The two souls of anti-fascism


I spent this Saturday marching against the Democratic Football Lads Alliance. I was part of a unity demonstration which began at Portland Place (i.e. a little south of Regents Park) and marched very slowlyfrom there to Trafalgar Square. Despite the slow progress (a deliberate move, intended to prevent the DFLA from marching past us), the protest was one of the most enjoyable I have been on in years. Young, very largely female, full of excited people. Among the friends I marched with were seasoned anti-fascists who go back to the campaigns of the 1980s, Marxist journalists, fans in football regalia, exiles from the lefts in America and Brazil, LGBT activists, a disabled singer, and a woman who hadn’t known about the march until she came into London that morning with her seven year old son to go shopping, asked the police who were demonstrating and (despite the police’s best efforts) found herself joining what she soon realized was a joyous celebration of unity.

There were 1500 people on the march, and the name “unity” is richly deserved. A very large number of groups – the RMT trade union, Plan C, London Anti-Fascists, AFNs from elsewhere in the country, Jewdas, Palestine activist campaigns, RS21, had turned out, in each case, quite small numbers of people. The result of these many small mobilisations was a large and exuberant protest, with songs (“I will survive”), purple smoke from flares, chants. The protest was led by Women’s Strike Assembly and placed women at the front, even pausing at one stage (as we approached the Brazilian embassy) to allow women from Latin America to rush to the front.

The unity march was youthful, and vibrant. Its most interesting component was Women’s Strike Assembly who, although a minority of demonstrators, had been allowed to set the agenda for the majority and lead them. Their idea is that anti-fascism should not simply react to far-right demonstrations but set our own agenda. For six weeks prior to the DFLA event, they had held private meetings, public assemblies to discuss their plans. They organised creches, food for the demonstrators, cookies with arrest cards. Because they have spent weeks planning for the demonstration, and because they talked to activists who weren’t initially planning to go on the demo, they were able to persuade sufficient numbers of new people to turn out so that the far right was badly outnumbered. Wonen’s Strike do not confront every single far right protest (they haven’t tried, for example, to oppose the Tommy Robinson court appearances); they think that the left can mobilise in large numbers only occasionally. That calculation is probably correct. The movement is better if we focus on occasional large turnouts, rather than mobilising small numbers of our older supporters on weekday stunts.

We confronted the DFLA; at about 3 o’clock a group of around two hundred supporters of the far right broke out of police lines and attempted to march on us. Outnumbered, their “Eng-ger-land” chants were drowned out by people chanting back at them the slogan of the Spanish Civil War, “No Pasaran.”

I waited with friends, and when it was clear that the far right was not going to break through, we set off through central London and took a good look at the DFLA. They were, unsurprisingly, the same far right crowd that we have seen repeatedly over the last eighteen months, predominantly male and middle aged, with a large number of football insignia (including, at one point, two men carrying what looked like West Ham shields carved out of a small wall of flowers). The DFLA’s strategy since the spring has been to build out of a women’s and children’s movement against rape. If that was supposed to bring in a new generation of activists, it hasn’t been successful yet. Of the 800-1000 DFLA supporters we saw, just three women were wearing stickers which alluded to that recent campaign. The DFLA itself faces an increasing threat from the right in the form of Tommy Robinson who spent last year tacking towards the DFLA and has recently moved away from it, leaving that campaign feeling like last year’s news. The stage was disorganized, the audience uninterested, as the DFLA gave a platform to its highest profile remaining allies the Justice for the 21 campaign in Birmingham, which campaigns for the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings and for the naming of the killers. Even with such mainstream allies, the DFLA seemed isolated and short of purpose.

As well as the main unity march there was also a second protest, called by a long-standing campaign group Stand Up to Racism. The organisers say that there were 2000 people on their protest. I have spoken to six of the people who were there and their estimates of their event’s size ranged from 750 to 1000 people. By the time I had got there (i.e. midway through the speeches), numbers had fallen far below that level.

The SUtR, protest was very different from the unity march. Small numbers of older men were standing far back from police lines. They were kettled, and making no effort to break out from the lines behind which they were constricted. There were in effect two stages – a DFLA stage on the North side of Whitehall, and a UAF stage on the South side, with two sets of speakers pointing away from each other. A single police helicopter made a desultory pretence of flying over the two. The UAF march did not confront the DFLA nor did the organisers have any intention of doing so.

