Author Archives: Searchlight Team

A Bridgen of sighs

By Martyn Lester

Football fans (other sports are also available) will know the feeling well. Where two clubs that you despise are up against each other, and you curse the impossibility of both teams reaching full time having been on the wrong end of a 5-0 trouncing. One point for a draw seems far too generous for either of them. Pesky Laws of the Game! And thus it is in the legal battle between former Tory Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the independent MP for North West Leicestershire, Andrew Bridgen.

“Whoa!” you cry, as well you might. “Unless I’ve suddenly gone prematurely sea lion, you told us a few months ago that Bridgen had defected to the Reclaim Party.” And you would be right – for the most part. Bridgen had already lost the Conservative whip by then, and therefore had nowhere to “defect” from. But he did indeed publicly nail his colours to the jury mast of Reclaim, becoming its first and only (and hopefully last) member of parliament.

But a few days after I wrote that piece, the Bridgen of Sighs performed a volte face and left the more than slightly foxed Reclaim to resume sitting as an independent.

He said in a prepared statement: “I have come to this decision purely because of a difference in the direction of the Party, I will still wholeheartedly support the policies and values of the Reclaim Party and wish them all of the best in their future endeavours. However, I need to make a very important decision with a general election pending … I need to put North West Leicestershire first, above any Party allegiance.”

It is an argument slightly lacking in clarity, is it not? If he still supports all of Reclaim’s policies and values, what can the “difference” that concerns him possibly be? It seems a reasonable guess that he has looked at Reclaim’s “direction” and concluded that it is downward.

It must be a trifle embarrassing for Reclaim’s sugar daddy Jeremy Hosking – who has poured millions into right-wing politics – to learn that Bridgen appears to think that he has a better chance of hanging on to his seat, running as an almost unfunded independent, than he would as a candidate with Hosking’s money and political machinery behind him, with the name Reclaim next to his name on the ballot form.

Considering that Bridgen’s parliamentary declarations of interest disclose that Hosking has lent him a staggering amount of money – close to £4.5m, interest free – he looks more than a touch disloyal.

Poll advantage

We are, though, not in any hurry to bet the house on Bridgen actually standing as an independent once the election has been called.

He will undoubtedly have noted that Reform UK (formerly the Brexit Party) is currently sitting in the teens in the opinion polls (in one YouGov poll just four points behind the sinking Conservatives), compared with Reclaim’s square root of bugger all, and that his fellow defenestrated Tory MP “30p” Lee Anderson has migrated to the Richard Tice-led party.

That it is widely assumed that Nigel Farage will jump ship from Reform to the Tories after the election (in a bid to become Conservative leader) may complicate Bridgen’s thinking. But a functioning party machine and a countrywide support of up to 15 per cent may look to him like a better platform than that offered by either Reclaim or independence. We will see.

Lies and libel

“Anyway,” you cry, “what about this stuff you started with – about Bridgen and Hancock?” Fair question. You may recall that it was Bridgen’s obsession with aspects of the pandemic that put him on course to be booted out of the Conservative Party. After a series of conspiracy-fuelled anti-vax comments, he tweeted in January 2023 that the Covid-19 vaccination programme was “the biggest crime against humanity since the holocaust,” occasioning widespread outrage. It was the straw that broke the Sunak’s back.

Within hours of the Holocaust claim, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted “disgusting and dangerous antisemitic, anti-vax, anti-scientific conspiracy theories spouted by a sitting MP this morning are unacceptable and have absolutely no place in our society”.

Bridgen took umbrage at this, arguing that everyone who read the tweet would have no doubt that it was about him, that it was seriously defamatory and untrue, and that its purpose was to cause grievous harm to his reputation. He started a libel action, which eventually found its way to a preliminary court hearing in March this year, when Hancock’s lawyers applied to have the case thrown out.

Although the judge, Mrs Justice Steyn, did strike out parts of Bridgen’s case, she held back on throwing it out entirely, giving him an opportunity to “remedy the deficiencies” of his argument. So the case grinds on, for now. While we are no legal experts, if the case does go to a full hearing, Hancock’s lawyers will likely be allowed to raise the damaging fact that, in another civil case entirely, a High Court judge lambasted Bridgen for having “lied under oath and behaved in an abusive, arrogant and aggressive manner” in court, and to have been “an unreliable and combative witness who tried to conceal his own misconduct”. Ouch!

Without going into intricacies, there is a way that a defamation case can leave both parties worse off than when they started. Briefly, a plaintiff can succeed with their core claim, but be awarded derisory damages and have all or part of legal costs awarded against them – essentially for wasting the court’s time. This leaves the defendant branded a liar or something of the sort, but the plaintiff well out of pocket. (In a famous historical case, the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler “won” the argument against art critic John Ruskin, but was awarded a farthing – just over one-thousandth of a pound – in damages, and ended up bankrupt.)

Indeed, as we were going to press Mrs Justice Steyn’s court sat again over Bridgen v Hancock for a preliminary costs hearing, where the judge ordered Bridgen to pay £40,300 of Hancock’s legal bills. And this is before the actual defamation case is even heard.

Courtroom dramas

So, unlike in our opening football analogy, it is possible for both sides to take a hammering in a defamation trial, and we may cross our fingers and cling to some small hope that both the disgraced Bridgen and the disgraced Hancock come out of the affair wishing they had never started it.

Bridgen will certainly be crossing his own fingers that his case is more successful than the recent courtroom efforts of his erstwhile Reclaim colleague, cracked actor Laurence Fox, who was found to have defamed two people whom he outrageously accused of being paedophiles, while also failing in bringing a countersuit over the same people describing him as a racist. Fox ache!

