On Sunday, the eve of the parliamentary vote on May’s deal to leave the EU, Tommy Robinson is leading a march on Westminster against what he’s calling “The Great Brexit Betrayal”.
In a characteristic move of cynical opportunism, Robinson – real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – is again piggybacking on a mainstream issue to raise his profile, guarantee media attention, win over wealthy backers and legitimise his politics of hate.
From EDL to UKIP advisor, Yaxley-Lennon has changed his identity, his narrative and pitch a number of times in an apparent effort to broaden his support. And it seems he wants this march to be the flagship moment of his latest rebrand attempt.
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But this pivot is dangerous. In an attempt to make himself the natural leader of Leave voters, Yaxley-Lennon is trying to morph the conflict between the 90 per cent of people who instinctively disagree with fascist sentiments and the 10 per cent of potential sympathisers with that of the 48 per cent of people who voted for remain and the 52 per cent who voted to leave. I have little doubt that he wants to position himself as the representative of half of this country’s electorate which, if successful, would dramatically shift British politics to the right.
While it’s true that the Leave campaign drew heavily on reactionary narratives of immigration, race and nationalism, it doesn’t follow that all 17m Leave voters naturally subscribe to the far-right politics of Yaxley-Lennon.
To assume so not only provides him with what he wants – leadership – but negates all legitimate criticism of the EU and reasons for voting to leave. These reasons include serious concerns about undemocratic and unaccountable structures, racist and deadly European borders, as well as clear limitations for pursuing a transformative socialist agenda within the single market, which would place significant restrictions on a Corbyn-led government.
This conflation of fascism with Leave voters also denies any attempt to critically understand the role of the EU and its associated institutions in propping up a neoliberal agenda and enforcing austerity politics upon its member states in reaction to large scale economic crises, which precipitated the conditions for fascism to grow and thrive throughout the continent. Just take Greece, where EU-imposed austerity directly laid the foundations for Golden Dawn’s dramatic and terrifying rise.
Remain or Leave, it’s essential we recognise the foundations of fascism have been laid in Britain by decades of destruction to communities under neoliberalism, the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing Tory austerity, and the associated decline in living standards over the last 10 years.
Any successful strategy to combat the far right therefore has to reject the latter’s attempts to appropriate support from mainstream causes. The strategy should involve building a broad-based anti-fascist coalition, getting organised on the streets and in the workplace to disrupt and delegitimise their narrative, and demonstrate that the left hold the answers.
Momentum is supporting a counter protest to the march on Sunday with the slogan “No to Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain” in a move to shift the discussion from his terms and unite progressives on both side of the Brexit debate against the small but rising forces of fascism.
This approach is essential to the success of the anti-fascist movement, and to resetting the terms of the debate to focus on combating the far right and an austerity that enabled and encouraged its growth. Austerity breeds fascism, and on Sunday we’ll be marching united against both.
Becky Boumelha is member of Momentum’s national coordinating group
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