October 2022 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the launch of Youth against Racism in Europe, ‘the YRE’, which played a leading role in the battles against the far-right British National Party (BNP) in the 1990s.
Socialist Party member Lois Austin, who was national chair of the YRE, spoke to the Socialist about why the YRE was formed and the approach it took to fighting racism and fascism.
The YRE was formed because, in a situation of economic downturn, unemployment and poor living conditions, there had been an increase in racist, and outright fascist, activity in Europe. There had been terrible attacks in Europe, for example on a hostel in Rostock, Germany, that housed migrants from Turkey.
In Britain’s deprived inner-city areas, after more than a decade of Tory cuts and privatisation, there was an increase in activity by the far-right British National Party (BNP) and a series of racist attacks. The BNP set up ‘Combat 18’, a street-fighting group of thugs, to organise attacks on left-wing opponents.
It was Militant supporters (as the Socialist Party was then known) in different European countries who initiated the setting up of a pan-European anti-racist movement. There were lots of young people protesting, taking part in demonstrations, so it was an obvious thing to do to try to link them up.
There was a demonstration in Paris around the ‘sans papiers’ (migrants with no papers) and we took young people from Britain to that – a precursor to the setting up of the YRE.
The first major mobilisation of the YRE was a big demonstration in Brussels against the rise of the far-right Vlaams Blok. Our sister party in Belgium was campaigning against the Vlaams Blok and had mobilised big numbers of youth. We had a huge demonstration with young people from across Europe: 40,000 marched. That was the YRE’s founding demonstration.
The build up to launching the YRE in Britain was the activity of the far right around the BNP headquarters in Welling, south east London. The BNP moved into Welling in 1987. At the time, the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) was a sizable campaigning organisation, and the Bexleyheath LPYS, which is what I was a member of, responded to the BNP moving in. We set up the ‘Bexley and Greenwich Labour Movement Campaign against Racism and Fascism’. And we set out to get the HQ closed down. We pointed out it was not a bookshop – which the BNP were claiming – it was a headquarters, and its presence would encourage racism and the growth of the far right.
The Tory council, the right-wing Labour Party, and the local press all tried to say that we – the left – were as bad as the right! And lots of people said: ‘Why are you giving them publicity, you’re giving them oxygen?’. We said: ‘They won’t just go away, they’ll get bigger and stronger and we need to push them back’. Ignoring them wasn’t an option for the local Black and Asian community. They needed to be confronted, isolated, and driven out of the area.
We organised protests and demonstrations. There were four racist murders in the area. Rohit Duggal, who was a young Asian man; Rolan Adams, from Thamesmead, who was brutally killed by a racist gang; Orville Blair; and then Stephen Lawrence.
We were out demonstrating in response to every racist murder and attack. We held demonstrations in Welling and Eltham, where the racists outnumbered us, skinheads giving fascist salutes. That’s what we were up against – the presence of the HQ was giving racists and fascists confidence.
We linked up with the Greenwich Commission for Racial Equality and the Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Attacks. And we took the campaign to oppose the BNP to all the local trade unions, which affiliated to the campaign.
We held all-night vigils round the homes of local Asian families who lived near the BNP HQ. They were frightened by racist graffiti and bricks thrown through their windows. We organised public meetings, including one in Welling library, which the far right attacked. We were there right at the start.
These were the early steps which laid the basis for the launch of the YRE.
It was after Stephen Lawrence was murdered that the tables really turned on the BNP. It was such a terrible attack, there was a mass response, an outpouring from the local community. He was murdered in April 1993. The YRE called a demonstration on 8 May, and we had 8,000 young people turn up. It was a joint demonstration with the Black socialist campaign organisation, Panther.
The Anti-Nazi League (ANL), led by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), organised a demonstration a week later, with the local Tory mayor on the platform and less than 2,000 in attendance. We wouldn’t have the Tory mayor on our platforms because they had done nothing about the BNP. We’d lobbied and petitioned to get the council to use its powers to close down the HQ and they’d done nothing but denigrate our campaign. So we said they were partly responsible for what had happened. Instead, we mobilised the local community, Black and white.
And that is what made us different from the ANL, that is why the YRE was necessary. First of all, we weren’t linking up with Tories. We were prepared to work with the ANL and anyone who genuinely wanted to fight racism and fascism, but our campaign was necessary because we weren’t prepared to link up with Tories who were partly responsible through their inaction for allowing the BNP to fester.
And, of course, the Tories were responsible for creating the economic conditions that allowed the far right to grow, conditions of high youth unemployment and rising housing costs. So we launched a campaign that said: ‘don’t let the racists and fascists divide us’. YRE was a mass democratic youth campaign which attempted to combat racism with an appeal to working-class young people to fight for jobs and homes for all, and to oppose racism.
We took the campaign into local community centres; we went into areas that were mainly white, like Thamesmead, and attempted to win young people over. It wasn’t a campaign based just on bussing people in from around the country like the ANL did, it was about mobilising the local community, alongside the trade unions, to isolate the BNP and force them out, to make it impossible for them to grow.
But despite Stephen Lawrence’s murder, still the BNP didn’t move out. None of the authorities acted. So then we organised a second big demonstration, in October 1993. The YRE proposed a joint demonstration of all the anti-racist organisations and the 16 October march was co-organised with the Indian Workers’ Association and the ANL. It was a massive demo. We knew it was going to be huge, you could feel it, such was the anger everywhere, especially in the local community. There were 50,000 people on that march.