Meanwhile, Bridgen has been taking a larruping in the media from his second wife, Serbian opera singer Nevena Pavlovic, in what appears to be the opening salvo of a divorce battle. Pavlovic says that her husband has been captured by a vaccine conspiracy cult, which is using him as a foot soldier.

Matters came to a head, apparently, when Bridgen ignored their five-year-old son’s bout of ill health in order to go to Sweden to speak at an event hosted by potty anti-vax US presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr. When the boy’s condition worsened and he had to be admitted to hospital, Pavlovic says she phoned Bridgen and pleaded with him to come home – but he told her that he was too busy saving the world. The British press lapped it up – and who can blame them?

This article first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Searchlight

Farmers’ revolt: A fertile pasture for the far right

By Huw Davies

European Parliament, Brussels (Feb 2024) Photo: Matthias Berg/EPP Group

In the past few years, European far-right parties have climbed the polls, shaped the policies of mainstream right-wing parties, and even occupied ministerial roles in coalition governments.

The reasons for the rise of far-right and populist politics vary from country to country. In some cases, it is strongly linked to immigration, which has become a significant concern for some voters. In others, it is a response to economic challenges, and a sense of dissatisfaction with mainstream parties’ ability to address these issues.

This is being exploited by right-wing populists who promise simple solutions to complex problems and a strong stand on protecting national identity, sovereignty and traditional values. Given the particular grievances far-right groups seek to exploit, it is no surprise that they have been drawn to the farmers’ protests that have ripped across Europe since spring 2023.

Farmers’ groups have voiced objections to, for example, excessive regulation, cheap foreign imports (including low-priced agricultural products from Ukraine) and European Union (EU) environmental policies.

Spotting an opportunity, far-right groups have been positioning themselves as the farmers’ champion, exploiting their frustrations to further their own political agendas, posing challenges to mainstream political parties and potentially shaping the political landscape in upcoming elections.

The effect may last for many years to come. As the June EU parliamentary elections approach, new political alignments may be formed and potentially normalise far-right politics.

France

Some of the most dramatic protests by farmers in Europe have taken place in France, and with the explicit and vocal backing of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right political party, Rassemblement National (National Rally, previously the National Front).

Le Pen has consistently expressed support for the plight of the farmers, criticising government agricultural policies and EU regulations. In January, she joined a tractor rally that blocked eight routes into Paris and rode on a tractor for the benefit of the media.

The wave of protests began in mid-January when farmers blocked the centre of Toulouse in Southwest France and truckloads of manure were dumped on the streets outside government buildings. The A64 motorway between Toulouse and Tarbes was blocked by farmers and events quickly escalated into violence as a radical group of winemakers, the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole, bombed an administrative building in Carcassonne on the night of 18 January. Protests then spread with tractors blocking roads into Paris and other major routes nationwide.

Many of the blockades were lifted in early February after Prime Minister Gabriel Attal promised concessions, including financial assistance, and the easing of regulations and unfair competition. However, tractors made their way back into Paris on 23 February, with further protests held across the country to pressure the government to implement its promises. On 24 February a group of farmers stormed the Paris Agricultural Show ahead of a visit by President Emmanuel Macron.

At the heart of the farmers’ complaints is dwindling income, which has tragically led to a surge in suicides. Second, farmers are angry at environmental policies, EU regulations and what they perceive as unfair competition.

The significance of Le Pen’s involvement cannot be understated. It is part of a wider strategy to build her political base among rural voters. She has positioned herself as a defender of French agriculture, attacking Macron and, more broadly, the EU’s agricultural, environmental and immigration policies.

Although Le Pen’s racist and xenophobic party had been gaining popularity over the past decade, it has claimed a noticeable increase in followers since the January protests. The party’s position on immigration, economic patriotism and opposition to EU policies has resonated with many farmers who feel unrepresented by mainstream politicians.

Netherlands

There is a well-established link between right-wing groups and farmers’ protests in the Netherlands. Last year, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB)) had a significant win in provincial elections, and the party that previously had no representatives in the Senate is now the largest group in the Upper House of Parliament.

BBB is a right-wing, populist party that was formed in 2019 following large-scale farmers’ protests against government environmental policies. Notably, the party counts Donald Trump and Le Pen among its supporters.

In October 2019, thousands of farmers, organised by the Farmers Defence Force (described by observers as a far-right group), drove their tractors to The Hague, causing over a thousand kilometres of traffic jams.

The protests were used by the far right as a springboard to build support. The Party for Freedom, founded by Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders, won a shocking victory in the November general election last year to emerge as the largest single party, although as yet it has been unable to find partners to form a government. Wilders stood on an anti-migrant, Eurosceptic platform and is known for his anti-Islam hate speech – he has called for the Quran to be banned and is virulently opposed to multiculturalism.

Protesters in the Netherlands, however, have largely been concerned with the government’s environmental policies which, they argue, would negatively impact the agricultural sector. They single out policies to cut nitrogen emissions by reducing livestock populations. Last June, in The Hague, the Farmers Defence Force protested against the breakdown in negotiations between farmers and government ministers on the future of agriculture in the country.

The ongoing farmers’ protests in Germany began in December last year in response to the abolition of tax breaks and other subsidies for farmers. Since then, protests have grown and the reasons behind them have broadened to include many of the concerns expressed by farmers across Europe, such as complicated or excessive regulations and competition from foreign imports.

Germany

Farmers blockade Berlin Photo: Matthias Berg/EPP Group

Arguably, Germany has seen the most worrying involvement from far-right and extremist groups in farmers’ protests. In January, the Free Saxons, an extremist, far-right, monarchist group which seeks to restore an independent Kingdom of Saxony, joined and spoke at a farmers’ protest in Dresden. At the same time, neo-nazi groups Dritte Weg (Third Way) and Die Heimat (The Homeland) infiltrated and participated in protests in Berlin alongside members of Alternative for Germany (AfD). Regional members of AfD were also reportedly in attendance at a demonstration in Stuttgart.

