After Woolwich killing: Time for unions to lead anti-racist fight

In the aftermath of the Woolwich killing, a minority has been involved in an increased number of racist attacks.

These have risen from between two and three attacks a day to at one point 140-150 a day.

The English Defence League (EDL) and the British National Party (BNP) have tried to exploit the killing for their own far-right, racist political ends.

Anti-racist activist Hugo Pierre looks at the background to these events and explains the urgent tasks before the labour movement.

The shocking scenes of the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich on 22 May have made an impact around the country: a young man screamed across the media that, “you people will never be safe… by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you”, while his hands were covered in his victim’s blood.

His words ‘you people’, echoing similar sentiments by the London 7/7 tube bombers, lay the blame for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with the mass of the British population.

The Socialist Party has condemned these attacks. We deplore the loss of life these mistaken attacks have led to and, in the case of the 7/7 bombings, the maiming and suffering caused.

The intention may have been to destabilise the British war machine, but this will not be successful.

Even if they knew beforehand that Lee Rigby was a serving soldier, he could not be held responsible for the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

These decisions were taken by a Labour government with almost full support of the Tory opposition at that time.


It must be remembered that these wars were deeply unpopular. Up to two million marched on the streets against the Iraq war and the state was forced to hold several inquiries in an attempt to pin the blame on Blair or justify that war.

But terrorist acts will neither change the minds of workers or politicians, nor develop greater opposition to the wars or military interventions.

The Socialist Party calls for mass working class action as the most effective means to stop war.

During the anti-Iraq war movement, the Socialist Party called for mass participation, including strike action and the building of a mass anti-war, working class political party, which could potentially have forced MPs to stop British involvement in the invasion.

The Socialist Party completely condemns acts of terrorism and the death and destruction they cause to working class people and communities.

Terrorism is carried out by individuals, without democratic involvement or a mandate from the movement as a whole.

The revulsion terrorist attacks create can be used by capitalist, pro-war, pro-austerity politicians to boost their support and, as the Con-Dems are doing, to attack democratic rights, including for activists and often particularly affecting black and Asian people.

With attempts to promote national unity, capitalist politicians hope to cut across the unity of the working class against racism and austerity.

Far-right racist groups have sought to exploit the sitiation since the Woolwich killing. The EDL organised a march on Downing Street, attended by up to 1,000.

Their members even chanted, “We hate Cameron!” in an attempt to pit themselves as the opposition to the mainstream parties.

The BNP attempted a similar march on 1 June but this was blocked by anti-racist protesters.

At this moment there are limits to the development of these organisations. Both were facing in-fighting, splits and a loss of their previous limited numbers.

However the death of Lee Rigby has allowed them to raise their racist slogans, particularly against Muslims, and their anti-immigration demands.

Racist attacks

The vile attempts to create division by these far-right groups give confidence to racists to attack. On 5 June an Islamic community centre in Muswell Hill, north London, was burnt down and graffiti reading “EDL” was scrawled on a wall.

On the night of 8 June an Islamist school in Bromley, south London, was set alight with the children inside.

This follows the limited success of Ukip, a pro-austerity and anti-working class party, in the county council elections.

The media, particularly the right-wing press, have hailed Ukip’s election surge as a success for anti-immigration and anti-foreigner policies in an attempt to push the Con-Dem government further to the right.

In reality, where working class people have voted for Ukip it has been out of despair and frustration in the face of unending austerity and three main parties who offer nothing else.

This mood is likely to have been added to by Labour’s recent push to show they would escalate rather than reverse the Con-Dems’ cuts if elected.

The continued slaughter of jobs, the further impoverishment of a section of workers and poor, and one million young people unemployed are making a whole generation angry.

This rage could take many forms and is a warning to the trade unions, which could be a powerful attraction to young people if they took action on pay, jobs and apprenticeships.

The call for a 24-hour general strike against austerity would give an immediate authority to the trade unions among young people who at this stage can see no hope for their future.

It is still not too late for the trade unions to act, but the longer they delay the greater will be the pull of right-wing ideas among some alienated white youth.

