a leftward-moving popular mood, and its manifesto was the most radical in the party's history, promising the abolition of the House of Lords and the public schools, and increased taxes for the rich to pay for better public services.  Tony Benn and Michael Foot joined the Labour cabinet, while TUC left-wingers, including Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, were brought into close contact with the government.  Yet the effects of Labour government had undoubtedly been to reduce the levels of militancy within society.  Unemployment rose from 600,000 in 1974 to over one million, five years later.  The result was a sharp fall in strike levels.  The government reduced spending on public services, and even closed hospitals.  Within the trade unions the established lefts were confused and demoralised by Labour's lurch to the right.  The period of the Wilson-Callaghan government was a time of popular disillusionment that prepared the way for the Tories' victory in 1979. 

            The National Front was also seen to have gained from the failure of the Labour government and the general disillusionment with the left.  In July 1976, for example, the writer James Fenton wrote a piece for the New Statesman, describing an National Front meeting addressed by Robert Relf in Tilbury, Essex.  Fenton asked 'Who speaks against the National Front?'  His article was typical of the period, in expressing the frustration of a generation of young anti-racists who were fed up of waiting for Labour to take a lead:

 

The Tories talk in a code which yields the argument without the slightest demur.  'Parliamentary language' barely conceals the assumptions which the Tilbury meeting shared.  Indeed it is in a way refreshing to go from Westminster to such a gathering and gear people say what they really mean.  As for Labour, the issue is fought in the worst possible terms - arguments about numbers, and whether the pool of immigrants will ever dry up.  And all the while (it was a constant feature of Monday's immigration debate) there is an air of congratulation - all the participants in the debate, or nearly all of them, are being so responsible.  Thank God we can sit down together and discuss the matter in a civilised way.

 

Fenton concluded, 'if the Front have grown, as they have, to the point where they are no longer treated as a joke, it is not because the Left have sometimes opposed them on the streets; it is because Parliament has been embarrassed to meet them head on.'[xxii]  Such views became a sort of common sense, not just among the people attached to organised left groups, but also in the colleges, on the stewards' committees and with Labour activists.

 

The so-called keepers

 

Returning to the 1940s, one strong feature that was distinctive of this period was the extraordinary degree of working-class loyalty to the institutions of the labour movement, including the Labour Party.  Even the Communist Party of Great Britain, the largest party to the left of Labour, insisted that socialism could only begin with a Labour government.  In the words of the Communist Party's programme, The British Road to Socialism, 'British Communists declare that the people of Britain can transform capitalist democracy into a real people's democracy, transforming Parliament, the product of Britain's historic struggle for democracy into the democratic instrument of the will of the vast majority of her people.'[xxiii]  One contemporary activist, Peter Sedgwick described the political feel of the times.  The politics of the Labour Party were still an expression of values deeply held in the Labour movement.  Even Labour's constitution reflected the relationship between party and class:

 

The organisational mythology of the committed Left amounted to the construction of a vast shadow panoply of trade-union structures, manned by conscious militants at branch and district level, and by progressive or reactionary, Left-wing or Right-wing, responsible or autocratic General Secretaries and Executives in their national offices.  Like the constitutional map of Soviet Russia projected by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the 1930s, the initiatives of the rank-and-file were supposed to send countless pressures upwards, channelled and summed in the block vote of six or seven digits that were cast at the annual Trade Union Congress or the Labour Party Conference.  As the neurologist's recording equipment marks the gross electrical rhythms of the brain, each stroke on the graph representing the aggregate of millions of tiny voltages from the individual neurons, so the Conference or Congress vote aggregated the voices of invisible throngs: or rather would do so, provided that the recording machinery itself were not spiked by treacherous leaders.[xxiv]

 

The very success of the anti-fascist campaigners would surely point to the basic truth of Sedgwick's argument.  A majority of trade unionists continued to feel that the high politics of their party could be determined by the cumulative weight of a thousand resolutions.

