'The Day The Pantomime Horse Bolted'

For years the ANL has followed a policy of calling counter-demonstrations against far-right initiatives in the full knowledge that either they would not take place, had been scheduled for an alternative venue, or had simply been cancelled. This meant that even, or particularly when, the SWP/ANL knew the fascists were not coming, every effort was made to maximise turn-out, for pretty venal reasons.

It would for instance, allow the ANL to claim that it's presence had intimidated the fascists, it would allow unparalled access by the SWP to a fresh layer of potential recruits unhindered by any serious distractions, and it would allow the ANL to chalk up the event as 'a victory', something the ANL has found increasingly elusive in the real world. So the policy of besting absent foes has a threefold attraction for the SWP central committee.

For the ANL, things probably began to go wrong in Bermondsey earlier in the year, where despite facing an NF unable to muster more than a couple of dozen for a national demo, the ANL strategy, was on a humiliatingly repetitive basis, publicly shown to be entirely impotent against even them. Morale and turn-out duly suffered. It also became painfully apparent that the national publicity being generated for the NF and it's policies would not be happening without the ANL gearing, - as it has done since the re-launch in 1992, - ALL it's propaganda with the media in mind. This led critics including, when the action shifted up north, the Oldham Chronicle, to conclude that the ANL was effectively 'doing the NF's job for it'. However as events in Oldham would show, the ANL, unable to understand much less deal with the more sophisticated strategy being pursued by the BNP, need the NF as much as the NF need the ANL. Objectively, each can justify it's existence only through the reaction of the other. One senior militant anti-fascist described the relationship as akin to 'a pantomime horse; where ever the NF went the ANL followed'.

When earlier in the year, the NF called a march in Oldham the ANL responded with a counter-demo. But even when the NF officially announced more than a week in advance, that it had cancelled, the ANL blithely ignored them, even when aware that when hundreds turned out, many of them young militant Asians, there would be no fascists for them to engage with. It did not seem to matter at the time. There was no serious trouble and after all, 'Oldham had united against the Nazis'.

So in Bradford when the scenario repeated itself, the ANL stuck to the script, apparently indifferent to the heightened tensions that had exploded in riots in the same area only weeks previously. It is one of many miscalculations. The principle problem is that the ANL is not an anti-fascist organisation in the understood sense. It does not in itself seek physical confrontation with the far-right. Indeed it condemns such activity, even when its own members are victims. Instead its whole strategy is based on 'pinning the Nazi label' on those targeted - via the media mostly. In that sense it is spectacularly ill-equipped to control or channel those elements who answer the call to 'smash the National Front' - but take the slogan literally. This lack of physical control and credibility at a street level is heightened, when among those who turn up are many who, when denied authentic fascist targets, seem perfectly content to exercise their 'anti-fascism' in random and indiscriminate attacks against any people who 'look right'. In Bradford on Saturday trouble was sparked by the presence in pub near the rally of National Front 'supporters'. They may have been 'supporters' in a loose sense though even this is arguable, at least one witness described them as 'local drunks'. For the purposes of riot, all that mattered was that they looked like they might have been. Justification enough these days it seems. But even if justified why then were they not properly dealt with as AFA stewards would have ensured happened?

The inability and reluctance of the SWP/ANL to properly organise their mobilisations, means that what has served the ANL perfectly well when dealing with Poly students, becomes seriously counter-productive when the invited audience are almost exclusively militant Muslims, possibly armed with an agenda, political or otherwise, all of their own. Labour MP Terry Rooney who spoke at the ANL rally insists that a 'hard core' manipulated the situation. "Over the last five years we have had a battle for control over drugs in Bradford which this hard core has won." Whatever the merits of the argument that it was the ANL who was manipulated, in any event as an article in Red Action in 1994 pointed out when it comes down to it pacifistic solutions such as "petitions are not likely to satisfy Asian youth. Retaliations will still occur, but in the absence of collaboration with more experienced anti-fascists, or accurate intelligence, they will and can only be arbitrary and indiscriminate." At the height of the riots one exasperated local Asian asked: "Where is the logic, where is the protest, where is the National Front". Good point. One estimate put the number of NF as high as 20, while the Sunday Times reported that a mere five 'Fronters' had been persuaded to turn back at the railway station. Such figures make the ANL claim that "2,000 defended Bradford" seriously surreal. Writing in the Independent, Ian Herbert describes the rioting as "a copybook National Front sting,and it left the more reflective among Bradford's teenage Asians wondering how on earth they fell for it. Just as in Oldham, one of the former mill towns to have burnt on sultry Saturday nights these six weeks past, the National Front stoked the fire days ago by announcing plans for a march. They knew full well it would be banned by the Home Secretary but it would serve the purpose of bringing out the white liberal Anti Fascist League in force with Asians and national television crews in tow".

As in Bradford, Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, the combination of ANL, young Asians, and no fascists, has led to much random and indiscriminate activity. For liberals generally the symbolic fire-bombing and gutting of the Manningham Labour Club may disabuse them of the idea that the rioters intentions are uniformly progressive. For the ANL, who follow, as they readily admit a 'liberal bourgeois agenda', their unique responsibility in events ought to give pause for thought. After all high profile sponsors such as Labour Cabinet Minister Peter Hain can hardly be overjoyed with tactics that produce results exactly opposite of those desired.

Headlines such as "Nazis rampage through Bradford" can hardly hope to convince either, when television pictures showed those 'rampaging' to be almost exclusively Asian. "The cause of the violence in Bradford, Oldham, and Burnley lies solely with the Nazis and police inaction against them." is equally naive and ridiculous on a whole number of levels.
Not least, that the ANL seem blissfully unaware of the damage it is surely inflicting - on itself. It is for instance unlikely the ANL will continue to get unconditional Cabinet Minister endorsement when it is perceived to be acting as a recruitment sergeant for the BNP. Labour MP Marsha Singh for one, has called for the "ANL to be banned" insisting the "price is too high". Another Labour MP Sion Simon, also denounces the role of the ANL: "one might have thought the supposed anti-Nazis would recognise their own leading role in bringing it [recruitment to the far-right] about as counterproductive." But not only is the ANL being brought into disrepute, but on a more fundamental level anti-fascist principles are being prostituted along with it. For example the impact of events on the core message, and on working class consciousness that 'fascism is the enemy of all', is taking a severe beating to no useful effect, when the political threat lies not with the NF 'stoking of fires', but with the BNP's ability to capitalise on them.
As both AFA and Red Action, have continually pointed out this where the strategic danger lies. Ever so reluctantly even Searchlight have come to recognise that it is the BNP - and only the BNP - who are benefiting from the NF- ANL political play-acting. If even now the ANL cannot see the objective role they are playing, then the pantomime horse really has bolted, and it increasingly looks like it will require someone other than the SWP leadership to rein it in.

Reproduced from RA Bulletin Volume 4, Issue 12, July/Aug '01