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International Socialism, September 1977


Tim Potter

Lessons of Lewisham


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 101, September 1977, pp. 18–23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The anti-fascist mobilisation at Lewisham on August 13 marked a new stage in the struggle against the new Nazis in Britain. West Indian youth were drawn into the struggle on a large scale for the first time, and the police used the occasion to try out a number of new tactics. Tim Potter draws the lessons of Lewisham.

THE MASS struggle at Lewisham to stop the National Front from marching has received front page treatment in every national newspaper. Dozens of articles have investigated the clash, and most have condemned the Socialist Workers Party who put out the call, answered by thousands, to rally in New Cross. Others have attempted to analyse the fascists and their prospects for growth. But the SWP have been waging a continuous battle against the fascists over the last six years and the press has paid little attention. So what has changed?

The most obvious difference and the one seized on by the press has been the level of violence. The most significant violence, in fact, came from the police. They used the opportunity to introduce not only their new riot shields and helmets but a whole series of new tactics designed to produce a major confrontation, which the left will ignore to its cost.

On the anti-fascist side, we must look beyond the sensationalist talk of ammonia bottles which may or may not have been used to stop the fascists to the really significant factor behind the violence that was undoubtedly used. The participants at Lewisham were not in the main, the comrades who have turned out on demonstration after demonstration against the Front, the majority came from South East London itself. It also involved people who had never taken action against the fascists; Millwall football fans, punk rockers, teds and above all the young West Indians. It was they who gave Lewisham its special character. Traditionally alienated from the revolutionary left, they assembled in their thousands to stop the Front. We must learn what produced that situation and how the strength and militancy of black youth can become a central component in the mass struggle against the fascists and racists in Britain.

A second change has been the attitude of the press. Only a year ago they were orchestrating a massive wave of racism which left at least five dead and a massive growth in the popularity of the National Front. Yet before Lewisham, many national and all local papers were calling for the march to be banned. Some went beyond this. At least three local papers have launched a campaign exposing the Front as Nazis and a couple of national papers have stopped calling the Front ‘right wing’ and now label them as ‘fascist’.

The final difference is the strength and tactics of the Front. Over the last three years, they have seen a rapid growth in their votes and their organisation. They appear poised to become the established party of protest pushing the Liberals out into the cold. And yet their active support has not noticeably increased. The fascists could only muster 600 people at Lewisham even though they were guaranteed massive police protection and had ordered a national turn-out of all their members. This is only a quarter of what they were mobilising a year ago.

At the same time as they appear to be on the brink of electoral ‘respectability’ they have also stepped up their physical attacks on the black community, on socialists and gays. In the past, the Front’s leaders have always attempted to separate their patriotic, respectable electoral face from the activities of their thugs. But the Lewisham campaign saw a major change in their tactics. Street meetings were broken up and Socialist Worker sellers beaten up in the 2 months before August 13th. It reached a peak when fifty NF members were arrested attacking a demonstration on July 2 called by the Lewisham 21 Defence Campaign, with missiles ranging from eggs to bottles of poison. Similar reports from Leeds, Edinburgh and throughout London would seem to indicate that the Front’s leaders are reassessing their strategy.

Lewisham is important since it marks the first point in the clash between these movements; the radicalisation of parts of the black community, a growing fascist movement, attracting attention from the press, and the police adopting a policy of confrontation.

The Political Crisis

THE REASON for these changes in the fight against the fascists lies in experience of the Labour Government over the last three years. Since 1974, the government has inflicted the heaviest economic defeat on the working class since the 1930’s. Over the last year, wages have fallen by a record 7 per cent, unemployment has reached a post-war high of 1.6 million. The welfare state, the symbol of British reformism, is being dismantled by the party that built it. The trade unions, the most fundamental organisations of the working class, have been forced by their leaders in support of government policy. Thus it is not surprising that the traditional base of the Labour Party is in flux. Much has drifted off into political abstention but sections have turned to new political alternatives of both the left and right. A huge political space has opened up in Britain’s political scene. All the traditional parties and organisations are united in the need for working class sacrifice. Any group which can put forward a different strategy is bound to pick up an increasing level of support.