The history of the left gives many examples of a campaign which was at once stage hegemonic on the left giving way to a younger, more political and more combative rival. After all, most members of the unity protest are veterans of previous SUtR and similar events. While SUtR was content behind its kettle, and the young were marching elsewhere, they were still chanting slogans first heard on SUtR protests.

Even SUtR derives its heritage, if increasingly distantly, from the Anti-Nazi League and the SWP of the 1970s, part of whose adoption of anti-fascism was part of a longer-term plan of replacing the ageing Communist Party of Great Britain as the largest organization force outside Labour on the left. From the perspective of generational and political renewal, it is very easy to see which forces are going to be the mainstays of anti-fascism in the decades to come.

What is harder to ask is whether even a generational renewal of the campaign will lead to what we really need – i.e. a movement capable of stopping not the smaller groups on the right but the likes of Tommy Robinson. The big picture is that the far right of our own times organises in ways different from the methods the left understands how to confront, through the adoption of a contrarian persona, anti-politically, and principally online. Moreover, in so far as anti-fascism works by distancing the extremists on the right from their mainstream allies, a problem facing us is that the two wings of the right have been co-operating voluntarily. There is, in short, a battle of ideas taking place between the left as a whole and the right as a whole. In that context, even the best of the anti-fascism can be no more than a part of the answer.


Tommy Robinson and the inconvenience of the state



This Thursday, Tommy Robinson will be back in court in his long-running contempt of court trial. He has served two months in prison already, and has won a previous appeal; but the effect of that success has merely been to return his case to the Crown Court where a new judge will have to make a fresh sentencing decision.

I was in court in July for Robinson’s last hearing. We were in the Royal Courts of Justice with their oak paneled walls, the Law Reports stuffed hopelessly on the shelves. The public gallery was full of Robinson’s followers, trying too hard to look smart in tasseled loafers, suits which hadn’t fitted in twenty years.

Ezra Levant from Canada’s Rebel Media, and recently Robinsons employer, was one of the first to arrive. He stood by the door to the gallery, nodding at the members of the public as we walked in. Later, Levant and one of his American friends could be heard reminiscing self-importantly. “Do you remember when I was in that class action, for the American Enterprise Institute? We intervened to prevent a settlement…” Levant was trying to signal to everyone watching that he was in charge, hewas the one who was paying for Robinson’s court fees. In fact, Levant and Robinson had fallen out a year before. The former EDL man was indeed having his lawyers’ fees paid from abroad, but the main funder was not Levant. It was a different foreign Islamophobe, Daniel Pipes of Campus Watch.

Robinson was watching the scenes by video link from Woodhill Prison. Can you see your barrister, the usher asked. “Yeah.” Can you see the judges? “Yeah. Are they supposed to be that small?” Bored, ignored by the lawyers in court, Robinson was “please” and “thank you” and trying hard to look serious. “I’m not nervous before a court case,” he said, “not usually.” Soon enough the sound was switched, off, leaving Robinson picking distractedly at his shirt, like a monkey savouring its fleas.

When they spoke, his lawyers made every effort to present Robinson as a quiet advocate of good relations between different communities. Yes, they accepted, Tommy Robinson’s livestreaming from outside Leeds Crown Court breached an order made on 19 March this year, which banned any person from publishing any report of those proceedings. And yes, Robinson was already subject to a suspended sentence from a similar contempt. But he was sorry. Very sorry.

Robinson was entitled to the protection of Article 6 of the European Convention, his barrister argued. Perhaps we can expect a future demonstration at which Katie Hopkins and their like demonstrate in support of the beloved Human Rights Act?

Robinson had been learning how to be an investigative journalist. He had been trying to better himself for the purpose of challenging extremism. A reliable solicitor’s firm, Kingsely Napley, had apparently trained Robinson and warned him where the line was between legitimate and illegitimate behavior. Which did beg the question of why he had so blatantly crossed it.

Tommy Robinson, his lawyer argued, was a delicate man, the victim of self-doubt. When in prison, he suffers anxiety, butterflies to the stomach. To which there is an answer, of course, that we need a world with more empathy rather than less. And that by organizing a street-fighting army to denounce mosques and ordinary Muslims, Robinson has been more than guilty of the very heartlessness with which he now complains the state has been prosecuting him.

Robinson has not been shy to market himself as at war with the authorities. His memoir is titled “Tommy Robinson, Enemy of the State.” I have sat in court and seen what happens in cases where the state is determined not to lose. There was a post-Occupy trial where the Metropolitan Police sent an assistant commissioner to sit for a whole day in court, in uniform, doing nothing more than signaling by his presence how much importance the police accorded to a successful outcome in the case.

