Street protests and far-right parties — What threat does the ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ campaign pose?

In the space of just over a month the far right has organised two very large anti-Muslim demonstrations in London, both of which ended with mass rallies outside Downing Street. The first (pictured above) on 6 May was billed as a “Day for Freedom”, and was called to protest against the imposition of a permanent Twitter ban on former English Defence League leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson). Twitter had taken this action in the aftermath of Darren Osborne’s conviction over the Finsbury Park terror attack, which was inspired by Yaxley-Lennon’s inflammatory online propaganda — although you wouldn’t know that from his supporters’ self-righteous denunciations of the suppression of their hero’s right to “free speech”.

The second demonstration on 9 June was organised under the slogan “Free Tommy Robinson”. It followed Yaxley-Lennon receiving a 13-month prison sentence after he admitted to contempt of court by filming outside a “grooming” trial at Leeds Crown Court as defendants arrived for the hearing. Although Yaxley-Lennon had been given a suspended sentence for the same offence in Canterbury last year, and told explicitly by the judge that he would face jail if he repeated it, he went ahead and did so anyway. (For a detailed examination of the legal basis for the sentence, and a thorough demolition of the nonsense about Yaxley-Lennon being some sort of free speech martyr and a victim of Establishment persecution, see here.)

The Free Tommy Robinson rally in Whitehall was compered by Raheem Kassam, who was until recently editor of Breitbart London and is the author of Enoch Was Right: ‘Rivers of Blood’ 50 Years On. Kassam relayed a message of support from former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. Platform speakers included UKIP leader Gerard Batten and former UKIP, now independent, MEP Janice Atkinson. They were joined by Anne Marie Waters, a former contender for the UKIP leadership and now leader of the far-right groupuscule For Britain. A European dimension to the proceedings was provided by Geert Wilders of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid and Filip Dewinter of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, both of whom are stars of the international counter-jihadist movement, and by Louis Aliot, vice-president of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, who sent a statement of solidarity. The final speaker was Kevin Carroll, cousin of Yaxley-Lennon and co-founder of the English Defence League. In addition to defending Yaxley-Lennon as a political prisoner and demanding his release, the speeches featured angry denunciations of mass immigration and multiculturalism, and emotional appeals to resist the spread of Islam.

Geert Wilders addresses the rally, to applause from Gerard Batten and Filip Dewinter

Many of the demonstrators appear to have been supporters of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, an Islamophobic outfit based on football hooligan firms which played a significant role in the Day for Freedom protest (though the leadership of the DFLA reportedly did not mobilise for this second event). Nazi salutes were evident during the demonstration, which was also characterised by outbreaks of violence, with hundreds of protesters attacking the police, throwing metal crowd barriers, bottles and road signs, and injuring five officers. A passing tourist bus was occupied and damaged. Nine arrests were made — with no doubt more to follow after police have examined CCTV footage.

So far, so predictable. What was unprecedented, though, was the numbers involved. Estimates for the size of the crowd ranged from “possibly as many as 10,000” (Hope Not Hate) to “around 15,000” (Stand Up To Racism) — or even up to 20,000 if you’re prepared to believe Yaxley-Lennon’s own supporters (Raheem Kassam and Jihad Watch). It was certainly a big increase on the 5,000 who attended the Day for Freedom a month earlier. In fact you have to go back to the 1930s and Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists to find the last time the far right was able to organise a rally on such a scale.

These two big Tommy Robinson protests prompted Andrew Burgin of Left Unity to initiate a discussion of their implications, with an article on the Public Reading Rooms website titled “The rise of the far right — what is to be done? Opening the debate”. He characterised recent developments as follows: “A new political coalition of the right is in formation. It is in its infancy but it is beginning to draw together UKIP, EDL remnants, Trump supporters, Farage, Christian Fundamentalist groups, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, Tommy Robinson and disaffected right-wing Tories. Most of these groups were represented at the ‘Free Speech’ march and rally in May 2018 called after Robinson was banned from twitter. What unites them all are the campaigns ‘against [Islamic] terrorism’ and for ‘free speech’ and for Robinson’s release from prison.”