In Scotland and Wales, the deserters from the traditional parties have flocked to the nationalists. In England it has been the fascists of the National Front who have capitalised to a lesser degree from the growing disillusionment in the traditional parties.

It is not the left who has given the fascists the opportunity to grow by giving them ‘publicity’ as the press and traditional parties charge. Rather it has been successive governments who have created the breeding grounds for fascism. It is they, not the revolutionary left, who have created mass unemployment, who have attacked living standards and who have made racism respectable by their introduction of immigration laws which have quite openly discriminated against black people. The press too, used their power very effectively last year, when, on the eve of the introduction of Stage Two of the Social Contract they orchestrated the biggest racist witchhunt against black immigrants to date. The declining English cities are a fertile ground for fascism; black workers, sucked into the lowest paid jobs when profits were easy in the making are an obvious scapegoat when mass unemployment grows. The racist and chauvinist ideas which permeate many sections of the British working class are more likely to regard immigrants as outside competitors for scarce resources than as potential allies in the class struggle.

The Front’s rise to national status has been the result of giving a focus to these ideas. In a period of economic and social crisis, when the self-activity of much of the working-class movement, normally expressed in economic militancy, has been suppressed, and when the traditional organisations of the class offer no solution, the Front’s ideas appear to have a relevance.

The National Front’s tactics

THE FRONT’S rise certainly seems impressive. In the local elections this year they stood in 91 London consitituencies, receiving 119,000 votes. Further they beat the Liberals in 33 seats and in some East London seats gained up to 20 per cent of the votes. And undoubtedly their organisation has grown rapidly, aided by the orchestrated wave of racism that swept the country last summer.

However, the Front’s leaders are discovering that the task of building a mass fascist party (as opposed to attracting a racist protest vote) is not an easy task. First, unlike the nationalists in Scotland and Wales, who are growing for the same basic reasons as the Front, the fascists have not achieved a significant electoral breakthrough in any area of Britain. Indeed a careful analysis of the fascist vote in the Guardian (20.8.77) showed that a ‘peak of NF support was reached in 1976 and the Front’s vote is currently moving down’. Certainly in the cities outside London, where it is strongest, its vote has dropped from last year. In Bradford it fell from 7.3 per cent to 4.4 per cent and from 16 per cent to 13.5 per cent in Leicester. Even in London their votes are about the same (bar a couple of places where they have a real base) as the figures that the lunatic right were getting in the 1950s and 1960s.

The real danger is not that the Front are swiftly gaining mass support but that with the latest collapse of the Liberals they may become the third party in Britain, an established part of the political order.

However to become a respectable party is only a tactic for the Front. The aim of their leaders is to turn their racist voters into a fascist movement, which can prove its value to capitalism by taking on the mass organisations of the working class. For that they need to train and solidify their members in the struggle on the streets now against blacks, socialists and gays, later against the unions themselves.

The street marches of the Front are essential for them if they are to turn their voters into members and their members into fascists. In the words of Tyndall himself:

‘I believe that our great marches, with drums and flags and banners, have a hypnotic effect on the public and an immense effect in solidifying the allegiance of our followers, so that their enthusiasm can be sustained’.

But their marches have not been so ‘great’ recently – look at Lewisham and Wood Green.

The Front’s real problem was to develop their strength from their base in East London. It is here that they have their best organisation, their highest vote. It is London that is the political centre for the middle class, fascism’s class base. And in London live half of Britain’s black workers.

On April 23rd they attempted to march in North London. They met the biggest anti-fascist demonstration they had yet seen. Even with their usual massive police protection they received a severe mauling. Their first attempt to break out of East London had failed.

Meanwhile their East London thugs were getting discontented. They could not march and they were not a part of the NF’s bid to become a respectable electoral party. A major gap to the right of the NF had opened up and was beginning to be filled by the out and out Nazis of the British Movement. Indeed one of the NF’s key leaders in the East End, Derek Day, resigned from the Front to join the British Movement. David Cossidine in Socialist Worker has recently revealed the extent to which BM material, banned by the Front’s leaders, was circulating within the Front. The thugs had to be kept content.