The police and the state refused us our right to march past the BNP HQ. And when we got to the point where we wanted to march up the road to the HQ, all avenues were blocked by the police. The police were really out to discredit the protesters and the campaign. They brutally attacked protesters – that’s all documented, it’s filmed and photographed. YRE had argued for democratic stewarding of the demonstration. This was opposed by the ANL leadership but, on the day, YRE stewards were able to play an important role in defending the demonstration from the police brutality it faced. We had to negotiate, myself and other Militant members, to get a road opened up so that people could get out to safety, out of the trap that the police had created.
But because there was so much anger and pressure on the establishment after the demo, they did have to act. The BNP was becoming a big nuisance for them and they wanted them out. But they didn’t want to publicly say ‘we’ve given in to these protesters’ – which is actually what happened – so they set up a judge-led planning enquiry. The evidence the YRE gave to that planning inquiry was the crucial evidence that got the HQ closed down. We had to link our arguments to planning issues. We said having a fascist HQ in the community was linked to the Race Relations Act and was causing detriment to the community. So, in the end, the state acted to shut them down, because on the ground we had isolated them and driven them out.
The other big events were in Tower Hamlets, in east London. Tower Hamlets was a borough with the worst male unemployment and greatest overcrowding in London. At the time, the population of the borough was majority white, with the Asian population concentrated in particular areas. Disillusionment in the right-wing Labour council meant that the Liberals had taken control, and ran poisonous and divisive campaigns (for example, on the Isle of Dogs, ‘Island Homes for Island People’). The BNP were temporarily able to exploit that anger.
While the campaign was going on in Welling, in Tower Hamlets in August and September 1993 we were challenging the spot where the BNP ‘sold’ their paper every Sunday morning for weeks – really provocatively, in the heart of a Bangladeshi area on Brick Lane. This was not a paper sale, but an act of intimidation. We were building a campaign with the local youth and trade unions, and marching to their spot to challenge them. On 19 September, the local Asian community and the YRE had built up enough support so that when the BNP turned up their spot was occupied and they couldn’t carry out their sale.
Meanwhile, the Isle of Dogs ‘Action Group for Equality’ launched a petition to end all immigration. A young Asian teenager, Quddus Ali, was attacked and put in a coma. The BNP won a councillor, Derek Beackon, on the Isle of Dogs, in a by-election in September 1993.
The day after his election, council staff walked out of the neighbourhood centre in response. We campaigned in the local community, where we already had links because of the anti-poll tax campaign, to try to cut across divisions. We helped to build up a campaign to save local services and for a ‘People’s Budget’ for community services. We mobilised against Beackon; for example at his first council meeting people occupied the council chamber.
Asian youth, supported by the YRE, called a demo in the borough in October under the banner Youth Connection. In March 1994, the YRE organised a Tower Hamlets school students’ strike against racist attacks. Then the Trades Union Congress (TUC) led a demo of 40,000 through the borough. Beackon lost his seat in the full elections in May 1994.
Part of the campaign against the far right was helping to organise community defence. We helped local people organise a whistle-alarm system, where if fascists came on to an estate and people felt under threat, people would blow their whistles and lots of people would come out to confront them, to move them out of the area.
Alongside the YRE campaign, Militant Labour took the step of standing in a by-election in Weavers ward, Tower Hamlets in 1994, to put forward a political alternative with a working-class programme to answer the concerns of all sides of the community: no to local authority cuts, investment in jobs, build council houses, a future for young people.
We did a YRE school pack as well, to get into schools with our analysis, and to answer racist lies. In that pack we also talked about the history of the labour movement and the working class in fighting fascism, the need for working-class unity and the role of the trade unions. That had never really been done before.
We also launched Show Racism the Red Card in football. That came out of the school pack. And we had another big march and gig in Brussels, as well as an album, ‘By Any Means Necessary’. We also ran an anti-fascist youth camp in 1994.
We were doing all this work and were arguing that we couldn’t rely on the state and the establishment to get rid of the far right. That has been proven by the Spycops inquiry. While they should have been looking for Stephen Lawrence’s killers, they were actually spying on the Lawrence family, and on the YRE. Rolan Adams’ family was spied on too, and they are now core participants in the Spycops inquiry.
After one of the demos we organised in Becontree, east London, against a far-right ‘Blood and Honour’ gig, the police imprisoned us and put us on a tube train. They took us to Earls Court and, when we came out of the station, we were brutally attacked by riot police. Their priorities were to criminalise protestors and frighten people from protesting using their brutal tactics, rather than doing something about racism and fascism.
The BNP were beaten back in the 1990s, but the ongoing crises of capitalism, which the bosses always attempt to make the working class pay for, means that the possibility for the far-right to grow can re-emerge. The consolidation of the Labour Party as a pro-capitalist party under Tony Blair, which betrayed working-class people with cuts and privatisation, allowed the BNP to win councillors and even a London Assembly member in the 2000s.
Adopting the same methods as in the 1990s, the Socialist Party supported Youth Fight for Jobs to lead a demonstration of young Black, Asian and white people through Barking where the BNP had 12 councillors.
As racist and hooligan groupings like the English Defence League (EDL) and the Football Lads Alliance mobilised street demonstrations during the 2010s, hoping to grow in fertile territory under the blows of austerity. Again the Socialist Party responded with a class approach. We worked among young people and working-class communities, and in trade unions, to mobilise against these organisations.
Despite being attacked for doing so by the SWP, for example in the campaign to prevent the EDL from marching in Walthamstow, we linked fighting racism to fighting the cuts, putting forward demands that can unite all sections of the working class to fight the bosses and the super-rich, and so pull the rug from under far-right groupings.
The strike wave now taking place, and the campaign for a new workers’ party with a socialist programme, hold the potential to again undercut support for racist and divisive ideas and organisations.