Unsurprisingly, many of the organisers of the farmers’ protests have tried to distance themselves from these groups, but it demonstrates how the far right view such protests – as hunting grounds for supporters, and useful platforms to reach larger audiences.

Belgium

Protestors blockade Brussels and set fires (Feb 2024) Photo: Matthias Berg/EPP Group

The EU has been the target of much of the farmers’ anger, which has focused on EU environmental policies, trade policies, the phasing out of tax breaks for the agricultural sectors, unequal distribution of subsidies and the complex regulatory system. So it is not surprising that Brussels has seen intense clashes between police and protesting farmers.

In February last year, farmers from Italy, Portugal and Spain joined their Belgian counterparts to demand action on cheap foreign imports into Europe, rising costs, falling prices and EU environmental rules. The protesters blocked Brussels with more than 900 tractors and clashed with police, spraying liquid manure and setting fires. Similar actions were held in January with the blockade of Zeebrugge Port and a week long demonstration near Antwerp.

The protests in Belgium have also found themselves to be popular with far-right and populist parties, and radical conspiracy theorists.

A protest on 1 February involving a blockade of Brussels by thousands of tractors saw the involvement of the Belgian far-right Vlaams Belang party. Protesters were pictured carrying flags with symbols of Flemish nationalist movements and banners with slogans of the most extremist Flemish militias.

Vlaams Belang, also known as Flemish Interest, is a far-right, populist party that focuses on Flemish nationalism and anti-immigration policies. Its predecessor, the Vlaams Blok, was banned in 2004 for violating anti-racism laws.

In March, Dries Van Langenhove, former Vlaams Belang politician and leader of the far-right, extremist youth group, Schild & Vrienden (Shield and Friends), was sentenced to over one year in prison on charges including racism, Holocaust denial and breaching a local gun law. He has used social media to voice support for protesting farmers and linked the protests to the debunked “Great Reset” conspiracy – that a global elite is using the pandemic to dismantle capitalism and enforce social change.

Elsewhere

Similar patterns of protesting farmers and opportunistic far-right groups can be seen throughout Europe.

Portugal’s populist Chega party has been supportive of the protests, gaining followers from the agricultural sector who are dissatisfied with mainstream politicians. In the general election in March the party increased its parliamentary seats fourfold to 48, its vote share climbing from 7.2% to 18.1%.

In Spain, the grievances of farmers have become a fertile environment for the growth of Vox, the far-right party established in 2013, which entered the national parliament with 24 out of 350 seats in April 2019.

Poland’s right-wing, populist party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice), has held large-scale protests in Warsaw in support of farmers. In February, around 100 farmers and 50 cars blocked the Medyka border crossing between Poland and Ukraine in protest at what they see as unfair competition from cheap agricultural imports from Ukraine.

An estimated 30,000 farmers and agricultural workers protested outside the parliament building in Warsaw in March. After the official event, the gathering turned violent as protestors clashed with police. Paving stones were thrown and fireworks set off, injuring several officers.

One of the main protest organisers, particularly of the Poland-Ukraine border blockades is Rafal Mekler, the pro-Russian leader of the regional branch of the far-right party, Confederation, Liberty and Independence (Confederation). He is also an activist for another far-right group, the National Movement. Confederation gained seats in the Polish parliament last October, with a 10% share of the vote.

Similar blockades took place at the Zahony crossing between Hungary and Ukraine. Protesting farmers in Hungary have received strong vocal support from its authoritarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and his far-right Fidesz party.

In February, around 100 members of the Irish far right infiltrated a tractor protest in Athlone. However, the Irish Farmers’ Association has distanced itself from such groups. Support for far-right politics is growing in Ireland, with groups, such as the Irish Freedom Party and House the Irish First, claiming to have trebled their membership in recent months. Both groups are Irish nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-EU.

Closer to home, farmers’ protests in Wales are connected with a campaign called “No Farmers No Food”. It is run by right-wing pundit and conspiracy theorist James Melville, a climate-change sceptic who has circulated baseless narratives concerning the net-zero agenda. The presence of climate-denying extremists at these protests seemed acceptable enough for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to happily pose for pictures.

Crucial battleground

Agriculture is emerging as a crucial battleground in European politics. Governments are attempting to pacify farmers, while far-right groups work to capitalise on their discontent.

There is a perception that “the left” is, broadly, pro-EU and more concerned about the environment and environmental policies, while “the right” has positioned itself on the side of farmers and, on the whole, is anti-EU and against environmental regulation, which some farmers see as an existential threat.

EU leaders are worried that far-right support and Euroscepticism sentiment are growing in the agricultural sector. They are particularly concerned about the implications for the European Parliament elections in June. A European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think-tank report indicates that the Parliament may move significantly to the right and anti-EU populist parties will gain seats across Europe. According to a recent poll by the ECFR, right-wing parties are leading in nine EU countries. A poll published by the ECFR suggests that the far-right Identity and Democracy Group, which includes the AfD and Rassemblement National, could go from being the fifth to the third largest bloc in the European Parliament.

In February, in an attempt to address protesters’ concerns, EU agricultural ministers met and urged the European Commission to commit to a targeted review of the Common Agricultural Policy, as well as trade agreements, the European Green Deal, and Ukrainian imports.

That said, many farmers and agricultural unions associated with the protests are not happy about far-right involvement and have distanced themselves from such groups. Some farmers have joined protests with anti-racist messages. Banners with the slogan “farming is colourful, not brown” were flown from tractors at demonstrations in Germany, “brown” being a reference to the Nazi brown shirts.

Farmers in Romania rejected calls by far-right senator Diana Șoșoacă to join a protest in Bucharest in January. As a result, only 20 individuals participated in the protest outside the parliament.