In addition, the political situation is moving rapidly away from the very favourable set of circumstances that was exploited so ably by the Front last year. The move against the Social Contract cannot be submerged by another wave of press-inspired racism. In the struggles in the workplaces the Front have no answer unless they openly reveal their true plans for the working class, the breaking of the unions. In the period of militancy which appears to be opening up, the predominantly working-class base of the Front could be severely cut away. A factor which has accentuated the crisis in the Front has been the increasingly bad press they have been receiving. This is not because editors, have had a collective change of heart, but it does mark a major shift from the press-inspired racist hysteria a year ago.

Last year, the debate over the Social Contract was effectively submerged by Fleet Street. This year, it would be impossible. With the TUC split and significant groups of workers already taking action for higher wages attention could not be shifted away from it by an irrelevant ‘debate’ over race. A second factor has been the rapid radicalisation of journalists especially in the local papers. Although the prime issue has been the fight for the closed shop and job security, many journalists have been worried by the effects of last year’s racist campaign. The 1976 conference of the National Union of Journalists passed a series of guide-lines aimed at preventing racist articles. Local papers especially have often taken a very hard line against the Front as it is their local readership that are worst affected by the violence that conies with the Front trying to organise. Certainly, the sustained call from the London press for the NF march to be banned in Lewisham was a result of fears of the opposition that the march would bring. Thus a secondary effect of the left’s activity against the Front has been to brand them as fascist in the eyes of many.

Black youth in revolt

THE EFFECTS of the economic and social crisis on people’s loyalties have not merely led to a growth in the Front, it has also radicalised sections of West Indian and Asian youth. Unemployment has hit black people especially hard. Between November 1973 and May 1975, black unemployment rose by 156 per cent compared to a total unemployed rise of 65 per cent. Young blacks have been the worst hit. Three years ago, there were 40,000 school leavers unemployed, today there are 400,000 on the dole. In the inner city areas, to be young and black is almost synonymous with being out of work. A year ago, before another 250,000 young people swelled the unemployment totals, Counter Information Services estimated that ‘in many urban areas at least 60 per cent of black youth are without work’.

Mass unemployment’s led to a common dissatisfaction with certain aspects of society and a banding together of sections of black youth in local areas. The response to their oppression has varied enormously. In some areas, it has led to militant anti-racism and self-organisation, elsewhere it has led to a sustained attempt to form a self-identity and to rediscover their own culture. A common characteristic however has been a determination to assert their rights as members of this society and to fight against their specific oppression within it. This has increasingly brought them up against the racism that permeates British society and which over the last few years has been mobilised by fascists, press and government alike.

The response of Asian and West Indian youth to this oppression has been significantly different. The wave of racist attacks last year brought an immediate response from wide sections of Asian youth. Rejecting the advice of their traditional community leaders to stay cool and rely on the police for their defence, mass movements were thrown up in response to racist attacks. In London, self-defence groups were formed in Southall, Tooting and the East End. In Bolton and Southall, youth movements sprang up attracting wide support from the local community.

The response of the West Indian youth did not have the cohesiveness that marked the movements of young Asians. Organised mass movements of West Indians were rare and never had the impact within the community that for instance the Southall Youth Movement had. However major changes were taking place.

Any section of young people will tend to come into conflict with the authority of a society that keeps them forcibly unoccupied. But this becomes almost a certainty when the youth are black and meet a consistent, deep-rooted racism most immediately among the police.

Even by 1971, National Opinion Polls reported:

‘It is somewhat disturbing to see the extent to which coloured people are critical of the police. The West Indians in Brent were particularly critical in thinking that the police generally pick on coloured people and id not deal with them fairly in their locality. Our impression is this criticism is too widespread to be a figment of our information.’