But there weren’t any policeman in uniform to watch Robinson’s appeal, nor even a plain clothes note-taker. And, from the point of view of the judges, the reason Robinson was on trial was not his malice but his stupidity. If there is going to be a second edition of his book then it should be titled, “Tommy Robinson: the man who unwittingly frustrates the trials of Muslims and is therefore a minor inconvenience to the lower judiciary.” But maybe that wouldn’t sell so well on Amazon.

The best thing about Robinson’s successful appeal is that ever since Robinson has been in the hands of capable lawyers they have plainly been warning him (as any lawyer should) of the risk of further custodial sentences. For the time being, he has listened to them and the street protests have stopped.

But Robinson is still the same man he ever was, and he still has the same plan which is to demonstrate again and again for his own rights, and for the subordination of Muslims. This will require him to go back to social media and to say outrageous and offensive things until everyone else notices him. His time in prison brought in a bounty of donations – the equivalent, no doubt of the £100k that Rebel Media was once paying him for a year’s work – but Robinson has expensive tastes and many hangers on. Give it six months and that money will be spent. And, when it is, Robinson will be back on the streets again.

Tommy Robinson; and the rewards of outrage


In June, anti-fascists everywhere were shocked by the size of the Free Tommy protest in London, which had 15,000 people on it and was far larger than any comparable protest organised by any of the National Front, the BNP, the EDL or UKIP. The Robinson supporters followed it up with a smaller march a month later, with about 4,000 people taking part. After winning his appeal, Tommy Robinson is now out on bail but again facing a sentencing hearing and no doubt this time his lawyers are begging him to keep low profile (at least until the next hearing). What about afterwards; will Robinson return to the streets – and, if so, what level of support is he likely to sustain?

The first thing to grasp is that we are still in a moment when the far-right is growing faster than any other time since 1945. On the left, when we look back at the 1960s, we think go it as a freewheeling time of countercultural advance when “the movement” would mean at one time a campaign for civil rights, at any other time women’s and gay liberation, when it encompassed huge popular music festivals, campaigns for national liberation, comics, films, songs, conferences, street happenings, election victories. It was a time when somehow all these different types of movement, with all their different demands, seemed to fit together and represent one single process.

The troubling thought is that the post-2016 far right has exactly the same shifting content. To take just one example: one component of the Tommy Robinson movement is a group of football firms – the Football Lads Alliance banner. A year ago, it was solely a conventional single issue campaign only against Islamic terror attacks. But, after that, when there hadn’t been any further outrages and the issue drained out of the news; it became an external faction support a local campaign to expose the supposed connivance of the UK state in the IRA pub bombings. Then, when it became clear that the campaign couldn’t take root outside Birmingham, the FLA became a reluctant part of the Robinson movement. Now, it has changed again, and all the group’s energy is dedicated to supporting a movement of “women and children” (because they’re the same thing, right?) against rape. It relies on the unspoken but real insistence that all rapes in Britain are being carried out by Muslims. And, with the backing of Anne Marie Waters and Pat Buchanan, the FLA is now building itself through a series of further demonstrations in the North East.

A key part of the far right’s ability to reinvent itself has been the refusal of the mainstream right to police its outliers. For seventy years, the mainstream right has known that the key to electoral success has been that it must keep the dangerous elements at arm’s length. So in Britain, the most popular rightwing political between 1945 and 1979 Enoch Powell was publicly sacrificed by the Tory party – not because the Conservatives were nice people but because a purely racist approach to politics would cause the party to lose elections, and they knew that he polarised voters, when a strategy for repeated success relied in presenting Conservatism as a universal virtue, somehow above politics. The same was even true on the electoral far right: Farage built a career by driving out the nationalist element, turning down deals with the BNP and positioning his party as a friend of the Tories and closed to those further to its right.

But in 2018, we have the likely next leader of the Conservatives Boris Johnson taking advice from Steve Bannon and coming up with his racist musings about women in burkas. Or the present leader of UKIP attending pro-Robinson marches and telling the demonstrators that the founder of the Muslim religion was a paedophile and insisting that every racist fantasy they have about Muslims is true.

