‘Brexit Betrayal’ march fails to deliver – but antifascists have lessons to learn

By KD Tait

It was billed as the big breakthrough for the far right: a demonstration on December 9, the supposed eve of Parliament’s vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, led by Gerard Batten, head of the rump-UKIP, and Tommy Robinson, self-appointed white crusader against Islam.

In the end they managed to draw a crowd of around 10-12,000 in a tightly corralled march. One French tricolour among a sea of Union Flags but, no, this wasn’t their gilets jaunes moment. The masses, supposedly boiling with indignation at May’s ‘soft’ Brexit, decided to stay at home instead.

That is not to say that Robinson and Batten – now freed from their more ‘respectable’ racist father figure Nigel Farage – will not return, next time with more menacing numbers. The wind continues to blow in their direction and even if their numbers were low, they still show an upward trajectory. Whatever happens on 29 March, they will be there, blaming migrants, foreign powers and anyone who looks less than 100% white Christian for the blows that will rain down on ‘independent’ UK.

The antifascists did have a go, though nothing much was ever going to happen, considering our numbers were probably lower than the right’s and the police put out a serious force to keep the two sides apart (though most of them stayed in their vans, not needed on the day).

The liveliest part of the demo was around the anti-Brexiters, who loudly chanted their disapproval of ‘racist Brexit’. It was also from among this group that a brief breakaway, led by the AFN, made it into Trafalgar Square by breaking through police lines. While this showed what was possible, more importantly, it emphasised the overall weakness of the Left’s response to the continuing rise of the Right.

No more than 8,000 people showed up for the counter-demo, called by a coalition of campaigns under the slogan ‘No to Tommy Robinson, no to Fortress Britain’. The united demonstration was the result of a push to avoid a repeat of the divisions that led to two competing protests against the Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance march on 13 October.

Despite the importance of presenting a united front against the rising tide of racism, which has been unleashed in the wake of the Brexit vote, the build up to the demo was dominated by a spate of denunciations and sectarian manoeuvring by Stand Up to Racism and the various anarchist-influenced groups, none of whom really wanted a united demonstration with each other.

This self-indulgent spectacle was an aggravating factor in depressing the turnout. But the roots of the anti-racist movement’s weakness lie in fundamental tactical and political differences.

Stand Up To Racism regards itself has being the ‘official’ anti-racist movement by virtue of its national trade union affiliations and endorsements from MPs and general secretaries. These bureaucrats provide the campaign with credibility in return for immunity from criticism or demands that they do anything more than burnish their anti-racist credentials with occasional platform speeches. The bankruptcy of this broad left strategy, which precludes militant direct action or self-defence in the fight against the far right, has been hammered home by the pitiful turnouts on the campaign’s protests.

On the other wing of the anti-fascist movement, attempts to organise actions based on confronting the far right and denying them the opportunity to grow through marches and meetings have met with some success under the auspices of the Antifascist Network and others, most significantly on the ‘unity’ protest against the DFLA in October, which assembled around 2,000 people from a broad coalition of groups.

Nonetheless, to demoralise the far right, break up their marches, and incubate a renewed movement that can go on the offensive against every manifestation of racism, we need tens of thousands on the streets. For that, we need to combine militant tactics with a strategic orientation to the organised labour movement, in particular the trade unions and the mass membership of the Labour Party.

On that front, the growing visibility of Labour Party branches seen on December 9 was a positive sign and a testament to the work put in by members organised in Momentum and grassroots networks like Labour Against Racism and Fascism – London. But we need a sober assessment of the real balance of forces and direction of travel.

Inflated reports of the size of the anti-racist demo, some reports from Momentum spoke of outnumbering the Brexiteers by as much as five to one – may be intended to raise morale but are doubly counter-productive. On the one hand they feed complacency on the Left, denying how dangerous the current growth of the far right is while, on the other, boosting the morale of the racists who know what actually happened on the day.

No-one expected Robinson or the “UKIP machine” to assemble tens of thousands of Brexit supporters in London on a Sunday afternoon. Momentum on the other hand, whose “machine” is incomparably better organised than the rump-UKIP operation, has yet to demonstrate any ability to mobilise its ‘social movement’ on demonstrations. While the “Brexit Betrayal” demo certainly was not the breakthrough that its organisers wanted, there is no doubt that, right across Europe, the far right have the wind in their sails.

Whatever the outcome of Brexit, the right will be able to take advantage of it; May’s “soft Brexit” will be called “Brexit in Name Only” and the resulting economic impact will be blamed on not achieving a “hard Brexit”. The even worse consequences of “no-deal” will be blamed on “Europe” taking its revenge for Britain regaining sovereignty. Naturally, if Brexit is somehow defeated altogether, this will be a “betrayal” of the ‘Will of the People’, stabbed in the back by politicians.

We must not give an inch on this terrain. Left supporters of Brexit, such as the SWP and, indeed, the Labour leadership around Jeremy Corbyn, are hamstrung by their refusal to accept the link between Brexit and racism; this is why there was opposition across the spectrum – from the SWP to the Novara podcast-warriors – to Another Europe’s slogans pointing out this uncomfortable truth.

In whatever form it comes, Brexit is a reactionary, nationalist project that, by fuelling a conflict between British and non-British workers, by promoting the utopia of a ‘sovereign’ UK within the international capitalist system, erects a serious obstacle to working class advance in Britain and Europe. That is why migration is at the heart of the debate, it is why the only thing that the Tories and Labour agree on is that migrant numbers should be driven down, and migrants given fewer rights than ‘British’ workers.

Those who cannot accept that Brexit is a reactionary project from start to finish are condemned to the sidelines in the central struggle in British politics or, worse, to promoting concessions over migration which inject the poison of chauvinism into the multi-national British working class.

Across Europe, Brexit is seen as the vanguard of the far right struggle to break up the social, political, and economic links developed in the last 60 years. The struggle to defeat the far right starts at home by opposing them on the streets. But, as the racists and nationalists deepen their international coordination, so socialists have to fight them on the same terrain. Today, the key task of revolutionaries in Europe is to say neither ‘socialism in one country’, nor ‘a Europe of Nations’ – but a socialist united states of Europe.