‘Ex-soldiers asked to give way to Mosley’ was the headline in the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker, on 30 September 1936. Oswald Mosley, a former Labour Party government minister, set up the British Union of Fascists in 1932, modelling it on Hitler’s Nazi Party. Chief among its tactics was the intimidation of East London’s Jews with marches and rallies, followed by violent attacks. Mosley announced that he would march through the East End on Sunday 4 October 1936.
The headline in the Daily Worker was a warning to the rebellious Stepney Communists who wanted to challenge the fascists where they marched. The party leadership hated this direct action. They wanted to draw Communists off to a peaceful march against the Spanish fascist Franco, which was planned to take place in Trafalgar Square.
On the Thursday, the Daily Worker promised that ‘Sunday will see columns of London youth marching to Trafalgar Square’. Under the headline ‘Provocation’, they warned that Mosley’s march could ‘only be construed as a provocation’. There would be a meeting in Shoreditch Town Hall that evening, after the two marches, where the Communist leader Tom Mann would make a token protest against Mosley’s incursion.
The police, the Labour Party and the Board of Deputies of British Jews also counselled that people stay away from the Mosley demonstration, for fear of promoting lawlessness.
Stepney Communists thought differently. Forbidden from challenging the fascists directly by their branch committee, they organised instead as an ex-servicemen’s association, led by Joe Jacobs. It was they, along with the radical Independent Labour Party, who organised the opposition to Mosley, along with many in the local community. Joe Jacobs had his Communist Party membership suspended for his trouble.