Anyone familiar with the far right would have wondered what Nigel Farage was doing on that list. The former UKIP leader had not been involved in the Tommy Robinson solidarity movement in any way, yet Farage was accorded a potentially central role in this emerging “new political coalition of the right” by Andrew. In order to “become a more powerful political force”, he wrote, the emergent coalition would require “serious finance of the kind that could be provided by people like Aaron Banks”. (The reference is to Arron Banks, a former major financial backer of UKIP who played a leading role in the Leave.EU campaign.) “Banks and Farage have been discussing for some time how to launch a new political project”, Andrew argued, and the forces brought together in defence of Tommy Robinson have now apparently provided them with an opportunity to implement their scheme.

Fortunately, this is an exercise in political fantasy. Obnoxiously reactionary and xenophobic though his politics may be, Farage is not a stupid man. He has sufficient grip on reality to understand that it is impossible to build an effective political movement on the basis of cooperation with a criminal thug like Tommy Robinson. If there is one thing guaranteed to drive away the “disaffected right-wing Tories” whose support would be necessary for any new political project Farage and Banks might launch, it is involvement with Yaxley-Lennon and his hooligan followers who engage in drunken assaults on the police.

Arron Banks did tweet his support for Yaxley-Lennon, it’s true, but Farage was having none of it. On 30 May he told listeners to his LBC talk show: “Let’s be clear, Tommy Robinson was under a court order not to interfere with the judicial process in any way at all. He chose, for reasons of self-publicity and not to benefit anything that would help society, he chose wilfully to breach that. He was warned that he was in breach of that, decided to continue. Frankly, the judge had almost no choice but to give him a jail sentence. So I think Robinson frankly was out there asking for trouble…. I think for those of you who see Robinson as a hero, well OK, maybe he does stand up for his point of view, but believe you me his imprisonment in this case is not heroic in any way at all.”

UKIP’s current leader Gerard Batten takes a very different view from Farage, of course. Batten was not only a platform speaker at the Free Tommy rally but also at the Day for Freedom event in May, and he hasn’t hesitated to publicise his friendly relations with Yaxley-Lennon, or with continental counter-jihadists like Wilders. Batten’s approach as UKIP leader is very much in line with the hardcore Islamophobia that he has been promoting for many years now, often to the embarrassment of his own party.

When Batten took over the leadership of UKIP in February the party was in a serious crisis. Having by his own account managed to stave off imminent bankruptcy, Batten still had to address his party’s catastrophic loss of political support — UKIP got a derisory 1.9% of the vote in last year’s general election, down from 12.6% in 2015. He has evidently gambled on restoring UKIP’s electoral prospects through a shift to the right based on his own obsessive and deluded hatred of Islam, hence his enthusiasm for publicly associating the party with the movement around Yaxley-Lennon. This looks like a major miscalculation to me.

I don’t have much time for the politics of Hope Not Hate, but an article by Nick Lowles published in the Independent in February hit the nail on the head. He described Batten’s election as interim UKIP leader (subsequently confirmed for a further year in April) as “a disaster for any hope Ukip might have of resurrecting its political fortunes”. By making this choice, Lowles wrote, UKIP members had “sounded the death knell for their party”. He warned that Farage remained a danger because of his high profile and personal popularity. But under the leadership of an extremist crank like Batten, Lowles argued, UKIP itself was doomed. Who could disagree?

