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7 August 2012
'We Are Waltham Forest' public meeting, 31st July 2012
Conflicting approaches in anti-racism campaigning
This meeting came within days of the racist and hooligan English Defence League (EDL) moving their planned date for their provocative march in Waltham Forest from 18 August to 1 September which was welcomed by all.
However, in the view of the Socialist Party the task to stop the far right is still urgent.
The EDL is a racist organisation that preys on the desperation of some of those at the sharp end of cuts and capitalism.
It claims to represent 'English workers' and to oppose 'extremism' but in reality its aim is to divide working class people along ethnic and religious lines which will only weaken our ability to fight back against the exploitation and profiteering of the 1%.
Waltham Forest is suffering austerity. The unemployment rate for people aged 16-24 is 29.8%. The unemployment rate is about twice as high among ethnic minorities.
Thousands of households in the borough are overcrowded. Walthamstow High Street is being taken over by pawn shops, betting shops and pound shops, a visual testament to the suffering which largely goes on behind closed doors.
The local anti-cuts union was established to give those angry about these cruel conditions a vehicle to fight - and fight we must.
We have a Labour-led council where disgracefully but no longer shockingly, not one councillor has voted against handing down the Tories' cuts.
Three hundred council jobs have been slashed. Services to the young, the old, the vulnerable, have been annihilated.
There has been much hand-wringing by councillors but not one has raised their hand in opposition.
Link to fighting cuts
Waltham Forest Anti-Cuts Union, the local branches of the Socialist Party and Youth Fight for Jobs campaigners have been arguing inside the We Are Waltham Forest campaign that to be effective the fight against racism and the far right must be linked to fighting austerity.
We have argued that council workers should not be expected to have confidence in an organisation that makes the authors of their misery leaders.
We argued that instead of convincing those seduced by the simple divide and rule tactics of the racists and the far right to reject those ideas, welcoming those who make these vicious cuts onto the platform of meetings could have the opposite effect.
In the run up to the meeting Socialist Party members had been door to door on a local estate and had met with solid opposition to the EDL.
The need to link the fight against racism with the fight against cuts was also widely understood.
Around 120 people attended the meeting, many coming from outside the borough. While this was a good turnout it was clear this meeting had fewer young people, black and Asian people and local workers attending than had been the case at previous meetings.
The platform was packed with 'celebrity' speakers but proposed representatives of the local labour, trade union and anti-cuts movement had been denied a slot, including Steve Hedley, recently elected as assistant general secretary of the militant RMT union and Nancy Taaffe, a library worker who lost her job through cuts and organiser of the local anti-cuts union.
Throughout the meeting the SWP chair, Jo Caldwell, repeatedly praised local Labour politicians. As a socialist she should have welcomed this support for anti-racism but sent a message from the meeting that these councillors must use their positions and power not to continue with austerity policies that further entrench racism and division in our community. But no such message was forthcoming.
Meanwhile two Labour councillors, Liaquat Ali and Clare Coghill, who have signed off some of the worst cuts, have been allowed to participate in the campaign without a challenge made to their role in attacking jobs and living standards. Their apologies were given.
The speakers were Ava Vidal, a comedian and spokesperson for Show Racism the Red Card; Aron Kiely, black students officer for NUS; Rania Khan, an independent councillor from Tower Hamlets; Owen Jones, Labour left author and journalist; John McLoughlin, branch secretary of Tower Hamlets Unison and SWP member; Weyman Bennett, co-secretary of Unite Against Fascism and SWP member; and Stella Creasy, Labour Party Walthamstow MP. Of the speakers only Creasy was connected with the borough.
Aron Kiely made some good points about the need to link the fight against the EDL and racism with young people who have been fighting the attacks on education.
Shockingly he reported that one in five black and Asian students face racist abuse on campus. Both he and Ava warned of the dangers posed by groups who try to divide black people from Muslims or Sikhs from Muslims and so on.
He pointed out how Tommy Robinson and the EDL do not just attack 'radical Islam' as they claim but have also targeted the student movement against the vicious abolition of EMA student payments and LGBT people.
Owen Jones said that economic chaos, as in Greece but also in Britain, provided the perfect fertile ground for racism and division.
He pointed out how the government and the right wing media attempt to divide us, the working from the unemployed, private sector from public sector, and so on.
He echoed the points that Socialist Party members have been consistently raising in the campaign when he warned that if we do not fight for jobs we leave the space for the far right to capitalise on the anger and despair over joblessness. He concluded by saying that pressure must be applied on the Labour leadership.
Rania Khan, the Tower Hamlets councillor, described how her council participated in the campaign to stop the EDL marching last year.
A speaker from the floor pointed out that in reality the EDL had been able to march - with police protection.
Rania also described how her council had attempted to keep youth away from defending their borough against racists by putting on special events and keeping the youth centres open until midnight.
People in the audience will have wondered why such a service was only contemplated when faced with the far right marching and what a contrast it seemed to Waltham Forest where youth services have been decimated.
