Know your enemy: the Tommy Robinson movement (part 2)


The last twelve months have seen largest street protests by the far right in decades: in October 2017, a march of 10,000 people by the Football Lads Alliance; on 6 May this year, a ‘Day for Freedom’ march of 5,000 people, and on 9 June, a march of perhaps 15,000 people calling for Tommy Robinson to be freed. There have also been protests in Manchester and Birmingham with around 2-3,000 people taking part in each.

By contrast, the largest EDL demonstrations in 2011-2012 in Luton saw a maximum of 3,000 people march. The National Front demonstration through Lewisham in 1977 which was famously confronted by anti-fascists saw around 800 supporters of the Front take part. You have to go back as far as the 1930s to the last time that the British far right was able to mobilise numbers comparable to today.

Rejecting the BNP

The starting point has to be the English Defence League, which is a model both to Tommy Robinson (the former leader of the EDL) and to the DFLA. The EDL was made up of people who had been on the margins of fascist parties (the NF and the BNP) but disliked them and wanted to create something new.

The Front and the BNP were top down parties for the transmission of politics from leadership to cadre and then to an audience. The NF and the BNP had a message which was either that Hitler had been right (the NF) or that Britain needed a modern nationalist party like the Front National in France (the BNP). Within each party nationalist traditions were passed on, from the leadership down and from old members to new. Elections were used to build influence, to make the party appear bigger and to test the extent to which the party was winning supporters and converting them to its politics.

The demise of the BNP from 2010 onwards and the emergence of the EDL broke with this model. The EDL was a right-wing social movement and not a party. It recruited first football fans and then online. From its start, the EDL was an organisation without subs or speaker meetings. Unlike its predecessors there were neither official magazines nor tables of approved literature. The EDL did not have members; it did not tell its supporters that they were fighting for a minority tradition (fascism) which was trying to make itself popular again until it had majority support. Rather the EDL borrowed ideas which were already mainstream (that Islam produces terrorists, that the English are being punished by multiculturalism, etc.) and sought to push them further than conventional politics allowed.

Tommy Robinson was a popular leader of the EDL but he made a number of decisions which limited the EDL’s potential for growth. To distance the EDL from the BNP, Robinson promoted a clique of non-BNP speakers who were pro-Israel, pro-LGBT and antagonised the core members who did not see either of these issues as a priority. The EDL had to deal with the problem of opposition on a significant scale. In addition, it never had any coherent notion of what to do with its members other than to call more demonstrations. This was a plausible way of building a movement, the people who took part found the events enjoyable and wanted to do more of them. But once they had reached their greatest size (i.e. around 2,000 people), their novelty wore off. This was not a movement which had any strategy to take on, or still less take over, the state. And there was nowhere for the EDL to go other than to call yet another demonstration which then turned out to be no larger than the one before. Tommy Robinson himself grew frustrated with this model and in 2013 left the EDL, supposedly forever…

Trying what was tried before

The FLA was launched after the 2017 terrorist attacks and also after Labour’s success in last year’s general election. One theme of its supporters is their intense dislike of Jeremy Corbyn, Dianne Abbott and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, all of whom are seen to be irredeemably soft on terrorism. The responses of the Football Lads to Abbott and Khan personally also exhibit more than a little old-style racism.

The FLA had an equivocal relationship with the EDL. As the FLA saw it, the English Defence League produced a model of how to organise and showed that there was an audience for its intended “anti-extremist” (i.e. anti-Muslim) politics. On the other hand, the EDL was seen to have gone too far, and failed by allowing its critics to present it as far-right. If a particular idea was floated and the leadership of the FLA disliked it, they would say that their critics were just reproducing the EDL. Tommy Robinson himself was banned from the first FLA events.

The key individual at this stage was a man called John Meighan, a Spurs fan who describes himself as a “property manager”, i.e. a junior manager for a private company that specialises in building hospital buildings on PFI contracts.