            The problem in this case was that - despite all the pressure - Labour leaders still refused to act.  Anti-fascists expected Labour to take action.  Between 1945 and 1951, however, there were no Labour-sponsored demonstrations against fascism, no speaking tours, and no campaign.  There was no change in the law, to ban fascist parties or to outlaw anti-Semitic propaganda.  The Home Secretary, J. Chuter Ede, actively argued against using the law to stop fascism, and his position was adopted by the rest of the Cabinet.  Not surprisingly, this stance was criticised from within the Labour Party.  There were various amendments calling for the fascist parties to be banned at the 1946, 1948 and 1949 Labour Conferences.  In addition to these Conference motions, a small number of Labour MPs, including L. J. Solley and John Platt-Mills, did speak out against fascism, supporting anti-fascist demonstrators in court, and calling for a change in the law to ban fascism.

            Yet despite the role played by individuals, the basic fact remained that the government did not listen.  Different writers expressed a common sense of frustration.  Bert Lee suggested that Labour should ban anti-Semitic statements, while Adelaide Poole wrote to Chuter Ede to tell him that 'the Jewish citizens have as much right to be in this country as the rest of us', and M. Ross simply wanted Ede to 'arrest Mosley'.[xxv]  L. J. Orman told the Home Secretary that the problem was not the law, but the police's unwillingness to use it:

 

I suppose it is perfectly in order for a lousy swine like Jeffrey Hamm to get up on a street corner in the East End of London and shout, 'Down with the Jews.  Burn the synagogues.  Kill the Aliens', and he gets away with it, but if a person tries to pull him up, what happens? The so-called keepers of law and order, the police, go up to this person and tell him he'd better move away before he gets hurt ... These guardians of the law and order from Commercial Street Police Station openly boast about being members of Jeffrey Hamm's fascist party.

 

Alfred Cohen was one of many writers who found it extraordinary that fascism could be tolerated, 'We have just concluded a war to wipe out similar despicable doctrines'.[xxvi]

            Grassroots Labour Party opinion may have been broadly against the government, yet it was by no means unanimous.  There were instances of Labour branches swung by the instincts of party loyalty.  Although many hundred trade union branches passed motions that were critical of the national government, the evidence of the petitions suggests that Labour Party branches were more cautious.  Some Labour Party members defended the Labour government's argument that an attack on fascism would be an assault on the principle of free speech, while others were afraid of siding too openly with members of the CP who were playing an important role in the campaign.  Other sources reveal that Labour supporters in the AEU tried to prevent their youth conference from agreeing a motion calling on the government to ban fascism, while Stepney Labour councillors voted to place Union Movement books in the council libraries.[xxvii]  The London Labour Party voted 964-140 against banning Mosley from its public halls, and the Labour newspaper, London News, said that there was no need for a law against fascism.  All the trouble would end, the paper suggested, if only anti-fascists would stay at home, 'The plain fact is, as many eye-witnesses agree, that it is open to the Communist Party to make the biggest single contribution to the abatement of the present nuisances at Ridley Road and elsewhere - simply by telling their followers to stay away from meetings which are organised mainly to give provocation.'[xxviii]  Clearly many trade unionists, and even Labour Party supporters disagreed with this line, but found it easiest to express their opposition within stewards committees, trade union branches and trades councils - rather than within the structures of the Labour Party itself.

            The Communist Party was frequently identified at the time as the main organisational force behind the anti-fascist protests.  Sidney Salomon, a leading member of the Board's Jewish Defence Committee, opposed the anti-fascist campaign on the grounds that communism, not fascism was the greater threat, 'The Government, and indeed a large section of the British public, regard the Communist Party as more dangerous to the welfare of the state than the fascists... The Government's policy... is in line with British tradition'.  Police records of the time describe anti-fascist protesters as, 'Communist opposition', or 'Jewish Communists', whether the label was accurate or not.[xxix] 