Farmers may be unhappy about EU legislation, but they are not inherently anti-environment. Many argue that it is the agro-industrial system and the constant pressure to increase yields and improve competitiveness that has caused the agricultural industry in Europe to become so environmentally damaging.

Rural sociologist Natalia Mamonova suggests that European leaders are trying to solve the continent’s environmental problems with the same mindset that created them in the first place: “Most of the green projects that aim to achieve sustainable development and zero-sum emissions follow the growth logic, or ‘green neoliberalism’ – they aim to expand and invigorate markets through the sustainability movement – are based solely on economic calculations, and place the heaviest burden on farmers.”

Indeed, many farmers might be open to progressive green policies aimed at tackling climate change if these attempted to dismantle the agro-industrial complex, structured by the likes of huge supermarket chains, and freed farmers from the cycle of scale enlargement and technologically driven intensification. A new development paradigm is required.

These arguments have been made by various movements of farmers, farmer activists and environmentalists in Europe, such as Les Soulèvements de la Terre in France, Nos Plantamos in Spain, and Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft in Germany. These groups have also been involved in the farmers’ protests in Europe to varying extents but distance themselves from far-right groups and proactively advocate for anti-racist farming movements.

The far-right has also used the farmers’ protests to promote attacks on climate policies. Farmers’ concerns with environmental regulations and perceived conflict between public demands for cheap food and climate-friendly processes have provided fertile ground for the far-right to push its climate-crisis-denying movements and rhetoric. This could hamper efforts to tackle climate change and could dismantle environmental policies, undermining the European Green Deal and wider climate policy.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Searchlight magazine

UKIP gets ready for the Bill and Ben Show

By Tony Peters

The resignation of UKIP leader Neil “Liar and Cheat” Hamilton, which takes effect in May, was followed in pretty short order by that of deputy chair Rebecca Jane and, between them, these two departures have set off a fascinating chain of events in what was, once, the UK’s principal far-right party.

Hamilton explained his departure as being prompted by a desire to spend more time with his family. In fact, he is already pretty inseparable from his wife Christine (the self titled “Battleaxe”) and they have no children. Rebecca Jane, appointed less than two years ago by chairman Ben (“rogue builder”) Walker, had been suffering from health problems but used her departure to fire off a ferocious salvo at Walker who, she claimed, only put her in the job because he had designs on getting her into bed.

Walker (above right) found himself in some embarrassing difficulty recently when his appointment as a magistrate came under scrutiny. Questions were raised – not least of all by Searchlight on Twitter and our website – as to how someone with criminal convictions can be appointed to sit in judgment over others. The answer, of course, is if the Ministry of Justice is not aware of the criminal record in the first place. Walker, who sports no less than five criminal convictions for building regulation offences (hence the nickname) had not seen fit to declare them and defended this omission by arguing that guilty sentences do not count as convictions if you’re not actually sent to prison. That did not impress the MoJ which promptly sacked him.

But this may yet come back to bite Walker even harder. The making of false statements, deliberately or recklessly, in such an application is an offence of perjury with a maximum sentence of ten years’ imprisonment. A custodial sentence is usually imposed even for a first offence. It seems that only the huge post-Covid judicial backlog may be holding up a decision as to whether to proceed in this particular case.

Who’s next?

First candidates to put themselves forward as Hamilton replacements were Lois Perry and Anne Marie Waters. Perry is an anti-net zero campaigner of limited ability but of whom, Rebecca Jane alleged, Walker harboured similar desires and for a while she was his favoured candidate. Waters, who only rejoined UKIP last year, definitely was not: she made it clear to supporters that, if elected, the first thing she would do would be to dump Walker, as would be her constitutional right. For his part, Walker confided to others that he would block her ever getting the job.

In the event, Waters dropped out of the race at an early stage and Perry, who came across as witless at the membership hustings, fell out of favour with Walker, to be replaced by “Bungalow” Bill Etheridge (above left), a former UKIP MEP who had earlier been thrown out of the Conservative Party for posing with a golliwog. His other claim to fame is that he is Walker’s mate. So UKIP may be set to become the “Bill and Ben Show”.

UKIP as a political party is now totally controlled by a curious trust, of which the sole trustee is Walker. So a well-disposed leader would not be entirely unwelcome. But, whatever happens, it’s win-win for Walker. The only candidate who might have presented a challenge to his domination of the party was Waters, who has now withdrawn.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in light of all this, the party’s UK Activists Forum WhatsApp group, supposedly the “top secret” preserve of trusted leading activists, began giving forth its secrets, exposing internal division and the pressure Walker is coming under.

He was particularly angered by a post from Pat Mountain, a former interim leader and deputy leader, regurgitating all the salacious allegations made by Rebecca Jane. Mountain’s ambiguous comment “True Colours” fooled no one and was universally read as referring to Walker, not Jane. Rebecca Jane’s posts attacking Walker have now been deleted (although not before they were archived!).

Walker then took to shutting down group discussion – especially of the leadership election. Hapless NEC member Julie Carter had to be advised by Mountain that “Ben has instructed that there be no chat regarding the leadership election on this group”. That particular exchange leaked and led to Walker expelling suspected leakers from the group and threatening to shut it down or restrict it to branch or regional officers. In fact, the leaks just kept on coming.

The latest topic of animated internal party gossip, however, is the fate of all those bequests from elderly party members which, cynics have argued, are the main reason the expiring party has been kept on life support for so long. In the 25 years or so up until 2021, UKIP benefitted from some £20 million in such bequests. Even in 2021, it received tens of thousands of pounds. However, since September 2021, not a single bequest or donation above £500 has been declared to the Electoral Commission. This odd state of affairs has not been lost on some members, who are beginning to ask questions.

