Why the Battle of Cable Street Still Resonates in the East End

As we mark the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, the continuing inequalities and racial injustices of the East London communities that were its battlefield are a reminder of its enduring lessons.

Last weekend we remembered the Battle of Cable Street, 84 years since it took place. We remembered a historic moment in which a multicultural movement, led by the local Jewish community, stood together against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts as they were facilitated by the police.

Cable Street still resonates today in my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse, where much of the clash took place, and in which today stands the famous mural commemorating the battle. Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, tensions between citizens and state have risen, both in the United States and in the UK. In the direct aftermath of Floyd’s death, protesters clashed with police, and with a President who has stoked the racial inequalities that had led to it.

In the lead-up to Cable Street in 1936, an estimated 100,000 residents from the East End petitioned then Home Secretary John Simon to ban the march. Instead, Simon sent a police escort to the area. It’s worth remembering that 84 years ago, the UK government targeted anti-fascist protestors. They chose to protect those inciting racial hatred, those who declared themselves as fascist, and who were planning to march through an area populated by a large Jewish community.

This year, protests for black lives took place in the UK closely following those in America – and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement became a topic of debate across society. But on the day of Cable Street’s anniversary, our Home Secretary Priti Pratel spoke at the Conservative Party conference, denouncing BLM protests as instances of ‘thuggery and hooliganism.’

Such as statement came as no surprise, with the Home Secretary using near identical language at the time of BLM protests in June. The word ‘thug’ was used by Boris Johnson as well, and speaks to the disregard that both politicians have towards tackling racial injustice. Using such reactionary language to describe protests is evidence not only of a government uninterested in combatting racial injustice, but one actively inflaming racial tensions and hostile to movements for social progress.

With the rise of the far-right across the world, now is as important a time as ever for people-led movements to resist such insidious ideologies. Yesterday, the five-and-a-half year trial of the Greek Neo-Nazi organisation Golden Dawn concluded – and resulted in criminal convictions for those who led a fascist movement in this century which had a major platform in parliament and popular support. It was a victory for anti-fascists but also a warning.

I am proud to have lived in Poplar and Limehouse for my entire life, a constituency in which those from many different social and racial backgrounds live side by side. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, instances of our community’s solidarity have been plain to see.

Last week saw the Coronavirus Act renewed by parliament. Human rights and anti-racist campaigners have raised concerns about these powers being used in discriminatory ways, particularly against Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people. Particularly worrying are the implications of restrictions on mass gatherings, given that the Act contains no explicit protection of the right to protest.

The pandemic has not only highlighted the power of community, but also the necessity of grassroots organisation in the shadow of a Tory government which cares less about the safety of ordinary people than about the profits of their donors. Reports have shown the cost of Covid-19 has fallen hardest upon those from BAME communities. This evident racial inequality has not been tackled by our government. Instead, our communities continue to struggle with huge levels of inequality, with housing in crisis, air quality below average, and many local businesses not getting the support that they deserve.

There are now more foodbanks in the UK than there are McDonalds or Burger King restaurants. This was a trend that began with the austerity imposed by the Tory-led coalition government, during which those with less were made to bear the brunt of mistakes by those with more. It is a trend continued by our current government. The Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme promotes dining at restaurants, but thousands can’t afford even to eat at home.

The handling of the coronavirus has shown a lack of care towards minority groups that is not unexpected. However, the brazenness of this lack of care at the time of a national health crisis is nevertheless shocking. I recently raised this issue directly to the Prime Minister in parliament – and received the usual lack of clarity over how exactly the government might solve such inequality.

The Battle of Cable Street therefore remains relevant at each of its anniversaries. With each new year there will arise new battles to be fought against inequalities. While the Conservative Party are in power, we cannot rely on the government to intervene as necessary.

We owe so much to the courage of those that have gone before us. As a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, I will stand alongside my colleagues to challenge the government in parliament. But as the example of Cable Street shows, the left must remain organised within our communities. We must stand together to challenge those who disregard, or stand against, the fight for racial justice in the UK and around the world.