Remembering and reflecting on the 'Battle of Lewisham' in August 1977, when a mobilisation by the far-right National Front in South East London was met by mass opposition

Friday, 12 March 2010

Mike Power analyses the events

Sent to us by Michael Walker, this is the analysis written in the aftermath by the Communist Party's Mike Power, chair of ALCARAF, the local group which organised the peaceful protest, published in the Communist Morning Star. This downbeat account contrasts sharply with the triumphalist accounts from the Socialist Worker and with the celebrations of the violent or militant anti-fascist activity of many of the personal recollections we have published. (Note, here is Mike Power pleading for peace just before the march.)

What Follows the Street Fighting ?
Mike Power Chairperson of the ALCARAF Rally in Lewisham last month, looks at the long term effects of violent clashes on the Borough’s race relations
Morning Star 2 September 1977

THE EVENTS of Saturday, August 13, in Lewisham have had a profound effect throughout Great Britain. The impact of those events are likely, however, to be felt for much longer within this inner London borough. Tension underlies an apparent calm.

It will cost London’s ratepayers something over £150,000 to finance the police operation which defended the National Front marchers. Lewisham council itself spent £4,000 on clearing up and evacuating the elderly from the trouble-spots on the previous day.

Local shopkeepers are reporting losses in trading ‘of up to three-quarters and many face huge repair bills for their shop fronts.

The council has called for a public inquiry, a plea which has been strengthened by a local MP leading a weighty deputation to Merlyn Rees.

The Socialist Workers’ Party has been banned from the use of council premises along with the National Front for fear of further eruptions of violence and damage.


The anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations are now beginning to discuss what sort of campaign is needed as a follow-up.

In the month prior to the National Front demonstration there were extensive contacts and discussions between the local people and their organisations about how to counter the march. This was greatly assisted sellers and a crude use of threats and force during the GLC election campaign.
In all these cases the only long-term effective rebuff is to attempt to bring the police andthe courts into .play against the National Front, and so isolating the active racists and identifying them as fascists in their true violent nature. It is then possible to deny the racists their political links with the people and so help to undermine the hold that their ideas may have.

Socialists and Communists see the need to tackle the wider social, economic and political causes that allow fascists to exploit racist sentiments. But we see a clear need to act concurrently on the specific question of racism and build the broad movement which will work to detach people from racist ideas.
These are the forces that at present constitute the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Facism.

It is against this background that the tactics for Saturday, August 13, were considered. But, did the events of that afternoon achieve the aim of isolating the National Front as a lawless element? And, were more people won to be sympathetic to the anti-racist, anti-fascist cause?

The answer is no; ‘because the press and media were able to place blame on some anti-
fascists for violence, despite the provocation of the NF marching into an area where many black people live.

A concrete and realistic analysis of the situation in Deptford showed that the call: “They shall not pass” would receive scant support. Indeed, the Telegraph Hill neighbourhood council a key multi-racial organization with much weight and influence in the community, decided against supporting any such action.

The black population are, generally speaking, frightened and to some extent intimidated, though this is less true of the younger people.

At the same time there exists an underlying racial hostility among wide sections of the white population. This accounted for some 3,000 racist votes in Deptford last May. In fact, the number of actual local people involved in the afternoon events was quite small.

People were intimidated by the police and the media and kept well away. It was. therefore, crass adventurism on the part of the SWP to issue a call for when it was not possible to mobilize people in sufficient numbers to ensure success. The NF did "pass” and marched to Lewisham. It stopped short of Catford, since the council had banned it from using the town hall for a meeting.

The artificial and mechanical transference of experience from Germany in the 1930s or from Cable Street in 1936 has become the divisive stock-in-trade of the SWP.

There were clear indications that the noble anti-fascist feelings of many people would in reality be channelled into a fight with the police. The left versus police confrontation was then staged and has enabled the press to identify the left with the fascists in the minds of people who oppose racism, leading to the view that both deserve to be banned as instigators of trouble and violence.