It was precisely because of concerns about the party’s management that, according to Rebecca Jane, other right-wing parties – principally Reform UK – have spurned offers of a coming together. Jane was charged specifically with handling unity talks and, since her anti-Walker resignation tirade, she has revealed that Reform refused to have the conversation until UKIP’s management changed – a demand turned down flat by UKIP’s board. Both that tweet and the one about Walker’s alleged libidinousness have since been deleted.

Results of the Leader election will be announced in mid-May. Oh yes, and Walker is the returning officer.

Hotbed of crime…

Meanwhile, down in that (relative) UKIP stronghold of south Wales events continue to entangle the party in reports of criminal activity. First, as we have reported before, there were the goings on at Stamps bar in Llanelli, a favoured UKIP meeting place, but linked to a major class A drugs importation. Then, the conviction of leading south Wales kipper Dan Morgan for serious fraud offences, and then the unsavoury activities of Paul Dowson, former UKIP Pembroke councillor, whose record includes both drugs offences and ABH. Now, the Neon nightclub and events venue in Newport, whose owners are reportedly UKIP supporters and where the party has gathered many times over the past 8 years (most recently for its national 30th anniversary conference in October) has closed after police found a “large scale cannabis factory” on the premises.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Searchlight


Gloves come off as UK nazis slug it out

As Patriotic Alternative limps on, its two breakaways are looking to gain electoral success in the May local elections. Paul Gale charts the latest ups and downs of the three rumps

One year on from its catastrophic split, the UK’s leading far right group Patriotic Alternative (PA) is raking in the cash but struggling to motivate activists. A three-way split within the organisation, founded by former Griffinite favourite Mark Collett in 2019, has become even more bitter in recent weeks.

One thing you can say about Collett and his deputy Laura Tyrie, alias Laura Towler, is that they certainly don’t miss an opportunity for fundraising.

As soon as Towler’s husband Sam Melia – PA’s Yorkshire organiser and a former member of the now banned nazi terrorist group National Action (NA) – was convicted and imprisoned at the start of March, Towler and Collett began an online propaganda blitz that is believed to have netted more than £40,000.

After NA’s proscription under the Terrorism Act in 2016 and the failure of several covert attempts to keep the group alive, Melia created the “Hundred Handers”. Using Telegram (a favourite social media platform for the most extreme factions of the international far right) he distributed racist stickers and advised his thousands of followers on how to set up secure communications.

As the head of the Crown Prosecution Service Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division said after Melia’s conviction: “[He] knew full well the impact these racially inflammatory stickers were having, and by attempting to remain anonymous, sought to protect himself and others from investigation.”

Even after Melia’s arrest in April 2021 Towler carried on lying about her husband’s role in the Hundred Handers.

Cowards

In assessing our own strategic approach to combatting PA, it is important for anti-fascists to think about Towler’s motivation for lying, and some of the contradictory reactions to Melia’s conviction within PA and the broader far right.

PA’s bravado has made much of the worldwide publicity attracted by Melia’s case, and the short-time boost to the group’s fundraising. But we should not fall for the notion that the prosecution was counter-productive, or that campaigning against PA gives it the valuable “oxygen of publicity”.

The reason Towler denied Melia’s role in the Hundred Handers for so long, and the reason that PA has been so badly disrupted by recent convictions of several senior activists is that its members are mostly cowards.

They like to form micro-communities online, where they can spend hours every week watching each other’s video streams. They like to set up tiny businesses to sell each other scented candles and relabelled teabags. They like to hold conferences in upmarket hotels.

But most of them are afraid to show their faces and use their real names. Even many of PA’s senior organisers are terrified of being identified. This makes it difficult for PA to field election candidates or to carry out normal campaigns.

And the situation has become even worse after the criminal cases that have beset PA during the past 12 months, which have led to a number of leading activists – James Allchurch, Kris Kearney and James Costello – doing prison time, the latter two for terrorist offences.

Several other PA followers have also been jailed, but these three were well known throughout the movement. And Melia’s conviction was the final proof that belonging to PA, if you got drawn into its culture of extreme racism, could be very bad indeed for your career prospects and threaten your liberty.

That is one reason why Collett’s followers are dropping away. It is one thing to watch a video and click “like”. It is very different if you are expected to show your face on a demonstration. And as for putting your name on publicly accessible forms as a candidate or election agent – forget it!

There was a minority faction within PA that always saw it as an embryonic political party that could take over where the British National Party (BNP) had failed. This faction was led by Kenny Smith, who like Collett had been part of Nick Griffin’s BNP.

Billy no mates While Kenny Smith and Alek Yerbury have managed to find limited common ground, Mark Collett (above) remains isolated, with PA continuing to lose members

Bitter rivals

When Smith and Collett got together, Searchlight knew it was only a matter of time before they came to blows. They had, after all, been bitter rivals when the BNP split in December 2007. Smith’s faction in those days described Collett as one of “the three scumbags” who made it impossible for “good honest” people to remain in the BNP.

It came as no surprise last year when Smith led another breakaway hostile to Collett, this time splitting from PA to form the Homeland Party. He took with him several of the most committed young PA activists who were unafraid to show their faces and who were exasperated by some of their “comrades”.

The new factor is that on 31 January this year Homeland succeeded in registering as a political party. Although its officially registered HQ is in Scotland, Smith has since moved to the West Midlands and several of his main activists are in Black Country boroughs such as Dudley, and around Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire and Cheshire.

After an early surge of defections, Homeland and PA settled down into a trench war of attrition. Smith was disappointed not to be joined by his former factional ally Steve Blake, PA’s Eastern England organiser, who instead chose to become even closer to Collett and Towler.