The material in the Home Office archives would suggest that the Communist Party did indeed play a crucial role, leading the protests, organising motions and petitions, and giving the campaign a focus and a structure.  Although only a few Communist Party branches sent in motions - perhaps because the branches felt that their decisions would be unlikely to sway a Labour Cabinet!  It was clearly CP members who played the decisive role in the trade unions.  This can be established by comparing the geography of the campaign with the location of the party's industrial support.  Of the 754 delegates to the 1944 party congress, over half were members of the five main manual unions.  193 were members of the AEU engineer's union, 81 were members of the TGWU transport workers' union, 52 were members of the miners' NUM, 33 were members of the electricians' ETU, 32 were members of the railworkers' union, the NUR.[xxx]  This fits the character of the trade union protests after 1945, with the AEU, the NUR, the ETU and the NUM among the greatest backers of the campaign.  It is also striking that many protests came from stewards committees and trades councils, this would connect with what we know of the party's involvement in these bodies.

            One characteristic of the campaign of the 1940s is the sense in which labour movement actors seem to have behaved as if they believed that the Labour government was susceptible to mass pressure.  This helps to explain why petitioning was such a characteristic action of the movement, because the petition is typically the choice of a critical loyalist.  Whether we ascribe this feature to the grassroots leadership of Communist Party sympathisers or to the basic moderation of trade union activists, this aspect remains.

 

Nationalising the mustard factories

 

By 1977-8, the key force on the British far left was the Socialist Workers Party.  It was far a younger and smaller organisation than the Communist Party of thirty-five years previously.  Its involvement as a sponsor of the Anti-Nazi League encouraged rivals.  Joan Lestor, Labour MP and a former editor of Searchlight magazine, was the central figure behind the Joint Committee Against Racialism, which was launched in December 1977.[xxxi]  This, as Stan Taylor indicates, was an 'alternative to the ANL for moderates'.  It attracted wide support from the Labour Party, Liberal Party, the British Council of Churches, various immigrant organisations, the National Union of Students and despite the protests of Margaret Thatcher, the National Union of Conservative Associations.  Another important backer of the Joint Committee Against Racialism was the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which was hostile to the anti-Zionist politics of the Socialist Workers Party, and campaigned against the League, accusing it of being a front dominated by the SWP.  Unsurprisingly, with such broad representation, difficulties were encountered in agreeing to policies and consequently, 'activity appears to have largely centred around distribution of anti-racist literature.'[xxxii]

The Joint Committee Against Racialism was criticised in turn by leftwing Labour MPs who accused Lestor of jeopardising an important campaign.  The New Statesman magazine, one traditional voice of the Labour left, ran a front page 'In defence of the Anti-Nazis'. 

 

Its National Secretary, Paul Holborrow [sic], is a member of the SWP.  But most of the other members of the steering committee - Peter Hain, Neil Kinnock, MP, Audrey Wise, MP, Ernie Roberts et al. - are scarcely Trots, whatever else they may be.  Suppose that Mr. Holborrow and his SWP friends were, with manipulative cunning, to try and turn the ANL away from its simple anti-racialist platform and towards some sinister purpose of their own - nationalising the mustard-factories perhaps, or substituting Vanessa Redgrave for the Queen - is it really plausible that they should succeed?  It is a long time since the Comintern days when 'fronts' really were marched and counter-marched with clockwork precision.[xxxiii]

 

A large number of Labour MPs backed the Anti-Nazi League - including not just Kinnock and Wise, but Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner, Martin Flannery and Gwyneth Dunwoody.

The Labour Party nationally went to great efforts to ensure that it was associated with the anti-racist cause.  Time Out ran an ad calling for a Labour vote as a vote against racism.  Meanwhile, the Leveller ran a back-page ad taking a quote from Frank Allaun, chair of the Labour Party, and superimposing it over a photograph of the crowd at an ANL Carnival.  This was an unashamed bid for the support of the Rock Against Racism generation:

 

'If voting could change the system, they wouldn't let you do it…'  Maybe voting isn't everything.  Certainly you and me voting Labour won't in itself bring socialism.  Campaigning against unemployment, poverty, homelessness, racial and sexual oppression, and the many other evils of the system, needs all our effort all the time.  But I believe we need a Labour government - with a socialist programme, a healthy labour movement and a majority of MPs behind it.  So I hope you'll not only vote Labour on May 3rd, but you'll come out and work for a Labour victory.[xxxiv]

