On the streets again: ‘Tommy Robinson’ and the EDL reloaded

By Gerry Gable

This article is reproduced with permission of the authors, Martin Smith and Tash Shifrin and first appeared on the Dream Deferred website on 19 June 2017 here.

Racists and fascists on the march in Manchester, Sunday 11 June 2017
Racists and fascists on the march in Manchester, Sunday 11 June 2017

This post was written shortly after the fascist march in Manchester, but we decided to hold back its publication in the wake of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. The terrorist attack on worshipers near the Finsbury Park Mosque shows the dangers of the far right in Britain – but, disgracefully, sections of the media have given fascist “Tommy Robinson” more airtime this week.

Several thousand racists, fascists and assorted Islamophobes took to the streets of Manchester on Sunday 11 June. The so-called “UK Against Hate” demonstration was the biggest organised by a fascist street movement in Britain for more than five years.

The organisers billed it as a “silent march”, but nothing could be further from the truth. Press reports and photos showed it was an orgy of hate. As they marched down the streets the demonstrators chanted, “Allah is a peado” and the Loyalist paramilitary slogan that is also a signature tune for fascists organised around the football hooligan scene, “No Surrender”.

One demonstrator at the “UK Against Hate” demo wore the insignia of Oswald Mosley’s pre-war British Union of Fascists. Pic credit: Eugenia Grieff via twitter
One demonstrator at the “UK Against Hate” demo wore the insignia of Oswald Mosley’s pre-war British Union of Fascists. Pic credit: Eugenia Grieff via twitter

Some demonstrators wore Nazi insignia, others gave the Nazi “sieg heil” salute and threw bottles at passers by. One thug sprayed what seemed to be CS gas into the faces of antifascist protestors. The thugs broke through police lines threatening, among others, a Sikh group distributing food to homeless people.

It was the counter-demonstrators who upheld the true spirit of unity in Manchester after the bombing. Hundreds of protestors joined a counter-rally organised by Stand up to Racism, local LGBT+ activists and other groups. They ensured that the fascist march did not take place unopposed and declared that racists and fascists cannot be allowed to divide the city.

The march was called by a sham organisation called “Gays Against Sharia” – a facebook page run by “Tommy English”, formerly the token LGBT member of the English Defence League (EDL).

But in the wake of the horrific bombing at the Manchester Arena in May, the EDL’s former leader “Tommy Robinson” – real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon – jumped in on the act. Lennon had previously shown up like a vulture after the Westminster terror attack, making a video for Rebel Media, a Canada-based “alt-right” outlet for which he now appears as a “UK contributor”. Never ashamed to capitalise on tragedy, Lennon took over the organisation of the Manchester demonstration after the Manchester Arena attack, rebranding it “UK Against Hate”.

To most observers, the march looked horribly familiar: it was effectively the EDL Mark II. Here we look at how this new version has been put together – and the lessons from the defeat of the EDL in 2011-12.

The return of “Tommy Robinson”

“Tommy Robinson” / Stephen Yaxley Lennon is a longstanding fascist. He began as a member of the British National Party, for which his cousin Kevin Carroll stood as an election candidate. In 2009 he and a small group, including other former BNP members and deeply Islamophobic “Counterjihad” activists, set up the EDL.

In line with the strategy put forward by the Counterjihad ideologue “Alan Lake” – a businessman with links to the fascist Sweden Democrats party whose real name is Alan Ayling – this was to be a street army, mobilised around anti-Muslim racism, with football hooligans as the thuggish feet on the street.

Lennon and cousin Kevin Carroll, his No2 at the EDL, quit the organisation in 2013. By then the EDL was largely broken and riven with infighting.

He later attempted – unsuccessfully – to set up a UK franchise of the German racist street movement Pegida, alongside Islamophobic activists such as former UKIP candidate and leader of “Sharia Watch UK” Anne Marie Waters, who spoke at a small rally that was attended by Ayling in 2014.

Fascists look for new vehicle

The defeat of the EDL left it split into tiny fascist grouplets unable to mobilise in any strength and this, along with the earlier defeat of the BNP, has left Britain’s fascists and far right activists looking repeatedly to regroup with a new vehicle.

Although they are usually seen as rivals, these people also get together.

Lennon turned up on a central London demo called jointly by Britain First and the rump of the EDL – the organisation he supposedly left – on 1 April after the Westminster attacks.

The rise of fascism and the far right internationally gives its adherents in Britain a renewed confidence boost. The election of far right racist populist Donald Trump in the US and the record 10.6 million votes won by Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist Front National in the French presidential elections has shown how bitterness at economic crisis and austerity can produce a huge surge to the right. This is part of an increasing polarisation of politics that we can see across Europe and the US.

In Britain, we have just seen a welcome surge to the left with the huge vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the snap general election. Importantly, this now provides an outlet for discontent that pushes leftwards and away from the racist fascists and far right.

But that polarisation can go both ways, and the fascists see an opening to try to regain lost ground. They are quite willing to exploit the recent attacks in Manchester and London Bridge to stir up anti-Muslim racism and try to build.

Contradictory developments lie behind what could be a revival of the racist streetfighting movement. On the one hand the gains of fascists and the far right internationally – plus Theresa May’s tie-up with the DUP bigots – can give them confidence. On the other hand the collapse of UKIP and before that the BNP in Britain have helped redirect rightwing elements back towards an EDL-type street movement.

