From International Socialism (1st series), No.93, March 1976, pp.16-19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
SPRAWLED in the valley of the river Soar lies the City of Leicester, with a population of close on 300,000. It is quite a historic city too, although you wouldn’t guess it from the skyscrapers on the skyline. However, as it is likely that the reader of these lines knows of Leicester less for its Roman antiquities than as a center of reaction in general and the National Front in particular, on that theme I shall concentrate.
Leicester has traditionally been a very affluent town, in fact it was once said to be the most prosperous in Europe. Its wealth was based on the hosiery industry and later on the engineering plants that grew up to supply it. Throughout the long boom of the fifties and sixties. shortages of skilled workers pushed wages up and there was plenty of overtime going, but hand in hand with this prosperity went a low level of trades union organisation and an almost complete lack of militancy. By the mid seventies, the good times were over with inflation and unemployment rising while the local union leaders sat by and watched. Instead of leading a fight for jobs they merely made nationalist demands for import controls – the assumption being that unemployment in South Korea is somehow preferable to unemployment in Leicester. It was against this background of crisis with no-one seeming to have any solutions that the Front grew.
Organised racialism is, however, not entirely new to Leicester. Both the National Socialist Movement and the Ku-Klux-Klan had small cells here in the mid sixties engaging in activities like planting burning crosses (the Klan member who did this was later gaoled at Leicester assizes for his part in the murder of an Indian) and carrying out petrol bomb attacks on an Indian owned pub. At least one of the NSM members involved in this is now in the National Front.
But in the absence of any mass support, this was all they could do. Their first real break came in 1968 following Powell’s first speech when a group called the Anti-Immigration Society (AIMS) was set up in Leicester with the sole purpose of making racialist propaganda. It was members of AIMS who established the Leicester branch of the National Front in March 1969; just seven years later they were within sight of winning seats on the city council.
The Front in Leicester is unusual in many respects, unlike other branches in say London or Leeds its leadership does not consist of Nazis or criminals. Instead it falls broadly into two sections. Firstly there are ex-AIMS people who tend to be working class and concerned with straight racialism, and secondly there are the ex-Conservatives who became disillusioned during the Heath regime. This group includes Tony Reed-Herbert who is now NF organiser but formerly ran the Leicester young Conservatives, and John Ryde, an ex-Monday Club member. This group tend to be far more middle class than the AIMS people. The transition from the Tory right to the Front was not particularly difficult since the NF said what most Tories felt and the difference was mainly one of emphasis and tactics.
The Front in Leicester has gained considerably from the Conservatives problem of bridging the gap between their innate racialism and the need to get black votes, thus in April 1976 an ex-Conservative councillor named Betty Turner joined the Front after the Tories had decided to play down racialism.
The Front’s activities are also interesting, for the most part they tend to be quite a pathetic collection of dissatisfied petit-bourgeois, who, were it not for the influence their evil ideas possess, would be more deserving of pity than rage. Looking through their list of candidates, one is struck by the numbers of shopkeepers and self-employed among them. The Front regards work among such people. always hit hard by any crisis, as being very important, and it is paying dividends NF member Peter Ash was recently elected secretary of Leicester National Federation of Self-Employed for example.
It is easy to understand the attraction the Front has for such people in a constantly changing confusing world some people feel over-awed and somehow inferior, and they react by clinging harder to symbols they know and can understand: the union Jack, the monarchy, law and order, etc. Then, too, the NF gives a now meaning to the drab and conventional lives of such people and they find themselves wield ing political influence for the first time. By standing in elections and beating major party candidates they acquire an importance they could otherwise never have.
How many members does the Front have in Leicester? In April, Tony Reed-Herbert claimed a thousand members. There is no reason to doubt him. However, activists are another matter completely. The highest attendance ever recorded at a branch meeting was 120 in the aftermath of the local elections, normally attendance is nearer 50 or 60. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that their monthly bulletins read more like information sheets than guides to action, one recently had to explain who Robert Relf was!
This low number of activists is confirmed by attendance at national demonstrations held in Leicester. The August 1974 bulletin had to positively exhort members to turn up. the implication being that unless this was done they wouldn’t turn up! In the event attendance was 600 for a national demonstration.
