Friday, June 18, 2010

The real eastenders

You probably didn't hear about this, but the other day some members of the English Defence League engaged in a sort kamikaze mission in Whitechapel, attacking members of the public and ripping the garments off Muslim women. They were rapidly outnumbered by the arrival of hundreds of locals, and police had to lock the EDL idiots in Whitechapel tube station for a few hours. This suicide attack, as it were, was probably the result of despair after the EDL leadership called off an equally suicidal march into the East End, purportedly against an Islamic conference that was to take place on 20th June (that's this Sunday). Now, even if there had been no political response to this, such a march would likely have provoked enormous opposition in this working class heartland.

But there was an immediate response, which was to call a United East End march to oppose the EDL - supported by several trade unions, by UAF, Love Music Hate Racism, by the Muslim Council of Britain, and by the Islamic Forum of Europe. As I've said before, it's important that there is a political response to such attacks, because groups like the EDL and their BNP allies want to polarise the community along racist lines. 17 years ago, the BNP made a small step in this direction by getting their first councillor elected in Tower Hamlets. The council's decision to rehouse Bangladeshi families in Millwall properties that could not be sold was being treated as an act of positive discrimination by the Liberals, who attempted to exploit the issue to win a seat that had come up for bye-election. The BNP, which had been building some pockets of support in the East End in the early 1990s, took the seat and only lost it after an energetic local campaign. They were subsequently shut out of Tower Hamlets for a long time. They stand candidates in places like Millwall and Bow West, but have yet to make a real breakthrough.

Now mark the response of the local Labour leadership. Tower Hamlets council, in the persons of leader Helal Abbas and deputy leader Josh Peck, put tremendous pressure on the organisers of said Islamic conference to call it off, citing allegations of 'views attributed to some of the speakers'. The organisers, the Islamic Society of City University (Isoc), are hardly a threat to anyone, though they are constantly being witch-hunted by the usual dirt from the Centre for Social Cohesion, and subject to repeated baiting by the City Inquirer and the scum over at Harry's Place. The Isoc works in an institution where Muslims are under increasing scrutiny. For example, lecturer Rosie Waterhouse recently called for the banning of the niqab there on the pathetic grounds that she found such dress 'threatening'. Muslims were also attacked in a spate of racist assaults near City University last year, though perversely the university management has used this as an excuse to close the Muslim prayer room. At any rate, the EDL, aware of the allegations against Isoc, attempted to exploit them. And the council seems to have responded by treating Isoc, an entirely peaceful organisation, as an equivalent to the violent bampots of the EDL.

The council also applied pressure to the conference hosts, the Troxy, to cancel the event, saying that they might have to review their working relationship with the company otherwise. That's a pretty big club to bring to any negotiation. The Troxy complied, and the event is looking for another venue. The EDL leadership, admitting that they would have been hammered had they tried to enter Tower Hamlets, called off the demonstration, claiming a victory. The United East End march, intended to underline the refusal of local communities to be divided along racial lines, is still going ahead. It's important, because these racist provocateurs have proven that they are intent on continuing to try and polarise the situation. There are, of course, other activities planned. The EDL are still going to try and march on Wembley, where they are likely to receive just as hostile a reception.

But there is a background of Islamophobic baiting of Tower Hamlets council. This includes Andrew Gilligan's creepy tirade against the Islamic Forum of Europe, through which the media has attempted to attack municipal multiculturalism. The EDL are simply trying to capitalise on that, attempting to position themselves as the cutting edge of the Islamophobic wedge being driven through the East End. The council, as its lobbying of the Troxy shows, is inclined to give in to some of this pressure. The United East End march will be attended by Labour councillors, including Helal Abbas, but it is only fair to note that the East London papers report pressure on the anti-fascists from some local politicians. Predictably, Jim Fitzpatrick, who saw off George Galloway's challenge in the 2010 election by baiting Muslims, has attacked the anti-fascists. You can't expect better from someone like Fitzpatrick. Sadly, Rushanara Ali, who took Galloway's former constituency back for Labour, also called for the march to be called off. It may be of relevance that both local MPs are backing Oona King's bid for mayor against Ken Livingstone. Now Tower Hamlets council, symbolising its commitment to "community cohesion", is flying the England flag from the Town Hall for the duration of the World Cup. Such pointless, trivial gestures neither fulfil their anti-racist mandate nor placate the racist right.

I think this has to be contextualised in terms of the turn being taken by the Labour Party nationally. If the last decade was marked by a revival of neo-Powellite ideology on the Labour right, among the Blairites in particular, that ideological turn is now being aggressively expounded by Labour leadership contenders over, eg, immigration. In a self-serving gesture, they claim that such politics will enable Labour to make amends with "the white working class". This is a cynical move. I suspect that people like Balls believe that by conceding ground to racist hysteria, they can both capitalise on it and contain it. That is reckless, and foolish. Caving in to the racists just gives them more credibility, more armoury, and more space to build in. It benefits the right, in more ways than one. Is it not alarming to Labour members that David Cameron could actually attack Balls from the left over this, characterising the latter as Labour's Alf Garnett? The other context, of course, is the local collapse of Respect. It has one councillor left in Tower Hamlets and no MPs. This doesn't mean its support is negligible, or that it couldn't carry on as a viable local organisation, but its previous clout might have allowed it to resist some of this rightward lurch. I hope it will do well in the upcoming East London mayoral ballot. Because it is the Fitzpatricks of the East End, not the antifascists, who are pursuing genuinely divisive politics, setting working class communities against one another, and attacking the anti-racist consensus that had been established until recently, and giving ammunition to the racists.