Putting the march together

“Ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson” is a much bigger draw for fascists and racists than “Gays Against Sharia” and his presence helped put the proposed Manchester protest on a new level.

His Rebel Media gig is adding to his already very large social media profile. The Breitbart-style outlet’s contributors spout Islamophobia, antisemitism and anti-Roma racism. Its resources and Lennon’s substantial facebook and twitter following gave the rebranded “UK Against Hate” demo in Manchester a big publicity boost.

Publicity material for the Manchester “UK Against Hate” demo from “alt-right” Rebel Media
Publicity material for the Manchester “UK Against Hate” demo from “alt-right” Rebel Media

The main speakers at the UK Against Hate event were Lennon, Anne Marie Waters and Caolan Robertson, Lennon’s Rebel Media colleague.

All appeared in a Rebel Media promo video ahead of the march. Two members of the strange, sad clutch of token black and Asian speakers used to decorate the almost entirely white, male demonstration on the day are in the video as well – they have clearly had previous contact with Rebel Media. The web address for “UK Against Hate” actually redirects to Rebel Media too.

The march drew a ragbag of fascists and racists, including parts of the rump EDL.
A solid core of the marchers on the day were “football lads” – thugs belonging to football hooligan “firms”, who have themselves been reorganising, especially following the terror attacks.

The “football lads” are experienced at fighting, and at organising under the radar. And this is a milieu where racists and nazis have organised on and off for decades. The football firms, uniting across club rivalries, were the central component of the early EDL.

Now they are organising again, under banners such as the Football Lads Alliance. Hardcore groups of football thugs such as the former Casuals United (now calling themselves the “Pie and Mash Squad”), with a hardcore nazi following, have been quick to latch onto this.

It’s worth noting that the FLA has called a demo in London on 24 June – the same day, amazingly enough, as the rump of the EDL.

Worryingly, the Manchester demo was also able to pull some local people along too.

EDL reloaded

The UK Against Hate demo showed a number of similarities to the early EDL protests of 2009 and 2010. Just like the EDL in its early years, Lennon and the other organisers were able to unite various fascist and nazi grouplets, Islamophobic ideologues, football hooligan firms and defunct EDL divisions.

And just like the EDL demos in Stoke (January 2010), Dudley (July 2010) and Preston (November 2010) the thugs were confident enough to charge the police lines and try to attack antifascists and LGBT+ campaigners who bravely mounted a counter-demonstration.

UK Against Hate showed the potential, just like the EDL, for a street movement led by nazis. They claim to only oppose “radical Islam”, but as Sunday’s protest showed they want to attack ethnic minorities and leftwing groups.

Lastly, Lennon resorted to the old EDL trick of putting forward a token Sikh, a token black guy, a token LGBT+ person etc in an attempt to hide the true nature of his movement and pose as “progressive”, “non-racist” and only against Islam.

The experience of the EDL showed its utter failure to attract real support from these communities.

How the EDL was broken

When the campaign to stop the EDL was launched by Unite Against Fascism and other groups, back in 2009, some organisations argued that it was not a threat and that it should be left alone in the hope that the street movement would wither on the vine.

But the EDL’s strategy echoed that of street fighting fascists through the years, including in the BNP before Nick Griffin steered it towards electoralism. That strategy was then dubbed “march and grow”.

The EDL in Newcastle, 2010. Pic credit Gavin Lynn
The EDL in Newcastle, 2010. Pic credit Gavin Lynn

The EDL’s protests got bigger as they showed their strength – on occasions they were able to put up to 3,000 people on the streets. Worse was the fact that the protests became more and more violent – and as fascist elements worked to harden up the racist street thugs, their targets widened.

The EDL threatened to break up the anticapitalist Occupy Camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. EDL members attacked trade union meetings in Liverpool and London and they also attacked anti-racist meetings in Brighton, Barking and Newcastle.

The campaign against the EDL involved two main elements. First, a campaign to expose its fascist connections and challenge its Islamophobia and racism. Second, whenever and wherever the EDL attempted to march, antifascists staged counter-demonstrations to oppose it.

To build the counter-protests, antifascists built a broad coalition to oppose them, including local antifascist and antiracist groups, trade unions, Muslim organisations and other minority ethnic and LGBT+ community groups.

The big anti-EDL protest in Bolton in March 2010 was a major turning point. It was one of the first times that antifascists significantly outnumbered the EDL. And importantly, despite police arresting large numbers of antifascists, the court cases against them collapsed – preventing the police from treating antifascists and fascists as “two sides of the same coin” on future demos.

It was this unity – and the huge numbers of local people who joined the counter-protests – that eventually broke the back of the EDL after its miserable failure of its repeated attempts to march through east London’s Tower Hamlets and its crushing defeat when thousands of antiracists blocked the fascists’ route in nearby Walthamstow in 2012.

A key feature of all racist and fascist street movements is that if left unchecked they can grow very fast and create a climate of fear and wider racism in society.

But where they are opposed, and their marches outnumbered or blocked, their members quickly become demoralised and turn inwards on themselves. This is what we witnessed with the EDL, which broke up into tiny splinter groups.

The UK Against Hate protest in Manchester should sound a warning to all antifascists and antiracists – one we cannot ignore.


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