The right wing has also exploited the clash hoping to create an atmosphere in which reactionaries are calling for further limitations on civil rights and more power and sympathy for the police.
That sympathy will be largely misplaced when the history of the relations between the police and black people is considered.

There has been a long history of antagonism which culminated last May 30 with dawn raids on 21 young blacks’ homes. This was preceded by the use of surveillance by remote control video ‘by the police and was followed by charges of conspiracy and sus.

“Sus” ‘(suspicion) is a pretext which has been used by police to pick up any young black person seen in certain streets after 11 p.m. Even youngsters waiting for buses have been picked up in this way.
Such relations do not, however, follow a straight line and there has been tremendous efforts and years of hard, thank-less and patient work which has resulted in some improvement. In the past two months the police-black antagonism has ‘been intensified in Lewisham by the widespread and crude raids which led to the case of the Lewisham 21.

The SWP raised the slogan “The police are the real muggers” and organised a defence committee. Such blanket sloganising helped to ensure that in some cases it was the police who were as much the target on Saturday, August 13, as the NF.

This outcome was predictable long before the event; therefore the All Lewisham’ Campaign Against Racism and Fascism had called for a ban on the National Front provocation, a call which was widely taken up.

At the same time it was agreed to organise a counter-demonstration. The aim of the counter-demonstration was to present a positive alternative to Lewisham’s people (6,000 of whom voted NF in May) of a peaceful, democratic, multiracial society and for employment, homes and an improved environment.

This was to contrast the hatred and violence which the NF has perpetrated in the borough.

The Lewisham police commander agreed a route with ALCARAF which Commissioner McNee rejected and replaced with a non-negotiable alternative using as cover for his action against ALCARAF the call for a violent confrontation already issued by the SWP.

However, McNee stands condemned for causing the dispersal of 5,000 people in Lewisham when the demonstration was only half completed, thus creating a vacuum which he was warned could easily be filled by a violent reaction.

All anti-fascists need to soberly take stock of the present situation and consider the future.
A serious weakness in the anti-racist struggle at the moment is the relative immobility at all levels of the labour movement. Real pressure from the unions would have greatly helped to win a ban on the Front demonstration.

Not wishing to under-estimate the importance, of the actions of some Labour-controlled councils, or those of many individuals, but whatever happened to Labour’s campaign against racial-ism of last year? The Labour right-wing leaders remain unwilling to fight.

No transformation will take place without a genuine commitment being won at grass roots level. The focus of attention is now on Hyde in Manchester. A powerful call for a ban on the NF has been coupled with the North-West Region TUC call for at least 20,000 to stop it if the ban fails.


Those on the spot are best able to judge if those numbers are likely to turn out. Even then the level of local mobilisation is crucial; a sullen local population playing host to a demonstration of mainly outsiders is a dear weakness. The aim of the anti-fascists must also be to avoid the alienation of any positive section in the community.

We still have far to go in winning the necessary masses of people to active anti-racist thought and action. It is essential therefore to operate at two levels: First through the institutions via such organisations as the Community Relations Councils in order to undermine institutional racism. Secondly, through the broad-based campaigning bodies such as ALCARAF which take to the streets. A racially or politically violent atmosphere does not create the circumstances in which democratic political activity can take place. It is on this basis that diverse forces can be united to oppose the Front, not by initiating violence.

1 comment:

David Leal said...

The Monday after the NF march, an emergency meeting of East Lewisham Communist Party was held at Dick and Mary Toms house in Blackheath.

The meeting passed a motion of censure on Mike Power, who was a member of the branch. Mike Power had called upon people to go home, but the other members of the branch had been on the streets in New Cross and Lewisham confronting the fascists. The branch believed that this is what all communists should do, and what communists should call upon others to do.

Mike Power did not attend the meeting, and said that he was “busy painting his kitchen”.

Mike Power remained a leading member of the Communist Party, and was one of those who dissolved the Communist Party in 1991. Subsequently he became a full timer at the TUC and a New Labour supporter.