Farage has in the past declared UKIP’s opposition to Batten’s extreme Islamophobic views, which he obviously feared would undermine his efforts to move the party from the political fringes into the mainstream. Now, under Batten’s leadership, the party appears set on a course that would reverse that process. Understandably, Farage is not best pleased by this. No sooner had Andrew Burgin’s article appeared than the Guardian reported that Farage and other prominent UKIP members had privately expressed forthright criticisms of Batten’s public endorsement of the Free Tommy Robinson campaign, and that there was even the possibility of UKIP MEPs resigning over the issue. “I think this gets to the heart of not just the positioning of a political party, but of judgment too”, Farage was quoted as telling a meeting of UKIP activists. “And judgment really, really matters. Tommy Robinson is seen to be a hero by many. But actually, what the bloody hell was he doing outside the court?”

In a response to Andrew Burgin’s piece, also posted on the Public Reading Rooms website, Sue Sparks had a rather different take on this. The collapse of UKIP’s vote, she argued, had left many of its former supporters without a political home. Some of them have abandoned UKIP for the Tories or Labour, but others are “there for the picking by forces much further to the right”. She therefore envisaged a development rather different from the Farage-Banks project, which if it ever materialised would presumably position itself slightly to the left of UKIP, or at least the politics pursued by its current leadership, in an attempt to appeal to voters on the more moderate right. But I don’t find Sue Sparks’ scenario any more convincing than Andrew Burgin’s.

There is of course a precedent for a political formation to the right of UKIP attracting some popular support, namely the British National Party during the first decade of this century. At its peak the BNP had over 50 councillors and a member of the London Assembly, and in the 2009 European parliamentary election it managed to acquire two MEPs before tearing itself apart shortly afterwards in an outbreak of political in-fighting. These were modest gains, and the BNP was always marginal to British politics, but its electoral achievements were considerably greater than those of any previous far-right party in the UK. In the 1970s, for example, the National Front had been able to mobilise large street protests but failed to elect a single councillor. In fact the only electoral victories registered by the far right during that decade were the two council seats in Blackburn won by the National Party, a short-lived breakaway from the NF led by its former chairman John Kingsley Read.

The main explanation for the BNP’s relative success was that it renounced the traditional twin-track fascist strategy of combining electoral politics with shows of physical force. This approach had been based on the reasoning that if a far-right party proved it could control the streets and intimidate its opponents, that would increase the party’s appeal to voters, who would recognise it as a strong movement capable of imposing order on society. However, while that may have worked for Mussolini and Hitler in circumstances of extreme crisis in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, it was plainly counterproductive in the very different conditions prevailing in Britain in the late twentieth century. Some influential figures in the BNP quite sensibly concluded that taking to the streets with gangs of shaven-headed hooligans throwing Nazi salutes was not going to attract voters but repel them. When Nick Griffin replaced John Tyndall as BNP chairman in 1999 he implemented what became known as the “suits not boots” strategy. The party abandoned the old “march and grow” method of attracting publicity and recruits by staging provocative demonstrations and, as Griffin put it, sought to present “an image of moderate reasonableness” to the electorate.

If a party to the right of UKIP is to replace the now moribund BNP by gaining support off the back of the Free Tommy Robinson campaign, the For Britain Movement that Anne Marie Waters launched last year following her failed UKIP leadership bid would be well placed to do this. For Britain has certainly become a pole of attraction for fragments of the far right, and has recruited some quite prominent former BNP members, including Eddy Butler, architect of the “Rights for Whites” campaign that resulted in the election victory of Derek Beackon in Millwall back in 1994. For Britain’s profile with the general public has been raised by the disgraceful comments in support of Waters and her poisonous little group of racists from former Smiths’ singer Morrissey. (“I have been following a new party called For Britain which is led by Anne Marie Waters. It is the first time in my life that I will vote for a political party.”)