 

At the height of anti-fascist campaigning, debates over the role played by the Labour government, tended to be postponed, with activists eager not to turn their rival perspectives into points of principle that might leave a floating audience cold.  After the defeat of James Callaghan's government, in April 1979, however, there was a sort of open season on the left, in which rival strategies were debated more honestly.  Following the 1979 election, for example David Widgery one founder of Rock Against Racism wrote, 'We face a new Toryism, frankly elitist, not just making racialism respectable but Reaction itself fashionable.'[xxxv]  The problem was not just that the Tory party had moved right.  What worried more people were the signs that Thatcherism enjoyed widespread support.  In spring 1980 Peter Hain, radicalised by his experiences in the ANL, agreed to chair 'the debate of the decade', a two thousand strong debate held in Central Hall between representatives of the Labour Party and the extra-parliamentary left.  Hain's introduction to the discussion began by contrasting the mood of the late 1960s - when such militant unions as the engineers' AUEW had seemed capable of transforming society - and of the early 1980s, when the entire left (reformist and revolutionary alike) lacked popular approval.  In his words,

 

The trade union movement as a whole is in political disarray, unsure of its grass roots base, uncertain about its national direction; the left outside the Labour Party is weaker in terms of its political base; the student movement is passive and middle-of-the road in its politics; and the Labour Party, whilst moving significantly leftwards; still has not shaken off a dominant right-wing leadership.  Above all, socialism patently lacks the appeal and allegiance in the working class, which it once had.[xxxvi]

 

Meanwhile, left academic Stuart Hall told the Communist Party's magazine Marxism Today that Mrs. Thatcher represented an 'authoritarian populism', which would mean 'a striking weakening of democratic forms and initiatives, but not their suspension.'  Hall sought to explain Thatcher's success as a cultural project, using family values and Conservative morality to place its imprint on political, economic and ideological life.[xxxvii]  If Thatcherism was primarily a form of cultural politics, then it followed that the Tories could best be resisted in the cultural sphere.  Hall praised RAR in particular as 'one of the timeliest and best constructed of cultural interventions, repaying serious and extended analysis.'  Perhaps the best alternative to Conservatism, would be a revised Anti Nazi-style alliance, perhaps with the name 'Rock Against the Tories', or some other such-like title?

Yet the downturn in left-wing politics which began in Britain in 1974, continued after 1979 with a vengeance.  The defeat of the steelworkers, the miners and the GLC demoralised the generation that had been part of the ANL, and although many remained part of the movement, there simply was not the space in society for the creation of a mass pole of leftwing sentiment during the Callaghan or certainly the Thatcher years.

 

 

Conclusion

 

It has been sometimes been argued that the British trade union movement has been for most of its history a bastion of sectionalism, in which economic issues have predominated over political concerns.[xxxviii]  The material examined here suggests that this picture has not always been accurate.  In the 1940s and again in the 1970s, activists were able to win significant sections of the trade union movement to take part in the campaign against fascism.  In doing so, they demonstrated that there is no necessary separation between industrial organisation and left-wing politics.  They also highlighted the strength of anti-fascist sentiment.  For if anti-fascism was the work of proletarian majorities, the fascist parties were dependant rather on fractions of splinters of different classes.  While drawing sporadic support from individuals in both working-class and middle-class groups, they were never able to achieve the same sort of solid institutional backing upon which anti-fascist activists could draw.

            Meanwhile, the continuity of working-class support for anti-fascism was expressed unevenly through national politics, in the different positions taken by the Labour Party.  In neither case did the fact of popular backing for anti-fascist politics succeed in converting the leaders of Labour governments to a strategy of combative anti-fascism.  Yet in neither case was the energy entirely wasted.  Instead, we can trace the effect of the campaigns in splits in the bloc of Labour MPs in Parliament.  We should also acknowledge the important of the different tactical choices made by different anti-fascist traditions.  The movement of 1945-51 gave itself the task of transforming Labour's attitude to the law; in which it failed.  The movement of 1974-9, by contrast, was more successful in mobilising Labour movement figures towards an extra-parliamentary strategy of anti-fascist confrontation.  Labour's different responses to these two campaigns was not decided merely by the politics of the two movements, but also by a politician's judgment of what forces existed for recruitment.


