The failure of politicians to address the cost of living crisis has created the conditions for a resurgence of the far-right – and we need a strong trade union movement to defeat them.

Anti-migrant protesters demonstrate against refugees crossing the English Channel. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

When my dad grew up in Luton in the 1970s, many of the roads I walk through today were a no-go for British Pakistanis. They were places where racist attacks were commonplace, and it was only sustained campaigning by an older generation that turned them around. 

Sadly, however, that fight endured. When I was eleven years old, I was told by a schoolteacher one day to stay indoors because the English Defence League were marching in town. Luton was later plagued by Britain First and other far-right groups.  

Last week, Patriotic Alternative targeted the town, plastering it with white nationalist Great Replacement Theory rhetoric. In the neighbouring town of Dunstable, the group was also active, whipping up fear about the housing of asylum seekers in hotels. 

With recent events in Knowsley, it appears we are sleepwalking into another resurgence of the far-right. The implosion of the Tories, who have lost the edge of the Brexit vote and have little to say about the desperate economy, provides fertile ground. And with Labour uninterested in providing a real alternative, it’s plausible that a new far-right party could seize this cost-of-living crisis and make it their own. 

Whether it’s the housing crisis or the NHS emergency, today’s far-right is effective at exploiting social and economic problems impacting working class communities. Of course, their proposed answer inevitably means targeting minorities and immigrants. 

This can be a powerful combination in divided communities. But when the racist rhetoric is dismantled, most people are concerned with bread-and-butter issues. The reasons are obvious—the right to a roof over your head, enough food in the fridge, and the ability to provide for your household have, in recent years, become less and less secure.  

But where the far-right offers scapegoats, the labour movement can provide solutions. By uniting people across divides based on their common economic conditions, we can build the movements needed to improve living standards and tackle the root cause of people’s anger. 

The answer to events in Knowsley can’t be simply to proclaim people fascists and leave it there. We need a political response, championing a vision of community that recognises the power of the working class in all its diversity—and has anti-racism at its core. 

Trade unions are present in workplaces across the country. Being rooted in communities means they can call on genuine notions of community and solidarity that those sermonising from above simply can’t.  

They are democratic institutions mandated to champion the interests of their members regardless of their backgrounds. Alongside addressing specific workplace disputes, they can and often do make political demands to address wider socio-economic issues. This makes them uniquely well placed to offer an alternative to the siren song of the far-right. 

At the Trade Union Congress in August last year, RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said that trade unions had to reach every temple, mosque, and gurdwara in the UK. He called for community action coupled with industrial action. Weeks later, he addressed an Enough is Enough campaign rally at a mosque in Brent, highlighting the floods in Pakistan and the plight of agency workers. 

And this has precedent. Ninety years ago, the National Union of Railwaymen, the precursor to the RMT, took on the leader of the Blackshirts, Oswald Mosely. Jim Campbell, who went on to become to the NUR general secretary in 1953, made the very same argument that Lynch does today—that the best way to defeat fascism was to create a united front of working-class organisations and ‘do away with divisions’. 

Mosley’s Blackshirts were, of course, physically defeated at the Battle of Cable Street when trade unionists, Jewish groups and anti-fascists united to block their way. There’s a clear lesson from history here: the key to tackling the divisive politics of the far-right is working-class unity. 

In making this case, there’s no need to erase complex histories. The trade union movement has had its darker moments too. Workers once walked out of workplaces to enforce colour bars and in support of Enoch Powell. But that minority was pushed back by the movement as a whole, which remained united across communities in common workplace struggles. 

In 2019, the Conservative Party out-polled Labour by double-digit figures among both manual workers and households with incomes below £20,000. This was the continuation of a broader trend that’s seen the Labour Party haemorrhaging working-class voters for decades.  

Working-class people formed a significant chunk of the broad coalition Johnson assembled in 2019. But many of these voters are pro-trade union and also support left-wing economic policies such as the nationalisation of public utilities and higher taxes on the rich; more recently, a YouGov poll found 40 percent of Conservative voters support nurses going on strike. 

The decline of the labour movement from the ’70s onwards, combined with neoliberalism and the atomisation of society that comes with it, has us increasingly isolated. At the same time, class politics retreated from the political landscape. 

But little emerged in its place that could improve working people’s living standards. Optics-based public performances of anti-racism are thin gruel for people plagued by sky-high bills, low wages, crumbling services and inadequate housing.  

Working-class communities—white, black or brown—are being failed, not because the government focuses on one community over another, but because the government has never been interested in the plight of working class as a whole. 

The labour movement is currently the only force working to tackle the cost of living crisis through the pay packet. We are seeing the seeds of a new era of class politics in the historic picket lines across the country—and in strikes that are bringing communities together. 

In addition, campaigns from ACORN to the Right to Food, are attempting to unite these workplace battles with community struggles. This is the way forward—building broad fronts to change society for the better.  

A rejuvenated trade union movement can provide working-class people from all backgrounds with a sense of belonging and purpose—and is capable of winning too. If we don’t, we leave the space for the far-right to benefit from desperation. 

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