When Robinson’s movement took a step back in July, I argued that it was facing significant problems in renewing itself. On further reflection, I think the reasons for that were as follows. The Tommy Robinson movement is not best understood a political party but a social movement or even (better still) as what happens when a social media career starts to express itself in real life. The campaign has very few “cadres”, and almost no infrastructure apart from its online presence and a shifting micro-generation of people (Robinson’s former employer, his former secretary) who can claim to speak for Robinson himself. When he was in prison, he had very little access to his allies, he was in a cell 23.5 hours a day with phone access limited to 30 minutes in the early afternoon. He couldn’t make decision for them, and so no decisions were taken – except for just the single agreement that they should have a second demonstration in his support, to copy as closely as possible the one they had just held in June.

Now that Robinson is at large (or at least, once his sentencing appeal is over), those practical difficulties have been resolved.

All the signs are that the far-right is still growing across Europe. The next election to watch will be on 9 September in Sweden and while it no longer looks as if the Swedish Democrats will actually win, they are polling at a steady 20% of the vote, and we should except them to win their highest ever vote. There will be more press headlines in Britain describing the far right as Europe’s coming force.

Here, Brexit continues to poison our politics; there is a convergence between the ways in which the main Brexiteers see the world (Johnson: Brexit was a great idea, but the politicians never allowed me to explain it properly) and the way that the Robinson supporters understand it, as the defeat of the nation by a caste of politicians committed to keeping their cosmopolitan links and working secretly behind the scenes to betray the Brexit vote.

Above all, we need to understand Robinson himself. On his version of events, for ten years he has been trying to have a normal career, as a working class man, supporting his wife and his children. But he couldn’t be a plasterer, he couldn’t have his own business, because every time he tries to live normally, he gets into trouble with the state. Therefore he has no choice but to try to live online. And by turning to social media, by monetising his followers on twitter and youtube, he has the opportunity to live well and to have his ideas about Muslims heard.

Of course Robinson’s version of reality involves him telling lies about the threat he represents to the state. He is not public enemy number one. He has got into trouble because the things he wanted to do – to physically confront his wife, to lie in a mortgage application and pretend that his house was for another person, to disrupt an ongoing court case by filming it to build his social media support – are acts of private selfishness, malice and stupidity which the state repeatedly disciplines without needing to invoking a grand liberal conspiracy against heroic patriots.

But if we get stuck on Robinson’s immense capacity for self deceit, we can miss the more important and troubling dynamic, which is this. Even with all the support Robinson has received, the far-right donors sending him cheques, he still has to live. He needs a regular income. He needs to sustain a lifestyle in which he can pay off six-figure court fines without pausing for breath. The problem with social media is that each grotesque act Robinson does (getting jailed, filming his traumatised children…) only remains newsworthy so long as it a first. He will stay in the public eye only if he does something even more grotesque next time.

In other words, if we take seriously the idea that this current iteration of the far right is – at its core – a strategy for building influence through selective use of social media, then it follows that Robinson will have every incentive when the dust settles to “go again”, to find new ways of winning supporters and outraging the rest of us. And in a world where the right is growing, his audience still wants more outrage and not less.

Learning from the past, so that we do it differently – and even better – next time


By 1976, the National Front had become the fourth largest party in Britain. In a context of national decline, racism, and fears that the country was collapsing into social unrest, the Front won 19 percent of the vote in elections in Leicester and 100,000 votes in London.

In response, an anti-fascist campaign was born, which combined mass action to deprive the Front of public platforms with a mass cultural movement. Rock Against Racism brought punk and reggae bands together as a weapon against the right.

At Lewisham in August 1977, fighting between the far right and its opponents saw two hundred people arrested and fifty policemen injured. The press urged the state to ban two rival sets of dangerous extremists. But as the papers took sides, so did many others who determined to oppose the Front.

Through the Anti-Nazi League hundreds of thousands of people painted out racist graffiti, distributed leaflets, persuaded those around them to vote against the right. This combined movement was one of the biggest mass campaigns that Britain has ever seen.

This book tells the story of the National Front and the campaign which stopped it.

“I was gripped and loved the way it took me through different elements of popular culture, personal reflection, policy. It is the best account of the relationship between punk and the Anti-Nazi League / Rock Against Racism.” Lucy Robinson, Professor in Collaborative History, University of Sussex.

“A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the post-war history of racist and fascist movements and the strategies of resistance to them.” Hsiao-Hung Pai, author of Angry White People.

“Dave Renton’s book helps us understand a pivotal moment in the defeat of fascism; it addresses the militant tradition of anti-fascism with real consideration.” Louise Purbrick, contributor to Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism.

Never Again will be published in February 2019. It is available for order here.