For at least another year, Smith has plans to chip away at PA, building credibility and hoping to recruit defectors from civic nationalist movements such as Reform UK and UKIP, as well as from explicitly racist groups. He was especially pleased to recruit Roger Robertson, a former BNP regional organiser and parish councillor, who jumped ship to Homeland from the British Democrats.

Robertson will be one of Homeland’s very few borough council candidates at the local elections on 2 May.

Although he criticises Collett for existing mainly online, Smith has himself been increasingly active on Twitter, but he argues that there is an important difference. Collett preaches almost exclusively to his own fringe cultists. Smith tries to build bridges both with older nationalists who have dropped out of partisan activity, and with the increasing number of members expelled by Reform UK as too extreme, or those who have fallen out with UKIP and its splinters.

Homeland’s successful registration was bad enough. But on 28 February, just days before Melia was jailed, Collett suffered another blow when yet another faction of ex-PA activists succeeded in registering as a political party where PA had failed.

Low-quality yobs

Alek Yerbury seems like a joke even among many fellow fascists, with his paramilitary style National Support Detachment and his very strange girlfriend Katie Fanning, a former UKIP official. But he has managed to create his own appropriately stunted and feeble political front: the National Rebirth Party.

He immediately goaded Collett: “When various prominent nationalists said to me, ‘it is impossible to register political parties’, all they really told me is that THEY couldn’t do it.”

Yerbury maintains that activists need to summon up the courage to take off their masks, use their real names and attend public events. So far most of his recruits seem to be among the lowest quality yobs on the far right, although one exception is Antony Flowers, owner of landscape gardening businesses that operate as Tadcaster Stonework & Patios, and Towton Home & Garden Services. Several fellow nazis including Melia and Yerbury have worked for Flowers.

Yerbury and Fanning believe it is quite a coup to have recruited Flowers, who was a BNP member before joining PA. He has become the new party’s nominating officer.

Yerbury and Smith agree that elections and other forms of “real politics” are the way forward. They condemn Collett and PA for reliance on video streams and an adolescent obsession with the gaming fraternity. Where Collett’s two rivals fall out is partly a matter of personality, partly strategy.

Some of Yerbury’s biggest fans are those who most hated and distrusted Smith, in some cases for reasons dating back to the anti-Griffin splits in 2007. It is already obvious that Yerbury’s is the only one of the three post-PA factions which is on good terms with Griffin, and they might become even closer in the coming months, if Griffin can see any opportunity to make a fast buck from Yerbury’s new party.

‘Ladder strategy’

Beyond these personality factors, Yerbury and Smith take opposite views on the so-called “ladder strategy”, as developed years ago by one of Britain’s few nazi intellectuals, Steve Brady.

Now writing for Heritage & Destiny under the pseudonym Ian Freeman, and retired from his job with Mercedes Benz in Milton Keynes, Brady updated his “ladder strategy”’ for the 2020s, and Smith mostly agreed with him. Rather than making a grand and eye-catching assault on Westminster through general elections and parliamentary by-elections, Brady and Smith argue that the far right should build credibility at local level.

Smith interprets this as meaning parish councils, which is convenient for him and his fledgling party, because seats at this level are “low-hanging fruit”, quite often elected unopposed and giving his activists the chance to obtain “councillor” status, sometimes by stealth without at first putting the party’s name forward.

In Smith’s view, it then becomes more difficult for anti-fascists to campaign against a Homeland councillor who has already to some extent become known in their local community, perhaps for work that is not obviously partisan or overtly racist. Smith also believes that this can counter defeatism.

Yerbury’s strategic vision is very different. He argues that the lower rungs of the ladder are irrelevant to what he sees as his manifest destiny, the racist transformation of Britain. So, right from the start, he sets out his mission in the grandest possible terms. Nothing less than the seizure of nationwide power will do.

Mates of sorts Kenny Smith’s (top left) Homeland Party has scored against PA, poaching former BNP organiser Roger Robertson (top right), while Alek Yerbury (bottom right) is the only one of the three PA rumps to be on good terms with BNP leader Nick Griffin (bottom left), who is keeping an eye on Yerbury’s new National Rebirth Party

Not so amiable

Any other activity, according to Yerbury, is subordinate to this overall objective. And naturally, unlike Brady and Smith, Yerbury is fully committed to the führer principle. No prizes for guessing who Yerbury has in mind as Britain’s führer for the 2020s, nor which historical model he has in mind. If you need reminding, take a look at Yerbury’s moustache and trench coat.

As so often, the big problem is the dismal quality of Yerbury’s recruits. The leader himself sometimes comes across as an amiable nutter, until you listen or read closely and realise that he is a nazi. His followers are even more obviously off putting.

Perhaps the worst is the one who in theory has the best political CV. Fanning, Yerbury’s girlfriend, used to work for UKIP and was considered respectable enough to address Gregory Lauder-Frost’s Traditional Britain Group, the most upmarket forum of the UK fascist scene.

But even hardened anti-fascists are frequently shocked by the vicious tone of Fanning’s attacks on her factional rivals. She reserves a special hatred for Towler, whom she derides in such spiteful language that even moderators of far-right Telegram channels sometimes intervene.

In late March, Fanning pushed some of her enemies too far and they began circulating news reports from 2018, when prosecutors agreed to drop charges of racially and religiously aggravated harassment, despite Fanning having threatened to kill two witnesses as well as police officers, in addition to making repeated racial slurs.

Prosecutors said Fanning attempted to bite police officers, then shouted: “Do you have kids? I’m going to kill all of them. … I’m going to get the guys of Manchester to firebomb all the police stations in Manchester … I’m going to send the worst paedo for your kids.”

Fanning escaped further proceedings only because a consultant psychiatrist advised that it was not appropriate for her to attend court.

At the end of March the rival factions began taping each other’s threatening phone calls, and issuing “letters before action”, though no one really believes any of these characters would dare to expose themselves to further ridicule by taking each other to court. More’s the pity.