Divorced from reality
At times the meeting felt like it was being held in a parallel universe. Socialist Party members had been leafleting council workplaces where we had met huge anger at the cuts and the effects on those left in jobs, with pressure, work and intimidation piling up.
There was despair at the lack of leadership from the trade union Unison nationally on how to resist the austerity measures.
But in the meeting a number of the speakers, including the chair, a local SWP member, and especially Stella Creasy, repeatedly remarked on what a wonderful place Waltham Forest is to live in, as if no one was suffering one bit.
For those living in Waltham Forest there is a lot to be proud of. The traditions of united struggle of workers of all races and ethnicities, such as at Whipps Cross hospital against privatisation; by dinner ladies, teachers and parents against the council's attempt to wind up school dinners; or going all the way back to the anti-poll tax battle.
Socialists are internationalists and we stand in solidarity with workers around the world and in Britain in the fight against the 1% and austerity. We stand up for comprehensive education and decent public services for all.
People come to Waltham Forest from all over the world. The GLA population projection data for 2012 shows that 44.1% of Waltham Forest's population is what they call 'BAME', Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic.
There can be huge advantages to living in a borough with people from so many areas - but it would be a mistake to perpetuate the idea that people come here through choice alone.
Rich people who move to London, from the US or France for example, tend to move to Kensington and Chelsea.
It is the relatively low rents of our borough that make it a destination for people who often flee worse conditions at home.
It is the job of socialists to recruit to and link up all workers in the trade unions and to fight for trade union rates of pay and conditions and against the race to the bottom by greedy bosses.
As internationalists we must also build support and solidarity for those fighting repression and poverty conditions around the world.
But in the meeting, to hear some of the speakers, you would think we lived in a socialist utopia - not one of the poorest boroughs in the country where anger, frustration and despair are boiling up beneath the surface and could explode at any moment as they did last year during the August riots.
Creasy gushed about Walthamstow's art trail, street parties during the diamond jubilee and how wonderful it was that you could eat food from all over the world.
It is great - but some in the room will have seen the bitter irony that we met two streets away from where 120 people queue up daily for a soup kitchen and teachers have recently been reported as having to feed school children as cuts hit family budgets.
Ban the EDL march?
Stella Creasy was in favour of a ban on the EDL marching, including appealing to Tory minister Teresa May for this, and had some support.
She reported that this was the view of the local council of Mosques which she described as "representing" 20,000 people. The local Labour-led council has also called for the march to be banned.
The Socialist Party stands for mobilising mass opposition of working class and young people to make a march by the EDL impossible.
But we have seen how the council uses bans when Labour councillors have previously attempted to ban campaign stalls from the town square.
A campaign led by the Socialist Party and the anti-cuts union saw off this onslaught on democratic rights but campaigners have to be vigilant against the council unilaterally controlling who can and can't take action.
The call for a ban was vehemently backed by the other co-secretary of the UAF, Sabby Dhalu, revealing differences within the campaign and suggesting a lack of internal debate and discussion about tactics and programme.
However in arguing against a ban, SWP leading member Weyman Bennett limited his case to basic agitation.
Illusions in Labour
John McLoughlin praised the Labour Party and repeatedly said how excellent it was to have 'our' local Labour MPs and councillors involved in the campaign.
At one point he paraphrased Niemoller's 1930s poem, "First they came for the communists" etc. He implored the audience to take note of the order of the poem, ie that the working class organisations had to be demolished by the Nazis before they were able to unleash their genocide against the Jews.
At this point he explicitly positioned the Labour Party, gesturing to Stella Creasy, as the working class organisation that was our first line of defence against the far-right today. This is criminal. And the comparison is laughable.
From the floor, Socialist Party member Nancy Taaffe was called in and explained about the danger of the political vacuum on the left when the parties of social democracy move to the right.
This process has happened in a very graphic way in Greece. The Pasok government let down the working class by behaving like a bosses' government and carrying through savage cuts.
The fascist Golden Dawn party exploited this situation and netted 7% of the vote, up from less than 1% four years ago.
Nancy also explained about the two Labour councillors in Southampton who have voted against cuts and now face potential disciplinary action from the Labour Party.
Nancy was the only one of around ten Socialist Party members who got called in despite all having their hands raised.
SWP members were clearly primed to rebut these points. SWP member Chaz was brought in shortly after to reply to Nancy.
He made a muddled point acknowledging the fundamental correctness of her point whilst simultaneously dismissing it!
Steve White from the National Unionof Teachers in Waltham Forest told the meeting about plans for three free schools in the borough which would segregate school students on the basis of religion exposing the reality of the situation faced by those seeking to oppose racism and division and defend public services.
Socialists and anti-cuts campaigners in the Socialist Party welcome any retreat by the racist EDL and will continue to campaign against any attempt by them to spread their poisonous ideas.
But we will also redouble our efforts to build a resistance to austerity, uniting the working class around a strategy to defend jobs, homes and public services.
This will include building an electoral opposition to councillors who refuse to vote against the Con-Dems' cuts.