The far right falters


photograph: Steve Eason

Heavens knows the Tommy Robinson fans are miserable now. That’s why they’re sharing pictures from Egypt in 2011 rather than London yesterday.

There were somewhere between three and five thousand Tommy Robinson supporters on Whitehall. That sounds like an impressive number, except that it’s barely a third of the crowd that his followers turned out in June.

The Robinson fan club can’t share pictures of Whitehall from above, because the truth that picture would reveal is that the numbers mobilised by anti-fascists were almost as large as those turned out by the right. Four thousand in London to celebrate Trump? It’s not much to celebrate when 250,000 people opposed him the day before.

You could hear the Robinson fans as they joined their protest singing “Hey, Tommy Tommy.” A brutal two hours later, having endured some of the dullest speakers available to the international right, they headed towards the tube: grim faced and miserable.

This movement is losing energy fast. Its rank and file know precious little of their leaders. And they have more defeats ahead of them than victories.

Once again, the core demographic was men in their fifties. They were in their club strips, singing their fan songs. But to the Arsenal fans who were there with their Gooner, chants; how do you think Michael Thomas would feel if he knew you’d been there? Or Mesut Ozil; or Granit Xhaka? Don’t tell me you know about football, if Tommy Robinson is the only name you know.

The strangest thing about the present incarnation of the far right is the vigour with which its leaders insists that they are the world’s only campaigners against the problem of child sex abuse (by Muslims).

It’s a demand that appeals to a group of people with deep insecurities and who are prone to wild visions of alliances between the state and Britain’s ethnic minorities. But if this was truly a movement of justice for the victims, where are the victims? Where are the nurses who’ve sat with them, shared their pain, held their hands? Where are the dozens of local people who actually exposed the injustices in Telford or Rotherham?

What both the left and right learned yesterday is that while Robinson is in prison, and his movement is in the hands of people who have no bigger ambition than another street meeting, another bore fest, its prospects are strictly limited.

If they weren’t so busy glassing a mixed group of male and female trade unionists as they drank in a pub, you could almost feel sorry for them.

My love goes out to my friends and comrades who were there standing up to them. To the comrades from Plan C and AFN who are trying for the first time in a decade to recruit a new generation of people to the anti-fascist cause. To the trade unionists who were there, who recognise that justice comes fighting the rich and the state, rather than making yourselves into a street army for the right.

To all the people (whatever group they came with) who built the human barricade that for one hot afternoon held back this new incarnation of the right. My heart goes above all to those – from both demonstrations – who cheered as the two marches of anti-fascists joined together. That’s what the united front means in 2018.

Know your enemy: the Tommy Robinson movement (part 3)


In previous articles, I have argued that the Free Tommy Robinson campaign is the domestic expression of the rise of the far right internationally and described how it begins with the launch of the Football Lads Alliance last year.

Free speech for Hate speech?

On 6 May this year, various parts of the far right came together to hold a Free Speech demonstration in Whitehall. Billed a ‘Day for Freedom’, the purpose of the event was to protest Twitter’s decision to close down Tommy Robinson’s account, and to link this to what the organisers’ claimed was a ‘war on freedom of expression’.

As explained in the previous article, the immediate context to the closure of Robinson’s account was his encouragement of Darren Osborne, who had initially intended to kill Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, before settling on a terrorist attack against Muslims praying at the Finsbury Park mosque in Islington. The ‘speech’ that needed to be protected was, in other words, Robinson’s support for murder.

Various figures declared their support for Robinson; most were C-list figures: including Raheem Kassam, recently at Breitbart London, and Anne-Marie Waters whose For Britain party won a mere 266 votes in the Lewisham East byelection. By far the most important was Gerard Batten, whose leadership of UKIP has been characterised by repeated attempts to woo the extra-parliamentary far right.

On the day, websites such as Hope not Hate reported the presence of any number of open fascists on the march, and it is true that compared to 2017 when the FLA was being set up, the initial ban on open politics seemed to have been dropped.

That said, many of the groups present on the march (eg Generation Identity) were there in small numbers and were peripheral to the event. Rather than seeing GI and similar as the cadres of a fascist revival, the largest numbers seem to have been football supporters and Tommy Robinson online’s fans. The event became a turgid open-air mass meeting with Robinson speaking last.

Free Tommy

Robinson’s arrest and detention later that month has – plainly – increased the potential for the new movement. It has consolidated his decision to return to politics (he is already in jail, there is nothing he could lose if he was prosecuted for his involvement in Finsbury Park). A vast number of international far-rightists have spread the news of his imprisonment, which has increased his audience and his funding, and brought in new group of supporters.