What anti-fascists can probably expect is that a small number of Britain’s more serious extremists will stand for election and hope to position themselves for what they believe is the coming collapse of both the Tories and Reform UK.

A larger faction will continue to spend their time exchanging obscenities on Telegram. As has often been the case, the challenge for anti-fascists is to identify which individuals and groups represent a serious threat, both in terms of electioneering and potential violence.

This article first appeared in the Spring issue of Searchlight published ahead of the 2 May 2024 elections

Searchlight investigates the right wing Tory factions fighting for control of the party’s future

By Martyn Lester

At the end of 2023, when unruly factions of Conservative MPs were demanding that the UK left the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to make it easier to dump asylum-seekers in Rwanda, most normal people will have been mystified to hear the agitators described in the media as “The Five Families”.

The press may have happily picked up and run with this shorthand phrase for “the Tory rabid right”, but the term was almost certainly coined by the swivel-eyed loons themselves as a self-aggrandising boast. It is borrowed from 1930s New York, when the five families referred to were the leading Mafia clans of the day.

Although it may seem preposterous for such genteel figures as Jacob Rees-Mogg to suggest that they somehow class as “made men”, the idea of Conservative factions having Mob equivalence is not new. Most notably, back in 1974 the faction plotting to oust Edward Heath as party leader and replace him with Margaret Thatcher was dubbed “The Milk Street Mafia”.

Keeping track of Conservative Party factions is about as easy as herding coke addled cats on a recently resurfaced ice-rink. Still, there is an election coming, and these fractious factions will be fighting tooth and nail to ensure that their hobby-horse policies feature in some shape or form. So, let us have a go at identifying as many as we can of the current cabals.

There is no official list of the Five Families factions, and I have seen at least seven proposed as members, but the first five listed below are those most often cited.

1 European Research Group (ERG)

Although it has at times seemed able to call on 80 or even 100 Commons votes, the European Research Group (ERG) membership is looking rather smaller than it once did: one recent estimate was more like 30.

This is partly due to the fact that some of its greedy members decided to apply for their ERG annual subscriptions to be refunded via MPs’ expenses claims, and were “outed” by the parliamentary authorities, and it would seem that a lot of those 80-plus ERGonauts were not too keen on seeing their names on a public list. You can, though, still expect to see them all filing into the same voting lobby at crucial moments, so the group remains potent.

The ERG is composed of people who describe themselves as “Eurosceptics”, which seems something of a misnomer. Their minds have always been thoroughly made up about the European Union (they hate it) so it is hard to see where there is any scepticism involved.

ERG power was at its peak between the 2016 referendum and Brexit actually coming into force, a time when they could make negotiations with the EU as difficult as possible. In stymying Prime Minister Theresa May over Europe at every opportunity, they effectively killed off her premiership.

In their pomp, they were lined up behind Rees-Mogg. These days it is the rather more hard-of-thinking Mark Francois. Now there is a man who probably likes all this “Mafia” talk. Keen to be seen as a roughie-toughie type, Francois loves to remind everyone that he is an Army Man – although he is really only a platoon leader in the Territorials.

2 Northern Research Group (NRG)

The Northern Research Group (NRG), numbering 50 to 60 MPs, will wield a fair amount of clout over the coming months, although ultimately it is likely to prove the equivalent of a relegation club.

The reason for this power-now-but-little-later status should be evident from its name. The NRG is a collection of mostly northern English MPs, many of them in the so-called Red Wall seats that fell to the Tories at the 2019 general election because voters there wanted to “Get Brexit Done”.

Anti-EU sentiment, however, is going to count for very little in this year’s election and these MPs are feeling very vulnerable. The most pessimistic (from their point of view) analysis of opinion polling says that the Conservatives may end up with as few as 90 MPs, and seats that were lost by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn are likely to turn out to have been borrowed by the Tories rather than secured.

The NRG will be looking for manifesto pledges calculated to appeal to Midlands and northwards right-ish working and lower middle-class voters. Immigration and levelling up are likely to feature much more prominently than stockbroker belt concerns such as inheritance tax.

Former party chairman Sir Jake Berry founded the group, and it is chaired by Carlisle MP John Stevenson.

3 The New Conservatives (NC)

As fresh to the scene as the name suggests, and possibly boasting no more than 25 members, the New Conservatives (NC) is nonetheless a group with rapidly growing influence, not least because it features a number of relatively youthful rising stars compared with the effete old lags of most party factions.

Especially visible is the 2019-elected Miriam Cates, who is barely over 40, blonde and moderately photogenic. These are superficial attributes, but among the predominantly late-middle-aged, male and white party membership out in the shires, this is the kind of thing that gets the sap rising in their near-dead branches.

Cates made something of a splash at last year’s National Conservatism conference in London by calling for a rise in the UK’s birth rate – despite Britain being too overcrowded to take in any immigrants. Co-founder Danny Kruger was also one of the 2019 intake and, along with Cates, he is an evangelical Christian who likes people to know it. Eton, Edinburgh and Oxford will do him no harm on his way up the greasy pole. Jonathan Gullis is another fast-emerging darling of the “anti-woke”. At the age of just 34, he is already a party deputy chair.

NC will probably not have a huge impact on the manifesto (with a policy list of immigration, immigration and immigration they are pushing at an open door), but more of one after what looks like an inevitable election wipe-out. Expect to see them pushing for rabid Cruella Braverman as next party leader, and clamouring for front bench roles if she gets in.

4 Common Sense Group (CSG)

Also considered a pro-Suella De Vil faction, the Common Sense Group (CSG) is chaired by close Braverman ally Sir John Hayes. Although it does not hustle itself into the media as much as some groups, it is said to have a membership of up to 60, so is probably numerically larger than both the ERG and NC.