This hostility towards the police is understandable to say the least when for instance a policewoman in Liverpool made a statement to the local radio station that:

‘In certain police stations, particularly in the city centre, brutality and drug planting and the harassing of minority groups takes place regularly ... After hearing the word “agriculture” used on a number of occasions I asked what it meant. The reply was “planting” but you can leave that to us.’

Since 1971, we have seen the introduction of the Special Patrol Group, the use of the catch-all charges of ‘suspicion’ and ‘conspiracy’ and major street-fights between police and blacks.

A brief examination of police behaviour in Lewisham itself over the last two years shows the extent to which police harassment has increased and blacks are prepared to fight back. In 1975, the new Commander of the Lewisham police released to the local press to the delight of the NF his own definition of ‘mugging’ commenting that it was carried out by ‘lazy, vicious, little criminals’. As a result, the Special Patrol Group were called in. The level of harassment reached new heights, when the local youth club was threatened with invasion by the SPG, a serious clash was only avoided when the police were warned that the young blacks were prepared to fight it out.

The story could be repeated all over London. Indeed the police reported 40 incidents in a year, where black people intervened to stop arrests. The wrecking of Carnival last year by massive police intervention marked a turning point. The major battle between police and blacks coming at the peak of racist hysteria, understandably led to an identification of the police and the NF as being twin evils. Then the police reprisals against black youth in Islington, Kensal Rise and Lewisham on charges of suspicion and conspiracy have led to an increasing level of tension.

In Lewisham, for instance, significant numbers of blacks began to be active in support of the 21 arrested for conspiracy in ‘Operation Police Nigger Hunt’ as the police so delicately put it. And as the fascists intervened and police harassed the Defence Campaign more and more young blacks began to be drawn into action. A year ago, C.I.S. wrote of black youths in Lewisham:

‘They talk of a state of warfare between themselves and police. They complain of repeated pick-ups, beatings and interrogations. They speak of the unbearable tension of the situation, which could explode into open confrontation at any time.’

That was a year ago. After a further 12 months of increased harassment and where the police were prepared to defend the Front march through Lewisham, the SWP’s call to stop the fascists was the catalyst around which the youth could mobilise. And who can wonder when confronted by the fascist or attacked by the police, they used anything that came to hand to defend themselves?

The Police on the offensive

THE POLICE’S role in Lewisham over the last decade led to the mobilisation of wide sections of the black community in August. But throughout the country there has been a major increase in the role of the police.

Over the last two years, the stability of the government has been extremely fragile. Whilst it is true that many workers accepted the Social Contract, any minority within the trade unions could have had an enormous impact in changing the whole mood of the working class movement. As the tensions produced by the Social Contract increase, limited issues can become extremely politicised. Grunwicks is an obvious example. Ten years ago it would have been settled or forgotten about in the space of a month becomes the major political issue of the day and threatens to let loose movements that threaten the stability of the government.

In this situation the role of the police can become of national importance. Their role is to break up or intimidate any movement which appears to have the possibility of acting as a focus of major opposition to the government’s policies. But over the last few months there has been a significant change in police tactics. When the ‘liberal’ Robert Mark was head of the Metropolitan Police the strategy was to break down as far as possible the gap between the police and public life. This meant the well-publicised purges of the most corrupt sections of the police, the fevered attempts to recruit blacks and a general emphasis on the ‘community of interests’ between the police and society. Of course, the other side of this approach was the introduction of the Special Patrol Group and the attacks on Carnival and the first Right to Work March. But it is important to remember that the SPG was supposed to be a secret force until they were revealed after shooting two young unarmed Indians.

Moreover, the press could be relied upon to treat both Carnival and the Right to Work Campaign very unsympathetically.

But the whole enterprise was a costly failure. The top of the police were partially cleaned up, but that was all. Black cops were not recruited, street clashes continued as did the alienation between police and the young, and the SPG could not stop protesters whether they were blacks, unemployed or striking dockers.