There is no little irony to a movement calling for Robinson to be freed where he pleaded guilty to contempt of charges, and was already subject to a suspended sentence which he has never challenged. His lawyers have submitted an appeal to his new sentence, but what are they going to argue: that his 13 month detention should be reduced to 12.5?

The demonstration in his support in June 2018 copied previous mobilisations: it was organised in central London, near the institutions of state power, but as far as possible from the politicised black communities where previous versions of the far right have come under attack (Lewisham, Southall, Walthamstow…).

Tommy Robinson’s supporters outnumbered the left very considerably, by around 15,000 to 200. They did not attack the left, showing again that this is a far right and not a fascist movement; from its perspective the left is an annoyance rather than its main strategic enemy.

They did attack the police, something which the far right has previously done all in its power to avoid. This reflects a subtle shift in the movement from its origins in the FLA/DFLA. At least initially, you were talking about a campaign which had a clear pyramid structure, from groups of football casuals who were organised around particular clubs, up to a DFLA Council who were the leadership.

By contrast, now that the Tommy Robinson fans are in control, the campaign is run by a much smaller group of people who are not accountable to anyone nor do they have a network of supporters, other than a great mass of online followers, to whom they speak as a leader might address a crowd – through a virtual megaphone.

The difference between these two models is that the former involves intermediary kinds of authority between the rank and file and the leadership. The latter does away with them, which means that there is no-one on demonstrations to tell people where to go or what to do, other than wait for Robinson or Batten to speak. It is a much larger movement but also more fragile and harder to control.

Seeing the movement as a whole

The Free Tommy campaign does not have a fascist programme, its supporters see themselves as being in a cultural conflict with the state but their main enemies are Muslims and liberals not socialists. It has no ambition purge the state or any inkling of how to challenge it other than (as with the EDL) simply calling more and more demonstrations. Until, inevitably, the marches reach their maximum number, cease to be exciting, and the campaigns supporters start to look for something new.

That ‘next stage’ could, in principle, be some kind of fascist party. Although in recent years where similar movements have emerged and declined the people who have gained have in general been electoral rather than fascist parties (eg Germany: where the anti-Islamic street movement Pegida created the conditions for the AfD).

When the left has conceived of taking on fascism we have assumed that its weak point is the streets. We have assumed that if only the great British public could see a street army of fascist sympathisers using violence the watching audience would grasp they were fascists, would be horrified and reject them.

Very little of this equation works in quite the same way it once did: this is a movement whose strength is on the streets, which has no fear of using violence, and is not guilty about its fascism.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the far right revival is its dependence on allies who are much closer than it is to mainstream politics.

One example is UKIP, which won just 1.84% of the vote in the 2017 general election, but not so long ago had two MPs and still claims the support of three members of the House of Lords. If UKIP ever wants to return to where it was, then such stunts as Gerard Batten covering his face with masking tape and pledging his support to far-right street warrior Tommy Robinson is plainly the wrong place to start.

UKIP brings to the campaign infrastructure, resources and people. It is involved because it wants to take the energy of this street movement and draw the people involved back into UKIP and into electoral politics.

But its involvement is controversial within UKIP: Nigel Farage is no Robinson supporter. Batten has said that there will be another UKIP leadership election as soon as spring 2019. Farage is already threatening to stand against him.

Apart from UKIP, the other major institutional ally for the new campaign has been justice4the21, a Birmingham campaign for a proper inquest into the 1974 pub bombings (i.e. an inquest which names the killers). This is an extremely well-rooted local campaign, presenting itself as the equivalent of, say, the Hillsborough justice campaign. It has hundreds of local volunteers and an income in at least the tens of thousands of pounds. Julie Hambleton the key force in the campaign is closely allied with the DFLA, regularly uses her platforms in the Birmingham press to call for people to join the DFLA, and has called joint DFLA/JF21 events.

Meanwhile JF21 has been supported by Labour MPs and any number of mainstream justice campaigns, for example, Liberty, which (prior to J421’s support for the DFLA) awarded the campaign its Long March to Justice Award.

There is something truly extraordinary about the contrast between JF21’s role in Birmingham, where it is almostuniversally eulogised, and its role as a national prop of the DFLA and therefore of the Tommy Robinson campaign.

If anti-fascists are serious about confronting the new far right, then we could be spending our time not merely opposing Tommy Robinson’s supporters on the streets but challenging the right’s more moderate allies.

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.