The Front in Leicester is also no less liable to splits and quarrels, and faction fights frequently based on personality are common, particularly in the period of demoralisation which follows one success. This happened in late 1972 and spring 1973 when one leader was expelled, others resigned while one member was accused of misappropriation of funds although nothing concrete was proved against him.
The Front’s grassroots support in Leicester is undoubted. They contested their first local elections in 1972, their 6 candidates polling an average 7 percent. The coming of the Ugandan Asians gave them their first big break in terms of members and support, a march at this time attracted 2,000 people, most of them local and at the district council elections of 1973 their 23 candidates polled an average of 14.7 per cent. In two inner city wards, Latimer and Charnwood. their candidates polled 24 per cent and 26 per cent respectively and heat all Conservatives. The next elections did not take place until May 1976 and by that time the party of Callaghan and Wilson had replaced that of Thatcher and Heath as the immediate tool of the ruling class. Quite naturally workers cannot be expected to vote for unemployment and wage cuts so it was clear that there would be a swing to the right in the absence of any credible alternative, but in April the affair of the homeless Asians at Crawley. blown up by the Tory press, gave the racialists a massive boost. In the opinion of the author, white rage was so intense at this time that one more racial incident might well have sparked off rioting hitherto unknown in England.
In the event, the Front contested all 48 scats and came away with no less than 18.2 per cent of the vote. 14,566 people voting for them. At the mainly council estate Abbey ward their vote was 31 per cent, and they came within 62 votes of winning one seat and 213 of winning all three seats. At inner city Latimer ward they polled 28 per cent and beat all Conservative candidates, at middle class Evington they polled 21 per cent and beat Labour’s three candidates. At two other wards, inner city Charnwood and socially mixed Belgrave their vote topped 25 per cent. In only one ward did it drop below 10 per cent.
Across the city over a quarter of white voters supported the Front, and in the inner city wards the proportion was even higher – under a system of proportional representation they would have won seven seats. This performance is actually more impressive than that of the National Party at Blackburn whose two candidates were elected without Tory opposition. Most significant of all, the Front has begun to erode Labour voters to a significant degree, particularly on the council estates. Previously their support had tended to come from dissident working class Conservatives. They have also proved that they are not a flash in the pan, and if they maintain or improve on this vote at next year’s county council elections they will have smashed through the credibility barrier, they will have become an acceptable alternative.
The Front in Leicester does not hold public meetings (even at election times) for fear of the consequences, but disturbing evidence is appearing that they are preparing for violence. Apart from the so-called ‘honour guard’ of thugs who travel about looking for trouble, the branch has a policy of encouraging members to join the territorial Army where they can obtain military and combat training. Recently, too, the so-called Legion of Frontiersmen was set up in Leicester. Little is known about this shadowy organisation but it seems that it is yet another private army and the fact that one of its leaders in Blackburn is John Kingsley-Reed gives some idea of its nature.
The Front is also well financed – it has to be since its expenditures are considerable, two general election campaigns in 1974 costing over £2300 while the recent local elections cost over £ 1200. All this money is raised locally – one of the few areas this is done and the vast majority comes from small donations and a tote scheme they run. This is unavoidable since in Leicester there are no significant businessmen or landowners associated with the Front.
The Leicester branch was also a supporter of Kingsley-Read in his fight against the more overt Nazis, but nevertheless they didn’t seceed with Kingsley-Read, probably because to do so would be to lose the valuable impact the name and the initials NF have in Leicester and to have to start afresh building up another identity.
In the May 1974 edition of Spearhead, John Tyndall wrote:
‘An organisation would be formed which would aim at securing for the National Front a foothold in the trade unions. This organisation would seek to assist NF trade unionists in getting elected to office ... the intention of the National Front is to do what the Tories have not done and cannot do, to fight the left in its own ground in the unions ...’
