Tag Archives: FLA

The far right falters

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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.

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

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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)

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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.