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28 February 2015

Why are Pegida marching in Newcastle?

The far-right movement Pegida is having their first rally outside their native Germany in Newcastle today. Only a radical politics can turn the tide.

By Sam Thompson

As a proud Geordie, I’m disgusted that the pseudo-fascists of Pegida have chosen Newcastle as their first excursion outside of Germany. But disgust is limited. Understanding the cynical rationale behind Pegida’s decision is more useful: it highlights the connection between austerity and fascism, and prompts us to offer a radical alternative: the politics of solidarity.

Pegida (Patriot Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) are a movement of growing political force. The latest demonstration in Dresden drew twenty five thousand protestors. But militancy is only one aspect of Pegida’s influence: they now stand parliamentary candidates and produce a glossy monthly magazine. Their ideology – as the name suggests – is anti-Muslim. Pegida stands for little else. Like Ukip supporters, they don’t care much about policy; they’re just scared and angry.

Pegida will be supported by far-right protest group, the English Defence League (EDL). Newcastle has a distorted reputation for EDL activism after hosting their two largest marches. However, the success of these marches wasn’t a reflection on Newcastle. The first – in 2010 – caught the height of EDL’s popularity, and the 2013 march was a week after the murder of Lee Rigby. All numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt anyway: many supporters are bussed in from the group’s hubs in the North West.

Let’s take a sober look at EDL North East. They have over 7,000 likes on Facebook and an active online community of a few hundred. Most of these commenters are ‘keyboard warriors’ – they’d never attend a rally. The Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Association (TWAFA) estimates that there are 25 ‘hardcore members’. Most of the time, this fanatical cell is kept to thuggish gestures. Last month, they interrupted a ‘Revolution’ reading group. They believed Russell Brand would be there; he wasn’t.

But the EDL aren’t a joke. Their online propaganda machine effectively localises the Muslim threat. At one time or another, all of these myths about Muslims percolated around Newcastle: that they’re exempt from the bedroom tax because they needed a room to pray in; that Muslim men were systematically grooming girls; that Muslim groups were getting priority for buildings, so they could build mosques; and that Muslim charities channelled donations to terrorists. The peddling of all these accusations against the ‘Muslim community’ can be found on the EDL website. Some of them contain more truth than others; they all have an affect on relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

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There’s a kink in Pegida’s plan. Newcastle is not fertile ground for recruitment. The rally won’t attract significant numbers, and is likely to be eclipsed by the counter-demo.

NUFC Unites – football fans who oppose the march – say Pegida’s ananthema to the city’s famous ‘warm welcome’. Here, there’s a danger of believing this ‘warm welcome’ is an essential part of the Geordie spirit (maybe something in the Kielder water?). Part of its genesis is purely practical. Newcstle’s long been a destination for immigrants from all over the world, attracted to ship-building and mercantile trade. In reality, this spirit is the result of anti racist activity from long-standing working class institutions. It is not common decency that keeps out the racists, but the legacy of co-ops, labour activism and strong trade unions.

Newcastle has had to deal with European fascist experiments since the end of the First World War. The Fascisti – an Italian import – established a Newcastle branch in 1924. They soon warped into the National Union of Fascists (NUF) – the notorious Blackshirts headed by Oswald Mosley.

The NUF’s headquarters were in the famous Bigg Market, which is where today’s rally is held. So, the Bigg Market’s long been an anti-fascist battleground. In September 1933, an NUF rostrom was overturned by a gaggle of Geordies, and the Blackshirts chased away. A few months prior to this, a gang of blackshirts were chased off the Town Moor. Years before British intervention in the Second World War, Geordies were offended by Mosely’s ‘likeness to Herr Hitler’.

To tackle the terrifying spread of anti-semitism and fascism across Europe, trade unionists, communists and members of the Independent Labour Party set up the Anti-Fascist League in 1934. A similarly disparate group of left-wingers coalesced in 1983 to form the Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Association (TWAFA), aimed at combating the growing popularity of the BNP and National Front. TWAFA were a trailblazing organisation, founded on the principles of education and confrontation. They began an anti-racism campaign at St James Park, which prevented the distribution of NF propaganda and inspired anti-fascist campaigns in football stadiums across the country.

The need for anti-fascist movements always coincides with economic depression, unemployment and poverty. Today is no different. A 2013 Report from the Rowntree Foundation found that the poorest communities are hardest hit by spending cuts. The North East certaintly qualifies. Newcastle has the highest rate of child poverty in the country. And last year, against the national trend, unemployment rose in the North East to almost ten percent. One local campaigner reduced Newcastle’s appeal to Pegida to the simple fact ‘we’ve got the fewest immigrants and the most deprivation’.

The institutions that fought fascism are weaker now than they’ve ever been. But the tradition of radical anti-fascism is still strong in the North East: the flags of twelve union branches are represented today, bolstered by groups that have emerged in the last twenty years dedicated to fighting racism and representing the voices of vulnerable groups.

The connection between fascism and austerity is more evident than ever and the need for anti-fascists to provide a radical alternative is more urgent. To avoid the scapegoating of the innocent Muslim community, there must be a strong voice offering a rival explanation of poverty and unemployment, one based on capitalism’s inherent drive to undermine democracy and concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few. This was the argument made by Geordie anti-fascists in the 1930s. We must return to it today.

Sam Thompson is the editor of Whitey on the Moon magazine – pitches are always welcome!