This advice has, however, largely fallen on deaf ears in many branches, Leicester included. This is perhaps not surprising since the Tories that run the branch can hardly be expected to sympathise with the hopes and aspirations of working people. In Leicester the Front has many members of unions and even a few shop stewards, but it has no-one of any standing as a trade unionist and no organised base in the local Labour movement. One of the reasons for this is that they have tended to concentrate on electoral politics where they know easy gains are possible. So far they have not attempted to recruit workers as workers, since to do so would involve having to commit themselves to one line on industry, something they are loath to do.
However, the presence of significant numbers of NF members and sympathisers on the shop floor, even if they have no union base, can become dangerous when an issue arises which can be portrayed as racial politics.
Such an issue arose with the strike by Asian workers at Imperial Typewriters in 1974 over a whole range of grievances including the lack of democratic election of shop stewards as well as chicanery and racialism on the part of the management. The strike became portrayed as a black v. white issue and the white workers not merely scabbed but later struck in protest against the re-instatement of Asian strike leaders – the only battle won by the strikers. The NF played a very active role in this, having several members at Imperial, one, an ex-Tory foreman named Tony Cartwright, later became an NF parliamentary candidate. So divisive were the Front’s activities that when Litton Industries, the American multinational that owns Imperial closed the factory in 1975, the workers were so divided that resistance proved impossible.
Another chapter in this sorry story concerns the disgracegul behaviour of the leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union in Leicester, who refused to make the strike official, to aid the strikers in any way and instead issued statements condemning outside intervention. At the time there were several other strikes by Asian workers in Leicester and none received any aid at all from the TGWU. It is a tribute to their courage that they refused to let this intimidate them. Indeed, some of the local TGWU bureaucrats in Leicester do not deserve the title ‘trade unionist’, for by refusing to aid their members in struggle and remaining silent on racialism they gave aid and comfort to the National Front – and they knew it, they let their racialism obscure the deeper implications.
An indication of the National Front’s real opinion of trade unions came at this time with the formation of the English Nationalist Party, a tiny offshoot from the LeicesterNF Their first venture was to establish a so-called Nationalist Union of Workers that would: ‘give you a chance to WORK through the strike that is not in the best interest of the workers or is being called because of some ridiculous outside matters that do not concern the factory’. Since the Front is committed to building a presence in the unions, this rubbish is not official policy but it undoubtedly appeals to many members and it is worth noting that in 1972 the Leicester branch passed a motion to the Front’s annual conference calling for a separate NF trade union – a union of scabs. At least two members of the NUW, one of whom has now rejoined the National Front, got publicity for fighting to remain outside a trade union.
The factors which make it easy for the Front to organise in Leicester are precisely those which make it difficult to organise a fight back. Since the trades unions are weak compared with other industrial centres like Glasgow or Manchester, and since there is no tradition of militancy, feelings of class solidarity are difficult to invoke, thus making the Front’s racial politics more credible, and faced with an unemployment rate unknown in Leicester’s history the general reaction of the local union bureaucracy has been to demand import controls, a demand which seems fair enough on the face of it, but represents no practical solution to the problems facing workers and as a result leads to the demoralisation and despair which fascists thrive upon.
A party composed of shopkeepers and small businessmen and led by unrepentant nazis presents little threat to the working class – it only becomes dangerous when its momentum attracts large numbers of backward workers to it, and this can only happen when demoralisation and despair are the prevalent moods. This is, however, largely the situation in Leicester where the Front’s main strength lies not so much in 1000 members but in the fact that racialism is the accepted norm. For example, the author has frequently witnessed two perfect strangers strike up a conversation in a bus queue and after a few remarks about the weather, out come the complaints about the failings and shortcomings of Indians. The significant thing about this is that the assumption is made that everyone is a racialist and so, instead of the NF having to fight to establish racist ideology, as it has in some ares, in Leicester the ground is already made. So far, the main thing that has inhibited the NF in electoral terms is the reluctance of people to ‘waste’ their vote by supporting a party with no chance of election, but with their high vote in this year’s local elections, they are proving a credible alternative – unlike the experience of the Mosleyites at North Kensington in the fifties or the British National Party at Southall in the sixties, the Front in Leicester are gaining strength rather than losing it. If, at next year’s county council elections, the Front can sustain this performance, then people’s reluctance to support them will be overcome since in several wards they have a reasonable chance of being elected, and once that happens, the chips will really be down for they will become respectable overnight and will draw in many of the uncommitted racialists that infest Leicester.
