DEMONSTRATION AGAINST THE NATIONAL FRONT
LEICESTER, AUGUST 1974
In the last 30 years, Leicester has deservedly acquired a reputation as a model for multicultural co-operation. It was not always like that. In 1972, the coming of the Ugandan Asian refugees provoked a wave of hysteria in the City. Petitions were circulated in factories calling on the government to refuse the refugees entry. This panicked the local Labour led Leicester City Council into advertising in the Uganda Argus to discourage Ugandan Asians from moving to Leicester. This just fanned the flames of prejudice.
Locally the National Front studiously avoided bully boy tactics and in the local press its leader, Anthony Read Herbert sought to cultivate and image of moderation, respectability and a love of democracy and patriotism. In 1973, the Front stood 26 candidates in the City Council elections and gained 17,653 votes.
The Inter-Racial Solidarity Campaign led the opposition to racism in Leicester. It had been formed in the summer of 1969 following the daubing of the Synagogue with NF slogans. It was a local based broad committee, representing the Indian Workers’ Association, some Labour Party branches and trade union branches, Liberals, the Communist Party, student and trades unions and sections of the Church. Both Leicester and Hinckley Trades Councils were affiliated along with Young Muslims and a Sikh temple. There were a fair number of individual members as well. Its Secretary was Chris Phillips with Ray Sutton as chair. Avtar Singh Sadiq, Maggie Gracie (Nandy), Mohinder Farma and K.S. Lehal were also key activists.
IRSC campaigned against the National Front by giving out leaflets at elections and organising rallies, demonstrations and cultural events. The march of 1974 was not the first or the last demonstration against the National Front in Leicester, but it is fair to say that it marked a turning point in building a broad based opposition to racism in Leicester.
The march was significant in that it prevented the National Front from marching through Highfields and past the Imperial Typewriters factory. The barring of the National Front from what was then called an “immigrant” area was an important achievement which came on the back the partial success of the strikers at Imperial.
When this march took place the battle against the NF was far from won. In the local elections of 1976, it took over 18% of the votes, but that was its high point. Thereafter the campaign against the racists began to bear fruit and support for the NF began to wain.
I wrote the article reproduced below 45 years ago, not long after the march. I was one of its organisers and a steward and at the time I was in the C.P. – this is reflected in the tone of the article. In those days the word “racialism” was used rather than “racism.” They meant the same. Whilst the overt racism of the 1970s has disappeared, unfortunately the heirs of the National Front are still with us. The fact that in 2013/14, there were 10,532 prosecutions for hate crimes vindicates the stance taken by IRSC all those years ago in trying to get the authorities to enforce the law on the incitement of racial hatred..
Most of the photos below were given to me many years ago, I think by Ruth Wigmore, but I am not sure whether she took them.
Ned Newitt, June 2019
Leicester’s Campaign Against the National Front
by Ned Newitt (published in Comment, 5th October 1974)
On August 24, 6,000 people marched through the streets of Leicester proclaiming their opposition to racialism. This huge demonstration came in reply to the National Front’s 500 strong march in support of the “white workers” at Imperial Typewriters, where a 12-week strike of Asian workers had just ended. The dispute had covered a whole series of issues: equality of promotion, no discrimination in job allocation, better pay and conditions for women workers and bonus payments; the strikers had. also demanded the right to TGWU shop steward representation. The National Front described the return to work as a “sell-out” of the white British workers, by the union, to international finance and strongly opposed the “no victimisation” agreement that had been reached. The Front supported those in the factory who were against accepting the Asian workers back. Seeing that this was a situation that could be exploited, and being under pressure from a strong anti-racist movement in the North West, the NF decided to switch a national demonstration planned for Manchester to Leicester. Proposing to assemble directly outside Imperial Typewriters, the NF intended to march through Highfields, an area of the city with a high immigrant population. This route constituted a blatant provocation, and an attempt to intimidate the thousands of Asian and West Indian families living in the district.
When news came of the NF march, the Inter-Racial Solidarity Campaign called a meeting of all organisations opposed to racialism. Before the meeting the International Socialists stated that they intended to mobilise nationally for a counter demonstration. At the IRSC meeting, a speaker from the I.S. (International Socialists now SWP) national executive said IS would physically oppose the NF. This tactic was firmly rejected by IRSC and, later, by IS itself. IRSC called for a counter-demonstration only in the event of a failure to get the NF march banned. But this early emphasis on a counter demonstration, by the ultra-left, proved to be a mistake. The right wing and press was able to take up the issues of confrontation and violence and ignore the real issues at stake. The exaggerated fears of violence on the streets meant that the Labour group on the council did not try to ban the NF march because it constituted an incitement to racial hatred and as such was a criminal offence under the Race Relations Act. Instead, there was a move to ban both demonstrations on the grounds that they were a danger to public order. IRSC strongly opposed the use of the Public Order Act in this way since it disregarded the undisguised racialist provocation of the NF and instead gave support to those who saw the NF and its opponents as two sets of “violent extremists.”
As the campaign developed, IRSC tried to steer public discussion away from “confrontation” and onto the issue of banning the NF march. Councillors were written to, lobbied and supplied with dossiers on the Nazi past of the Front’s leadership. 30,000 leaflets were distributed door to door, in just a few days: petitions were collected and letters sent. As resolutions of support, from local and national organisations, came in, they were relayed to the press alongside daily press releases. This consistent work drew in more and more active support, confirming the broad committee’s leadership of the movement. IMG, (the International Marxist Group of Tariq Ali) which had originally described IRSC as a ‘stalinist/liberal/police alliance’ on the front page of Red Weekly, soon found itself cast in a supporting role.