At 32, Meighan was younger than most other of the first wave of FLA supporters, and dependent on an older generation who went back to the hooligan battles of the 1980s. The FLA appears to have had an informal leadership of people who presented themselves as the leaders of local groups of football hooligans. Only in a few cases did these firms have any discernible links to the far right.

The anti-political nature of early FLA events was expressed in the rule that supporters were banned form chanting, slogans, banners (other than those produced centrally and flags (other than the St Georges Flag and Union Jack).

The FLA portrayed itself as a movemebt ordinary people with very little politics other than a dislike of terrorism. Football is a working-class milieu in which most FLA supporters are treated as ‘one of us’. Some FLA supporters (including members of the leadership) are pushy or middle class – most aren’t. Some are ideological right-wingers. Again, most aren’t.

Robinson and the FLA: the beginnings of a relationship

The first sign that the FLA would be unable to keep Robinson out could be seen at the October 2017 demonstration, which was attended by Robinson supposedly in a new capacity of social media reporter on the far right. Robinson was mobbed as he attended the march, repeatedly applauded and plainly had a stronger personal following than Meighan or any of the other leaders of the FLA.

At this stage, it seems that Robinson was uncertain whether he wanted to be pulled into the leadership of the new movement. He had repeatedly declared that he wanted to have no part in organised politics. In 2014 and 2015, Robinson’s line was that he was keeping away from his past; although there was some backsliding and from early 2016, Robinson had been promoting Pegida UK as a possible route for him back to a leadership role in something like the EDL.

When Robinson is asked to explain how he could have gone from disavowing all politics to a possible return, his own explanation is that he had no choice. All he ever wanted to do was give up politics and return to his previous career as a painter and decorator. But ever since he has got involved in far right politics he has been subject to monitoring by the police, and at various times he has been prosecuted, had his property confiscated, etc. The legacy of Robinson’s involvement in the EDL is a huge social media platform. Who could blame him, he says, for seeking to use it?

By late 2017, Robinson was plainly considering a return to far right politics. The main difficulty for Robinson was that Darren Osborne was awaiting trial for his terrorist attacks (initially, an intention to kill Jeremy Corbyn which then became the attack on the Finsbury Park mosque). As Osborne was preparing the attacks, he received twitter messages from Robinson. The first told him that “There is a nation within a nation forming just beneath the surface of the UK… built on hatred, violence and Islam,” the second (sent just five days before Osborne carried out the attacks), claimed that refugees from Syria and Iraq had raped a white woman in Sunderland.

The former EDL leader may well have been calculating that if he did throw everything at politics, he would be in real danger of a prosecution as an accessory to that attack. Given that Osborne was sentenced to 43 years in jail, the risk to Robinson if he pushed himself too far into the public light was very high indeed. Several months were to pass before Robinson decided that he was safe to return.

Turning protest into money

Meanwhile the founder of the FL John Meighan was becoming increasingly isolated. Meighan (indeed like Robinson) is an activist with a very strong sense of the need to ‘marketise’ his social relationships. One of his first acts was to register the FLA as a for-profit company (Football Lads Alliance Limited) complete with its own online merchandise shop selling branded clothing. This went down badly with other FLA activists, many of whom are from manual working class backgrounds and were annoyed at the thought that their time was being used to make money for Meighan.

By this March, a Democratic Football Lads Alliance had been launched with no platform other than to remove Meighan. Both the FLA and DFLA called rival marches, and the DFLA’s were clearly larger.

At around this time, two significant groups became interested in this rising movement. One was UKIP, whose new leader Gerard Batten (pictured, top) who has been a regular presence on all the main marches since the spring. It is worth noting that the EDL never attempted alliances with parties on the scale of UKIP. The DFLA’s alliance with UKIP represents to some extent a moderation of its politics; on the other hand, it is also a means to funds and an audience on a much larger scale than before.

The other was the very popular Birmingham Justice4the21 campaign, possibly the most significant ally that the British far right has had since the anti-immigration campaigns of the 1960s. I will say more about them – and UKIP – in the final third of this piece.

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