The new approach of ‘Hammer’ McNee is now upon us. His strategy is far more direct. It attempts to confront any opposition directly and with the necessary force to break it up. Of course such a policy has its risks, the major one of being an escalation in support for the original movement. Grunwicks is a case in point. It only became a national issue around which trade unionists could be mobilised after the police had arrested 80 trade unionists on the first day of the mass picket. Indeed the police appeared to want to escalate the situation by arresting MPs and trade union leaders.

However for the police this has its advantages. It enables them to assume a far more political role within the state. They are now able to make major decisions over issues which they themselves have made political. As a result it strengthens their own position within society.

A brief examination of the events at Lewisham show this process at work. Contrary to what sections of the press have been saying, the police have often taken the initiative in radically re-routing fascist marches to avoid confrontation. For instance in Leicester, in 1974 the police banned the Front from going anywhere near the main Asian communities. Yet at Lewisham they made only the smallest amendments to the march even though most of the national press, all the local press, the council, the TUC, and the Labour Party had called for the demonstration to be banned or re-routed. But the police insisted even though they knew that it would provoke a major reaction from parts of the local community, and that if the fascists did get through it would mean a huge boost to their confidence with the inevitable result of increased violence, a situation the police say they want to prevent. In fact, the police were looking for a confrontation with the left and black community. On at least two occasions, the police did not attempt to stop large numbers of demonstrators from marching to confront the fascists.

The first was when nearly 2,000 people were allowed to march a mile from the morning march to join those who answered the call of the SWP. Yet even though the police were fully aware of the plan, even though they used radio networks and helicopters to monitor the march and even though they had a quarter of the Metropolitan Police on duty they made no pretence of even trying to impede the demonstrators. A similar situation occurred in the afternoon when thousands passed within fifty yards of a police cordon to reach Lewisham High Street. Again no attempt was made to stop us.

But the most notorious incident was the police attack on the anti-fascists at the end of the Front’s march. Even though the police knew our object was achieved, it was here that police attacked using their shields, horses, batons and vans.

The police may not be renowned for their intelligence but they are not that stupid. The object of Lewisham was to strengthen their own position in relation to both society and to their nominal rules in government. The police have succeeded; the government has capitulated to McNee, refusing to grant the enquiry into police behaviour demanded by Lewisham Council. It also gave the police the opportunity to introduce a high level of technology and violence and to acclimatise the public to its use. Again they have succeeded at least if the press is anything to go by. The papers were soon carrying articles with such titles as After the Riot Shields, Stun Bags? The trend is catching on; it was reported that West Yorkshire police may soon be issued with riot shields after the first outbreak in 100 years of that major social evil, Rugby hooliganism. Soon they will be needing machine guns to help old people across the street.

In Conclusion

THE OBJECT OF Lewisham for the police was achieved but that does not mean that the victory was all on their side. Police tactics of escalating violence have been in evidence for at least a year. We must recognise that in front of us there is a long process of patient explanation about the role of the police, for after all the myth about the British police ‘being the best in the world’ is very deeply rooted. But that is what is needed. We have to take up and publicise every instance of police harassment and brutality, to work on all the internal contradictions within the force and, above all, to organise a mass movement capable of stopping the fascists and supporting picket lines that need it.

The second lesson from Lewisham and Carnival is that thousands of young people are prepared to fight against what they regard as being their main oppressor.

In Lewisham, they fought the fascists and then defended themselves from the police. At Carnival this year they rebelled against a life that condemns them to oppression both because of their class and their colour. The revolutionary left must give a lead and direction to that militancy. Unless it is channelled into political objectives, the left could be rejected as being irrelevant to their struggles. The alternatives are clear: either the left is prepared to give a lead or the various movements amongst young people could become completely alienated from the working-class movement. This process is already under way in Italy where parts of the student movement, women and young people have rejected all established political parties including the revolutionary left. We cannot ignore a mass movement however far it strays from the left’s preconceptions about what the movement should look like: and however difficult the task.

We must channel that militancy into a mass movement, capable of fighting against the real oppression in our society – the fight against the fascists, against police harassment, against unemployment, against wage-cuts and against cultural oppression, a movement capable of changing the whole basis of this society.

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