As we have seen, fascists grow primarily by offering solutions for real problems which no-one else is willing or able to fight. In housing for example, mass immigration in the sixties and seventies showed up in sharp relief Leicester’s housing problems; it had been that way before of course, but only received publicity when black people were living there. Obviously the thing to do is to campaign against cuts; there is a housing shortage because not enough houses are being built – its as simple as that. When it comes to unemployment we must build the Right to Work Campaign as a credible opposition to the right wing in the unions, in that way the irrelevance of racialist arguments will become clear. It is important to bear in mind that even the most appalling trade union leaders are not completely free agents – they can only sell-out and betray to the extent that their members let them, if a real rank and file movement were built then these people would have to commit themselves to opposition to government policies, or they would find their positions being usurped by new and uncompromising leaders from below.
Along with the day to day struggles on the shop floor which heighten workers confidence and so make them more resistant to fascist ideas, it is necessary to wage a consistant fight against the racist ideology which is so prevalent in Leicester. This is perhaps the most daunting uphill task of all, particularly given the racist nature of the local paper, the Leicester Mercury, which always seems to have difficulty resisting the temptation to use ‘ASIAN CONVICTED OF PARKING OFFENSE’ as its front page headline. Nevertheless, it is a task which must be attempted for it is vital to stop racialist ideas being accepted as the norm, instead of being regarded as extreme and eccentric nonsense.
It also means putting forward alternative goals. Merely shouting ‘One race – the human race’ as proposed by the Leicester Communist Party in alliance with sundry Liberals and vicars has limited effect – those attracted to the Front are fed up with rhetoric from politicians, instead they art impressed by action. In this context it is important to note that alone of capitalist parties, the Front does not call for workers sacrifices but instead says ‘Send them back’. To fight this socialists must have positive solutions to eradicate the sores which fascists breed upon – low pay – unemployment – slums. The fight against racialism cannot be separated from – indeed is an integral part of – the fight against reformist and class-collaborationist attitudes.
Propaganda exposing the background of NF leaders is important but it is necessary to recognise its limitations. In 1973 for example, leaflets exposing the background of Tyndall and Webster created such anxiety among rank and file NF members, many, of whom learnt of their leaders background for the first time, that NF HQ had to issue a special circular to Leicester members reassuring them that the charges only referred to a few people (they did not specifically deny them). But similar leaflets in 1976 had far less effect on people who were obsessed by the Asians at Crawley.
For hard-core fascists, there is one argument they understand – physical force. If fascists cannot march, then the dissatisfied people who comprise the Front will see that it too does not present an outlet for their frustrations and petty prejudices – and they become demoralised. But here we must be careful, for if fascists can march behind massive police protection and the left appears impotent to stop them, then their morale improves as has happened recently. But if five or ten thousand people assembled with the clear purpose of physically stopping a nazi march – then the police would probably not allow them to march. In the 1974 march in Leicester the nazi turnout dropped to 600 for fear of violence while the police – who really feared a second Red Lion Square – banned them from going anywhere near the black areas of the city. Indeed, it seems quite likely that the police would have banned them outright were it not for the desire not to be seen to give in to the threats from the left.
Finally, a word about the vexed question of United Fronts. The United Front is formed around a specific object. Thus we might form a Front to stop the fascists using a hall for a meeting but we do not do so against fascism in general since the object of such a front is to force the leader of reformist and centrist groups to live up to their pretentions. And we must be clear that we are talking of united fronts within the working class, not with any motley collection of vicars who will not support physical action against fascists. The anti-fascist committees that have sprung up in many localities can be a promising development – providing they have an orientation towards the working class and the trade union movement. If they merely serve to fulfill the ambitions of left sectarians they are useless.
In several cities across the land, and Leicester is one of them, the fascists either are, or will probably soon be, a serious menace to the property and lives of black people. In those circumstances physical action against fascists will become the litmus test for distinguishing those who are seriously attempting to build a revolutionary alternative from those who are merely careerists and hacks.
Last updated on 3.2.2008