[i] M. Beckman, The 43 Group (London, 1992).

[ii] M. Walker, The National Front (Glasgow: Fontana, 1977); R. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts to the National Front (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998), pp. 245-67; M. Billig, Fascists: A Social Psychological View of the National Front (London and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978); D. Edgar, Racism, Fascism and the Politics of the National Front (London: Race and Class, 1977)

[iii] A. M. Messina, Race and Party Competition in Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 118; D. Field, 'Flushing out the Front', Socialist Review May 1978; E. Roberts, Strike Back (Orpington: Ernie Roberts, 1994), p. 252; Anti-Nazi League, Inside the National Front, Sheffield's Nazis Uncovered (Sheffield: Sheffield ANL, 1979); B. Dunn, 'No to NF, Morning Star, 15 November 1978.

[iv] I. Goodyer, 'The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism', MA thesis, Sheffield Hallam, 2002, p. 3.

[v] See the following Home Office files (HO), in the Public Records Office: HO 45/24467/240; HO 45/24467/242; HO 45/24467/249; HO 45/24467/260; HO 45/24467/264; HO 45/24468/268; HO 45/24468/274; HO 45/24468/298; HO 45/24468/268; HO 45/24468/301; HO 45/24468/340; HO 45/24469/356; HO 45/24469/396; HO 45/24470/449; and HO 45/24470/457.

[vi] D. Renton, 'Not just Economics but Politics as well: Trade Unions, Labour Movement Activists and Anti-Fascist Protests 1945-51', Labour History Review 65/2 (2000), pp. 166-80.  This paper should also be compared to the accounts which appear in D. Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and the 1940s (London: Macmillan Press, 2000); D. Renton, 'The Police and Fascist/ Anti-Fascist Street Conflict 1945-1951', in C. Barker (ed.), Alternative Futures and Popular Protests 1997 (Manchester: 1997); and D. Renton, 'Fascism and Anti-fascism and Britain in the 1940s', A. L. Morton Memorial Lecture, Socialist History Society, London, 15 September 2001 (published on tape by the Socialist History Society).

[vii] File HO 45/24467/264 contains a reference to file HO 45/24467/262, which is now missing.  Also, Miss Nunn of the Home Office estimated that between January 1945 and February 1946, a total of 230 trade unions or trade councils, including 62 branches of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, sent resolutions calling for Ede to take action against fascism, which is clearly a much larger quantity than the number that have survived, see Miss Nunn, marginal notes, in Home Office file, 15 February 1946, HO 45/25399/18

[viii] HO 45/24469/356; HO 45/24467/240.

[ix] 'Hounslow Trades Council Plans Anti-Fascist Move', Middlesex Independent, 7 February 1948; '15,000 are Asked to Watch Fascists', Daily Herald, 4 February 1948.

[x] J. Jacobs, London Trades Council, to J. Chuter Ede, Home Secretary, 29 April 1946, HO 45/24468/298; Ede to Jacobs, 15 May 1946, HO 45/24468/298; Jacobs to Ede, 5 June 1946, HO 45/24468/298; Ede to Jacobs, 22 June 1946, HO 45/24468/298; Jacobs to Ede, 1 July 1946, HO 45/24468/298; Ede to Jacobs, 30 July 1946, HO 45/24468/298.

[xi] The following section is based in part on my own unpublished work, Anti-fascism in 1970s Britain (London: Searchlight Educational Trust, 2005 forthcoming).  It also connects to previous accounts that have appeared including D. Renton, ‘Can the Oppressed Unite? Women and anti-fascism in Britain 1977-1982’, in C. Barker (ed.), Alternative Futures and Popular Protests 2000 (Manchester: 2000); D. Renton, Anti-fascism in the North West 1976-1982', North West Labour History 27 (2002), pp. 17-28; D. Renton, 'The Anti-Nazi League', The Historical Encyclopedia of World Fascism (New York: ABC-CLIO, 2004); and D. Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2001).

