By Doctor Michael Herron
Last Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. This historical event of 4th October 1936 was a watershed moment for the Labour movement in the lead up to the Second World War. It offers important lessons to the Labour Party today at a time when the Labour Party and movement has been rocked by allegations of anti-Semitism. The battle was significant for the fact that the grassroots of the Labour movement joined together with Jewish residents of Stepney in the East End of London to repel Sir Oswald Mosley and his marchers from the British Union of Fascists, forcing them to abandon their march.
The backdrop to the march and battle was fraught. Britain at the time was ruled by the National Government. Although the National Government had originally been formed by the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald at the time of the battle it was essentially a Conservative administration led by Stanley Baldwin. The Spanish Civil War had also just begun. The Labour Party leadership was torn over officially supporting the Spanish Republican government since it feared this would upset its Catholic voters in the Northwest of England and Glasgow, who may have been concerned about Republican atrocities against Catholic clergy. This did not deter many in the grassroots Labour movement from joining the International Brigades to fight with the Spanish government against Franco. At the same time membership of the British Union of Fascists had peaked at a quarter of a million, which rang alarm bells in government. Nevertheless, according to Graham Macklin, the Conservative Party’s “resistance to ‘dangerous fascism’ however, was perhaps born of the Conservatives’ electoral neurosis than steadfast anti-fascism.”
This hesitancy was most marked in the lead up to the battle. When Mosley announced his intention to march through Jewish neighbourhoods in the East End of London, the Jewish People’s Council set up a petition signed by 100,000 people to ban the march. Local Labour MP, George Lansbury, and the mayors of the four London boroughs affected by the march requested Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, to ban the march. He stated that it would be undemocratic to do so.
A number of points need to be stressed about the battle. Many of those in leading positions such as the Labour leadership and the Jewish Board of Deputies were opposed to any action against the march that could result in violence. The opposition to the march was largely launched by local Jews and rank and file trade unionists, including mainly Irish dockers and what-ever leadership against the march was provided by the Communists. These anti-fascists were inspired by the Spanish Republicans’ struggle against Franco as they declared “no pasaran” (they shall not pass) to the Fascist marchers.
According to the Cable Street Group, Mosley’s original plan for the march on 4th October 1936 was for Fascists to assemble at Tower Bridge then divide into columns “which would march to meetings in Shoreditch, Limehouse and Bow and finally to a rally in Bethnal Green.” As the march progressed there were fights between fascists and anti-fascists but the main battle was between the anti-fascists and the 6,000 police, who were trying to clear a pathway for Mosley’s marchers. According to Nicholas Mosley, eldest son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the Police Commissioner “Sir Philip Game saw the whole occasion as primarily one concerning the police: he seemed determined to show that the streets would be controlled by his men and not by rival gangs.”
There were huge crowds in the area at the time of the march. The local press gave a figure of 310,000 whereas some eyewitnesses said there were half a million people there. The congestion and violence meant that there was only one street that seemed open to the marchers in the Jewish neighbourhood in Stepney, Cable Street. As the marchers and police entered Cable Street they ran into an overturned lorry and other barricades and were hit with “fruit, bottles and the contents of chamber pots emptied by Jewish women” and were forced back by the anti-fascists. Eventually, Sir Philip Game ordered Mosley to give up the march and turn back. Mosley later accused the government of surrendering to “red terror.”
Perhaps one of the best accounts summing up the encounter was made by Charlie Goodman who was 21, living in Mile End at the time and politically non-aligned. “And it was not just a question of Jews being there on 4th October, the most amazing thing was to see a silk-coated Orthodox Jew standing next to an Irish docker with a grappling iron. This was absolutely unbelievable. Because it is not a question of a punch-up between the Jews and fascists, it was a question of the people who understood what fascism was. And in my case it meant the continuation of the struggle in Spain.”
Arguably, the greatest lesson for the Labour Party in the years that followed Cable Street was that the Labour movement needed to be united in the face of fascism particularly when war broke out. In a sense the Labour Party took its cue from the Labour grassroots as it was the rank and file who had defeated the fascists at Cable Street.
The fact that the Labour Party was largely united meant that soon after the British war effort took a turn for the worse, as British troops were evacuated from Norway, it was perfectly placed to engineer a vote of no confidence in the Chamberlain government. As the Conservatives’ majority fell from 200 to 81, it became clear that there had to be a new Prime Minister. Churchill’s unstinting opposition to appeasement, despite his poot reputation in labour relations, made him the obvious choice to the Labour Party. It was therefore the Labour Party that was instrumental in facilitating Churchill’s rise to war leader.
Labour’s role in Churchill’s wartime government with Clement Atlee, Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps and Arthur Greenwood as key members and its perceived unequivocal opposition to fascism in contrast to perceived Tory weakness in confronting Nazism before the war were strong contributing factors to Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 general election. The lesson then was that a united party with a clear message could overcome even the greatest majority of the governing party.
The lessons of Cable Street for Labour today are that it should be clear what it is opposed to and it should present a united front in opposition to all groups and forces that prey on the vulnerable. The recent position against anti-Semitism in light of the inquiry led by Shami Chakrabarti is a good start. However, witch-hunts against those perceived to have betrayed the leadership and constant infighting distracts from the real struggle to maintain progressive politics and justice for those groups who most need a strong Labour Party in a world moving ever to the right. If it engages in this struggle and with competence when the pendulum of power swings again in its favour just as in 1945, it may be ready to seize the day.
Graham Macklin Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism after 1945 (London: IB Tauris, 2007)
Cable Street Group The Battle of Cable Street 4th October 1936 A People’s History (London, 1995)
Nicholas Mosley Beyond the Pale (London: Secker Warburg, 1983)
Andrew Thorpe A History of the British Labour Party 4thEdition (London: palgrave, 2015)