But Waters’ unhinged rants against Islam, and her failure to dissociate herself from the violent element within the Tommy Robinson solidarity movement, hardly present the “image of moderate reasonableness” that was crucial to the electoral advances made by the BNP in the noughties. Instead, Waters appears intent on repeating the mistakes of the pre-Griffin BNP. As things stand, For Britain is no more than a tiny and politically irrelevant sect, and if it continues on its present course it will never be anything else. In the May local elections For Britain managed to stand all of 15 candidates, not one of whom came remotely close to winning, with over half finishing last in the wards they contested. In last week’s Lewisham East by-election — where For Britain’s candidate was Waters herself, fresh from her triumphant appearance before the masses at the Free Tommy Robinson rally — the party got just 266 votes (1.2%). When she stood in the same constituency in the 2015 general election, as the UKIP candidate, Waters finished in third place behind Labour and the Tories with 9.1%.

UKIP’s own campaign in the Lewisham East by-election was in line with Batten’s shift to the right. Its “Stop the Khanage” leaflet, which held London mayor Sadiq Khan personally responsible for knife crime in the capital, neatly combined a call for law and order with an attack on a prominent Muslim politician. Unlike For Britain, UKIP is an established political brand with widespread name recognition and possesses at least some residual credibility as an electoral force — its Lewisham East candidate, David Kurten, is one of two UKIP representatives on the London Assembly. If hardline Islamophobic politics were able to attract substantial electoral support, then the beneficiary of such a development would be UKIP itself, rather than an obscure splinter group further to its right. Judging by the result in Lewisham East, however, there is no sign of that happening. Although he finished ahead of Waters, Kurten did very poorly too, receiving only 380 votes (1.7%).

As an example of a far-right party building itself into a significant political force on the basis of Islamophobic street protests, some anti-fascists have pointed to Germany. In another contribution to the Public Reading Rooms debate, Phil Hearse asserted that “the precursor of the hard right AfD (Alliance for Germany) that now has 94 seats in the Bundestag, was the street activist PEGIDA movement”. If anyone concludes from this that the Free Tommy Robinson campaign could play a role in the formation of an AfD-type party in the UK, I think they are mistaken.

For a start, Phil Hearse gets the chronology wrong. The AfD was launched as a eurosceptic party in March 2013 and by the time it held its first convention the next month it had recruited 8,000 members. The new party contested the federal elections in September that year and got more than two million votes, just short of the 5% necessary to win representation in the Bundestag. In the May 2014 European elections the AfD again received over two million votes, which on a lower turnout came to 7% of the total and won them seven MEPs. In August and September that year the party gained seats in the state parliaments of Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg, with 10–12% of the vote. By the time PEGIDA was launched in October 2014 the AfD was well established and already making political advances.

During the winter of 2014–15 PEGIDA’s torchlight marches and rallies against the “Islamisation of the West” did attract large numbers in Dresden, with as many as 25,000 attending one demonstration in January 2015. But elsewhere in Germany its sister organisations drew no more support than similar protests by HoGeSa, which like the DFLA had the more specific aim of mobilising football hooligans on the basis of hostility to Muslims. The Dresden marches themselves attracted a hooligan element along with neo-Nazis, who were responsible for some acts of violence, but in that city at least the protests clearly drew on much wider layers of support. The challenge for the AfD, which has experienced sharp internal conflicts over this issue, was how to win over PEGIDA sympathisers without alienating more centrist voters through association with an extremist street movement.

After ousting her more moderate predecessor and taking over the party leadership in 2015, Frauke Petry shifted the party away from its original emphasis on opposing the EU towards a hardline Islamophobic, anti-migrant stance, which obviously appealed to PEGIDA supporters. But even Petry baulked at establishing links with an organisation led by Hitler-imitator Lutz Bachmann, whose criminal record — which includes convictions for burglary, drug-dealing, assault and more recently incitement to racial hatred — is almost as extensive as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s. Under Petry’s leadership, AfD members were in fact banned from speaking or displaying party symbols at PEGIDA events. It was only after Petry’s sidelining and subsequent resignation from the AfD last year that the new more aggressively ethno-nationalist leadership relaxed the ban and moved to establish a closer relationship with PEGIDA. By the time this development took place, the big street protests of 2014–15 had long since subsided.

