Detail from the Cable Street mural. Photo: Ben Rimmer (under Creative Commons)
Cable Street 80: Remembering their actions, living their values
It’s 80 years this week since the Battle of Cable Street, when working-class neighbourhoods united to drive Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists out of the East End. The blackshirts’ planned march to threaten the East End’s Jewish communities was beaten back and had to be protected by police as they fled.
Events like this are a good time for us to reflect and to restate the trade union movement’s core belief in a society where everyone is treated with fairness, dignity and respect.
The rich tapestry of cultures, races and faiths isn’t just one of London’s greatest strengths; it’s one of Britain’s defining assets. And a diverse Jewish community is at the heart of that unique heritage. What happened Cable Street in 1936 is hugely symbolic not just for Jews – but for people of all backgrounds, from all parts of the world, who call London home. Irish, Bengalis, Poles – as the old union adage goes, together we are stronger.
And I’m especially proud that trade unionists were prominent among the countless thousands of foot soldiers during the Battle of Cable Street. Irish dockers, railway workers, working-class men and women – all joined forces with the Jewish community to stop Mosley’s blackshirts in their tracks. United against those who sought to divide us.
Antifascism has always been a part of the trade union movement’s DNA. Thousands of trade unionists died resisting Nazi Germany, many joined the International Brigades to fight Franco’s armies in Spain, and unions led the mobilisation against the National Front here in Britain. Today, unions continue to fight racism, fascism and anti-Semitism. It’s a fight that matters just as much now as it ever did.
The vote to leave the EU has seemingly legitimised racism and discrimination. The neofascist Far Right is resurgent across Europe, and hostility towards migrants is on the rise. As Europe grapples with the biggest refugee crisis since World War Two, we must not forget the lessons of our past. Just as we gave sanctuary to Jews escaping Nazism, so we must extend the hand of friendship to those fleeing war in Syria.
Trade unions will continue to do what have always done: Speak up for the dignity of all working people, regardless of where they come from or whatever the colour of their skin. We will fight racism in our workplaces and our communities. We will campaign for good jobs, fair pay and decent services for all.
On Sunday it’ll be my great privilege along with many others to honour the surviving veterans of Cable Street, at a rally on the site of the Battle. Personally, I’ll always remember the words of one of them who simply said: “I can’t fathom out why we can’t see each other as human beings. If we’re cut, we all bleed the same”.
The best way for us to remember what they did in Cable Street is by living and breathing the values which brought working people together all those years ago. Respect, solidarity, and the sense that our fortunes rise and fall as one. What matters is not the little that divides us, but the great mass that unites us.
Jews and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, people of faith and people of none – first and foremost we are all members of the same human family. And in this year of all years, unions commit to not letting that be forgotten.