[xii] B. Dunn, 'No to NF, Morning Star, 15 November 1978.

[xiii] F. Wheen, 'The National Front's reptilian aspects', New Statesman, 22 September 1978.

[xiv] John Rose, Solidarity Forever: One Hundred Years of Kings Cross ASLEF (London: Kings Cross ASLEF, 1986), pp. 49, 73.

[xv] SKAN, summer 1978.

[xvi] The same year also witnessed the launching of a parallel anti-racist organisation, All London Teachers Against Racism and Fascism (ALTARF).  For their activity, see All London Teachers Against Racism and Fascism, Challenging Racism (London: ALTARF, 1978).

[xvii] ANL leaflet, 'NF = No Future for Education', undated.

[xviii] ANL, 'Emergency Appeal', leaflet, spring 1978?.

[xix] See the leaflets produced by national unions, ASTMS, Stop Racism at Work! (London: Community Relations Group, 1976); General and Municipal Workers' Union, Race Relations at Work (London: GMWU, 1976?); Trades Union Congress, Trade Unions and Race Relations (London: Trades Union Congress, 1977?).

[xx] ANL News Letter, February 1979.

[xxi] Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 256.

[xxii] J. Fenton, 'An Evening with Robert Relf', New Statesman, 9 July 1976.

[xxiii] K. Laybourn and D. Murphy, Under the Red Flag (Sutton: Stroud, 1999), p. 138. 

[xxiv] N. Harris and J. Palmer (ed), World Crisis: Essays in Revolutionary Socialism (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1971), pp. 27, 34.

[xxv] B. Lee to Ede, 17 April 1947, 45/24468/340; A. Poole to Ede, 28 June 1947, HO 45/24468/340; M. Ross to Ede, 7 August 1947, 45/24468/340.

[xxvi] L. J. Orman to Home Secretary, 28 October 1946, HO 45/24468/340; A. Cohen to Ede, 19 August 1947, HO 45/24470/457.

[xxvii] 'Fascism: Ignore or Ban?', Challenge, 8 May 1948; 'Mosley Books in Library "An Insult"', Daily Worker, 14 June 1948.

[xxviii] 'LCC and Fascist Meetings', Times, 6 April 1948; 'A Workers Notebook', Daily Worker, 6 April 1948; London News, November 1947.

[xxix] S. Salomon, Anti-Semitism and Fascism in Post-War Britain: The Work of the Jewish Defence Committee (London, 1950), p. 5.

[xxx] S Jeffreys, 'The Communist Party and the Rank and File', International Socialism 2/10 (1980), pp. 1-23.

[xxxi] Labour Weekly, 'The Fight for our Freedoms', no date, January 1978?

[xxxii] Unity Against Fascism 1 (1976); Copsey, History of Anti-Fascism, pp. 148-9.

[xxxiii] 'In defence of the Anti-Nazis', New Statesman, 6 October 1978.

[xxxiv] Leveller, May 1979.

[xxxv] 'I'm not going to work on Maggie's Farm', in D. Widgery, Preserving Disorder: Selected Essays 1968-1988 (London: Pluto, 1989), pp. 171-6.

[xxxvi] P. Hain (ed), The Crisis and Future of the Left: the Debate of the Decade (London: Pluto, 1980), p. 7.

[xxxvii] 'The Great Moving Right Show' (1978), reprinted in S. Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso, 1988), pp. 39-56, 40, 42.

[xxxviii] P. Anderson, 'Origins of the Present Crisis', New Left Review 23, also in P. Anderson and R. Blackburn (eds), Towards Socialism (London, 1965), pp. 11-52; and T. Nairn, 'The English Working-Class', New Left Review 24 (1964), pp. 43-57.