The history of AfD-PEGIDA relations therefore provides little support for the idea that the Free Tommy Robinson protest movement could serve as the springboard for a similarly successful far-right Islamophobic party in the UK. Particularly so, when you also take into account the different electoral system in Germany, where the Bundestag is elected on the basis of mixed-member proportional representation. The AfD’s electoral breakthrough last September, which gave them their 94 parliamentary seats, was achieved on the basis of just 12.6% of the vote. Coincidentally, this is exactly the same level of support that UKIP attracted here in the 2015 general election. Under our first-past-the-post system, though, that gave UKIP just a single MP.

Some might say this analysis places excessive weight on electoral politics. But it is their success in elections that provides the parties of the continental European far right with their political clout. Take Geert Wilders, who spoke at the Free Tommy Robinson rally. His Partij voor de Vrijheid scored 13% in last year’s Dutch parliamentary elections and won 20 seats, making it the second largest party in the 150-member House of Representatives. This gives the PVV both political credibility and an aura of legitimacy, while also providing Wilders with a platform to promote his rabidly Islamophobic politics. In 2010–12, when the PVV held the balance of power in parliament and the centre-right Rutte administration was dependent on an agreement with Wilders to implement its legislative programme, the PVV was able to directly influence government policy. Even in the absence of such a pact, Wilders can still exercise influence over legislation, as rival parties adopt right-wing anti-migrant, anti-Muslim policies for fear of their voters defecting to the PVV. Cross-party support for the “burqa ban” initiated by Wilders is a case in point.

Tarnished by its association with street hooliganism and blocked from pursuing an electoral road, the “new political coalition of the right” that has come together in defence of Yaxley-Lennon cannot conceivably produce an organisation that would have an impact on British politics comparable to that of the PVV or other far-right parties in Europe. So that threat is pretty much non-existent. It’s not clear that the Free Tommy Robinson campaign will even be able to sustain itself for very long as a narrow protest movement, given that the man himself pleaded guilty to contempt of court and failing a successful appeal against his sentence is not going to be released from prison any time soon, however large and angry the demonstrations demanding his freedom may be. Hopefully a sense of futility will sink in and the movement will eventually fizzle out.

This doesn’t mean that the Tommy Robinson protests pose no threat. However, while the numbers involved are shocking, these demonstrations are just one dramatic and publicly visible aspect a vile campaign to whip up a backward section of the population into a hysterical fury against Muslims. Far more of this campaign is conducted online than on the streets. The incitement of anti-Muslim hatred via social media has real-world consequences, though, as the terrorist attack on the mosque in Finsbury Park last year showed. Not only Yaxley-Lennon but also the far-right group Britain First were implicated in the perpetrator’s turn to violent extremism. The banning of Britain First from both Twitter and Facebook, and the Twitter ban on Yaxley-Lennon himself, were significant blows against online Islamophobia, given the huge number of people they influenced — Yaxley-Lennon’s @TRobinsonNewEra Twitter account had over four hundred thousand followers, while the Britain First Facebook page had more than two million likes. Pressure needs to be put on Twitter and Facebook to apply such bans on far-right hate-speech more widely.

Another important step would be for an incoming Labour government to carry out a review of existing anti-hatred legislation. The current law against religious hatred is largely useless and allows the far right to incite hatred against Muslims in a way that would lead to prosecution under the much more effective racial hatred law if similar rhetoric was directed against Jews. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we need to bring the legal position across the UK into line with that in Northern Ireland, where there is an all-purpose anti-hatred law that provides equal protection against incitement to hatred on the grounds of “religious belief, sexual orientation, disability, colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins”. That law is currently being used to prosecute Jayda Fransen and Paul Golding of Britain First, who have been charged in connection with speeches they made in Belfast last year. The absurdity of the current situation is that speeches like this can lead to criminal charges in Northern Ireland, but speeches like this remain entirely within the law in England. That anomaly needs to be rectified.

First published on Medium and Public Reading Rooms in June 2018