Blame game

Incredibly Labour MPs are now claiming they will not be ‘held to ransom’. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham who voted for the war in Iraq, claimed in an article he wrote for the Guardian that no government should have its “foreign policy dictated by the actions of a violent minority”. But what was Blair’s government if not a pro-war minority?

Some people have mistakenly drawn the conclusion that violent actions are the only option precisely because Blair’s government did not listen to the mass movement that developed to stop the war even though their key backers in the trade unions did not support the war either.

Many of the far-right Islamist groups did not support the mass movement against the war. Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun actively campaigned in mosques and among Muslims against participation in the demonstrations against the war.

This undoubtedly had a limited effect in some areas. When the anti-war movement failed, these groups proclaimed this as a victory for their ideas of further separation of Muslims into their own small movement.


These groups remain small and on the periphery of Muslim communities. Lammy raised the question of why some young men are drawn to these groups.

Undoubtedly the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, including torture and the bombing of wedding parties, civilian homes and the mass casualties, have repulsed most workers and made them commit further to oppose these wars.

But Lammy believes young British men have become isolated and vulnerable to ‘extremist’ ideas.

The conditions for young people in Britain today have provoked anger and an alienation from mainstream society.

A TUC study found that unemployment among black men under the age of 26 stands at 50%. Among some ‘communities’ this figure is undoubtedly higher.

Among Asian young men it is 30%, but much higher for those from Bangladeshi or Pakistani communities.

The 2011 riots gave a glimpse of the anger that exists among young people. But Lammy and others blame black families for this radicalisation.

Outrageously Lee Jasper, the former parliamentary byelection candidate for anti-war party Respect, has argued that the high number of single parent families is responsible for young black men being drawn to right-wing Islamic groups and terroristic methods.

But how does he explain a similar process that is taking place in Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities where the proportion of single parent families is a small fraction of the national average?

The common thread of poverty and joblessness has caused this alienation from mainstream society. The particular pressures on black families – institutional racism, partly a historical product of slavery and the continued pressures of capitalism on the family, as well as the disproportionate poverty suffered by black and Asian families – are not explained by Jasper or Lammy.

The rise in black youth unemployment started before the recession began in 2008 as the number of jobs started to dry up. This worsened the levels of poverty that already existed.

Jasper has further identified the brutal recruiting methods that some of the right-wing Islamist gangs are using – with threats of violence and death if young people don’t convert.

Unfortunately neither Lammy nor Jasper has a programme to address the desperate need to find opportunities for young people.

There are clearly specific circumstances that led the two suspects to act in the way they did. Both have been brutalised by what they have witnessed in their short lives – torture, murder and violence.

It has been reported that both were from Nigerian backgrounds. They would be aware of the brutal repression by the Nigerian regime of ordinary people in the Nigerian government’s own version of the ‘war on terror’.

It is still only a tiny minority of young black or Asian men who have turned to these right-wing Islamists.

But the failure of most trade unions to vigorously fight to change working conditions, fight poverty pay and the defence of jobs, means that as yet the trade unions do not appear an attractive option.

The threat of right-wing Islamist ideas and the increased threat of racism and racist attacks make it urgent for the trade unions to take action.

A fight for apprenticeships with trade union rates of pay and a proper job at the end would galvanise many youth, including both those who may be drawn towards right-wing Islamist groups and far-right racist groups.

A strong trade union-led movement against austerity, war and racism, is the best way to unite the mass of working class people and cut across division.

Poll of attraction

The trade unions must lead a high-profile campaign against racism that places trade union action at its heart.

They must actively involve themselves and their members in defending communities against racist attacks.

This is what makes the response of Lewisham NUT and Greenwich Unite to the Woolwich killing, Camden RMT to the Muswell Hill attack, and Bromley Unison to the school attack, so important.

Most importantly, the trade unions have a responsibility to put the full strength of their millions of members into a movement to stop all cuts.

That means agreeing a date for a 24-hour strike against austerity as well as ceasing to fund the war-mongering Labour Party and beginning to build a new, mass, working class political party.

Links to useful reading

No to terrorism, racism, war!

The politics of fighting the racist EDL

Stopping the far-right: The need for democratic debate

Under siege: Muslims in Britain