The ultra-right in Leicester, through racialist propaganda, has been steadily trying to develop a mass working class support. In a recent local election here, the NF was able to capture 24 per cent of the vote. In this situation, firm opposition to racialism from the Labour Party and labour movement is imperative, but too often this has not been available. In 1972, the Labour-controlled City Council bowed to the racialist hysteria whipped up over the coming of Ugandan Asians and did its best to prevent the refugees from settling in the City. Several arguments have been put by right wing labour against the IRSC campaign: Alex Lyons, Minister of State for the Home Office, felt that the Race Relations Act was an unpopular law and to bring prosecutions under it would be politically disastrous; Gordon Parker, secretary of the City Labour Party stated that “Demonstrations of any sort have no real effect in our business as a political party,”another argument was that “the most effective way of dealing with the NF is to avoid any unnecessary action that would give it additional publicity.” The motivation behind these arguments is the same: to antagonise the racialist feelings in the working class means losing votes and consequently the only course of action has been appeasement. The result has been that in the last local elections the National Front mounted 26 candidates, gaining 17,653 votes.
Growth in anti-racialism
During the campaign against the NF march many Labour Party as well as trade union branches came out in condemnation of racialism and in support of IRSC. This has meant that the past policies of the right wing have been seriously challenged and, in some notable instances, defeated. To those who brought up the issue of “free speech” IRSC made it quite clear that it did not wish to prevent any group from exercising its democratic rights, but pointed out that under the law it is not the right of anyone to incite racial hatred. As it became clear that the local authority was not prepared to ban the NF march on any grounds except those of public order, a counter-demonstration became inevitable. It is true that if we had pursued a policy of confrontation, both marches would have been banned— though meetings could still have taken place. But to pursue such a policy would have worked against the development of a really wide movement and, more important the use of the Public Order Act would have really sidestepped the issue of using the Race Relations Act against groups inciting racial hatred. Whilst we in the Communist Party felt that, as in the battle of Cable Street, confrontation with the fascists is always a possible tactic, confrontation on August 24 was undesirable.
Despite the pressure for a ban, as in London on September 7th, the NF was allowed to march. But an important victory was won: the racists’ original intention of assembling outside Imperial Typewriters and marching through the immigrant area was refused by the police. The NF was instead transferred to a “white area” where they would be “less provocative.” IRSC regarded this step by the police as an implicit admission that the march was liable to incite racial hatred, and therefore breaking the law. Nevertheless, the Council refused to move from its position and the march went ahead.
The IRSC demonstration, held on a bank holiday Saturday, represented a major step forward, not only was it one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the city, but it was one of the most representative, with substantial sections of the trade union and labour movement present alongside a strong showing from the Asian community. During the work to ban and then to organise the counter demonstration, Communists played a leading role. The challenge to the right in the labour movement coupled with the obvious success of the counter-demonstration has strengthened the hand of the broad movement against racialism. But there is still work to be done before Leicester can match the successes in Birmingham where all civic property is now denied to racialists. We still have to win the complete support of the Trades Council for a sub-committee on racialism. During the election period, IRSC is asking its affiliated organisations and members to seek assurances from their respective Conservative, Labour and Liberal candidates that they will:
- Press the Home Secretary to ban, under the Race Relations Act, meetings, marches etc. liable to provoke racial hatred;
- Support any move to strengthen the Race Relations Act.
- Press for the repeal of the Immigration Act;
- To state publicly and in their election material, their opposition to racialism.
Comment, October 5th 1974
The route of the march was Spinney Hill Park-Mere Road-St Peter’s Road-Melbourne Road-Uppingham Road-East Park Road (Imperial Typewriters)-Spinney Hill Park. In a notice given to marchers it was pointed out that it was to be a peaceful march with no planned confrontation and that this had been agreed with all the participating groups. “Any violent clashes will only give the N.F. an opportunity to misrepresent our movement.”
Although both the Home secretary, Roy Jenkins and the police continued to refuse to enforce the Race Relations Act, the march succeeded in keeping the N.F. out of Highfields. As far as I recollect, there were no arrests and no confrontations on the counter demonstration. However press reports say that there were three arrests – probably close to the N.F. march. According to Kenneth Hulme, secretary of Coventry Trades Council, the demonstration was “impressive, orderly and disciplined.” He estimated that there were about 8,000 taking part, but only 300 to 400 turned up tor the National Front march. “There were no real incidents at all,” he said. A lot of people joined round the areas where the march took place. “They came off the streets on to the march. It was a completely peaceful demonstration. It was well disciplined with no attempt whatsoever to conduct anything but a peaceful demonstration. The march had been well organised. with a large number at stewards to direct it.” Coventry Evening Telegraph, Tuesday 27 August 1974 This standard of reporting was not shared by the Daily Mirror who reported the extra police were being drafted in the prevent clashes between “two rival extremist groups.”
In 1974, the National Front was still gaining support in Leicester and a good number of the marchers came from out of town. Local anti-racists recognised that it was crucial win local people away from supporting the Front. Subsequent posts will take up the story after 1974.
Here is the ATV Today report made on August 12th 1974 https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-12081974-national-front-interracial-solidarity-group-marches
© Ned Newitt