We still feel the threat of the far right here, in Tower Hamlets, where the Battle of Cable Street was fought 75 years ago
In the London borough of Tower Hamlets on Tuesday we will be commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. This was a momentous day in the history of London's East End, when Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts were driven out of the then mainly Jewish area by demonstrators whose slogan was "They shall not pass!". Joining us on this anniversary – one in which I will unveil the restored Battle of Cable Street mural – will be a veteran of that day, Max Levitas.
What I suspect unites the very different racial and religious communities in the historic diaspora that is Tower Hamlets is a sense of revulsion at bigotry and racism, wherever it comes from. This is why so many people came together recently to protest at the outrageous plan by the far right English Defence League to march through the same area that Mosley's blackshirts had been ejected from. With the support of local MPs, councillors and religious leaders, as well as many outside the borough, we persuaded the Metropolitan police and the home secretary to ban the march.
So I was shocked to read recently that Adrian Tudway, the police's national co-ordinator for domestic extremism, said he had formed the view that the EDL was not extreme after reading its website. According to the Guardian's report, Tudway sent an email in April, urging a Muslim group to open up a "line of dialogue" with the EDL. He wrote: "In terms of the position with EDL, the original stance stands, they are not extreme rightwing as a group, indeed, if you look at their published material on their website they are actively moving away from the right and violence with their mission statement. As we discussed last time, I really think you need to open a direct line of dialogue with them and redirect their activity?"
At best this shows alarming naivety. At worst it demonstrates a callous disregard for those who have been on the receiving end of EDL violence. Disturbingly this came from a man whose unit was charged with investigating any links between the rightwing Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik and the EDL. Breivik boasted of having 600 EDL supporters as Facebook friends and said in his deranged 1,500-word manifesto that he had spoken with EDL members and supporters. This information should surely have been sobering enough for Tudway, and encouraged him to venture beyond the EDL's website. Recently the Daily Mail exposed a stockpile of weaponry assembled by EDL members, which rather takes away from the idea that the organisation is a beacon of moderation.
In any event, if the EDL is on a journey of atonement why did the Met feel it necessary to deploy more than 3,000 officers in Tower Hamlets on the day the EDL had planned a march, despite the home secretary's ban?
What really links Breivik to the EDL is a corrosive Islamophobia, which to all intents and purposes is similar to the antisemitism that many experienced in my part of London in the last century. Not that this in any way excuses those who respond by twisting Islam into a fundamentalism that most in the community do not approve of and do not want. The trouble is, it would appear that the only focus for those attempting to tackle extremism in Britain through the government's Prevent programme are such people – while those who express similar sentiments on the far right are treated with kid gloves.
I was pleased then to see that Dan Hodges from the anti-fascism organisation Searchlight appreciates what really lies behind the EDL. He has said that the police should classify the EDL as extremist and linked to violence, and that they should spend more time and effort trying to thwart the group's plans. To that should be added recent comments by Zaheer Ahmad, of the National Association of Muslim Police, who noted that: "There is a strong perception in the Muslim communities that the police service does not take the threat of rightwing extremism seriously."
Here, in Tower Hamlets, we do take the EDL seriously. That is why, in the wake of repeated threats from that organisation, we want it reclassified as an extremist group, and banned from being allowed to march through our London borough again. That would be the best tribute of all to all those who drove Mosley and his blackshirts out of the East End so many years ago.