Among early political memories are stories of the Battle of Cable Street, a generation before I was born. The “battle” was a violent demonstration, in October 1936, by residents of London’s East End borough of Stepney, along with Communists, anarchists and Jewish groups, against a march through the district by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. It was confusing to a young mind that the Metropolitan Police attempted to protect the Fascist march and that the police battled with local people who did not want the Blackshirts marching through their streets. It was the first time I heard the words, “¡No pasarán! They shall not pass!” Perhaps my grandfather, Semitic in appearance and socialist in his politics, had been among those who had joined in the chorus of voices.
The memories were a lesson that whilst anti-militarist and anti-war in their sentiments, the radical Left were prepared to resort to violence in pursuit of political ends, and, if they did so, they could put substantial numbers of feet on the street, to the point that their strength might be many times that of those whom they opposed. Sometimes, the radical Left would suggest violence as a first option, asserting that force should be met with force, that the extreme Right were not amenable to reason and that it was legitimate to resort to physical means. Recent history of radical Left activity, from the poll tax protests of the 1990s through to the anti-capitalist demonstrations in more recent times, point to an enduring and strong physical force tradition in radical thinking.
The British Labour Party has become the biggest political party in Europe. It trebled in size as hundreds of thousands of radicals carried its membership from 170,000 to more than half a million; its leadership is endorsed by the Morning Star, the daily newspaper of the British Communist Party. Constituency parties have become dominated by radical elements, members of parliament dissenting from the radical position face deselection as election candidates. The radical Left would contend that the changes have been democratic, that there has been open debate, and yet there are Twitter feeds from moderate party members that suggest undertones of bullying and intimidation. It would not be hard to find testimony from moderates that the Party has become a cold place to be.
There is an expectation among many of that half a million that the next general election will be as big a surprise as that of 1917, that the opinion polls have continued to understate the strength of the Labour vote, and that there will be a substantial victory. There is an expectation that a radical programme will be implemented by the incoming administration and that fundamental changes will take place. If that does not happen, physical force politics will return as those frustrated by inertia return to the street in pursuit of reforms.