Its relatively low public profile perhaps stems from the fact that many of its people are simultaneously members of other factions, and are often perceived as speaking for those, rather than the CSG – for example Cates, Kruger and Gullis (see above) are usually considered members.

Like all of the right-wing Tory factions, it takes a hard line on immigration, but the “culture war” is probably its speciality – expect some staunch rants on Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and the National Trust (unbearably “woke”).

The group is also much exercised by what it likes to call “the nanny state” and will be giving PM Rishi Sunak short shrift regarding his (admittedly daft) plans for a rolling recalculation of the minimum age limit for smoking.

The faction’s punch has been reduced a little by the unceremonious departure of disgraced former party deputy chair “30p Lee” Anderson.

5 Conservative Growth Group (CGG)

Considering the Tories are now in a massive amount of extra electoral ordure because of the short but insane prime ministership of Liz Truss, you might imagine that the list of party movers and shakers would be devoid of her pals. Not so.

One of the newest of the factions to sit in the Five Families, Conservative Growth Group (CGG), was more or less explicitly set up to carry on the work of the Truss premiership. Yes, it sounds unfathomable that a PM who was outlasted by an unrefrigerated lettuce might retain a line of cheerleaders, but Truss can boast about 50 of them.

What you need to understand here is that none of it was her fault. Yes, she perhaps gave Kwasi Kwarteng too much slack, but her policies were exactly right. She was let down by the panicky markets, panicky media, panicky voters, unsupportive civil servants, faintheart colleagues, sniper Sunak – the list goes on.

Not only are there 50 libertarian Truss fans clamouring for lower taxes and reduced regulations, but some are far from faceless backbenchers. Former Home Secretary Priti Patel is on board, as is Sir Simon Clarke, who served on the front benches of Boris Johnson as well as Truss. The group is chaired by Ranil Jayawardena, who also spent more than two years as a middle ranking Johnson minister.

Popular Conservatism (PopCon)

Before we leave Truss, it should be noted that she is front and centre of another outfit that many in the media describe as a “Conservative Party faction”, though I am not so sure.

PopCon was launched by Truss, but also by former Institute of Economic Affairs director Mark Littlewood, who is not a Tory politician, past or present. There were certainly MPs present at the launch including Patel, and Rees-Mogg and Anderson even spoke from the platform. But other characters floating around included Nigel Farage, who was using the cover that he was a “journalist with GB News”, but was clearly there to sniff around for his own potential benefit.

The fact that this group’s name is Popular Conservatism (cf New Conservatives) strongly suggests that its purpose is to be an umbrella, rather than a strictly party-aligned body.

No Turning Back (NTB)

Regarded by some as a Five Families member, but in my book no longer an influence in quite that league, No Turning Back (NTB) is way older than any of the other groups we have looked at so far. Its name was taken from Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 conference speech (“The lady’s not for turning…”) and its purpose was to be a bulwark against backsliding with regard to the Thatcherite agenda.

NTB’s drift down the league table of Tory groups probably has three causes. It was set up in the 1980s, and a lot of its members have departed since then. It was set up on pretty much the far right of the party, but today’s Tories are so much farther to the right than in those days that there is no longer a line to be guarded.

And even 20 years ago, the group had internal logical contradictions. Thatcher wanted Britain to run Europe. She badgered the other EU members into setting up the Single Market. She was a sceptic (in the proper, not ERG sense) but not a Brexiteer. Guarding Thatcher’s legacy and taking Britain out of the EU are, I would argue, incompatible aims.

But somehow NTB keeps going, and occasionally barks out some public “Keep the Faith” kind of announcement. I believe that it is still chaired by John “the Vulcan” Redwood. If so, he has been doing that job for nearly 20 years.

Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO)

The biggest axe ground by Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) is one of internal party mechanisms. The group was only founded at the end of 2022, to bemoan the “coronation” of Sunak as new party leader and Prime Minister.

In fact, that was the second change of leader/PM of the last four to have gone through without a party membership vote (May pulled off the same stunt). And there was some obvious jiggery pokery involved in cutting out Penny Mordaunt to get Truss into the frame. But only Sunak bothers them.

They are, I would suggest, simply Borisites. Their gripe with Sunak is that he backstabbed their hero, and they are going to make him pay. But there is no obvious immediate future for a “bring back Boris” campaign.

Still, they do have some biggish names on their books: founder Lord Cruddas is president, Tory turned UKIP turned back Tory (and Freedom Association stalwart) David Campbell Bannerman is chairman, and one of its key public speakers has been Patel (yes, her again).

China Research Group (CRG)

Although set up by Conservative MPs, this is more of a single issue lobby than a party faction proper. In part modelled on the ERG, it urges a hawkish stance on China at just about every level imaginable. It will undoubtedly try to nudge something “Sinosceptic” into the manifesto, but this year’s election campaign is not going to focus on China!

Net Zero Scrutiny (NZS)

Internal branding for Tories persuaded by the aims of the charity Global Warming Policy Foundation and its uncharitable spin-off, the Global Warming Policy Forum. Part of the notorious 55 Tufton Street network (think TaxPayers’ Alliance, Leave Means Leave, Institute of Economic affairs and so on), this is another single-issue lobby. Let us just call them “climate denialists” and move on, shall we?

Conservative Environment Network (CEN)

Run by Ben Goldsmith (older brother of Zak), this is arguably more than a single-issue lobby, since the environment is so multifaceted. Goldsmith is genuine in his environmental passions, but it is questionable how much this forum can achieve. It boasts about 130 MPs and peers among its ranks, but how many are simply paying lip service? If 130 legislators cared that much, would our rivers be turd crusted and Boat Race crews throwing up from E coli?

Blue Collar Conservatives (BCC)

Also at least 130-strong, but again one has to wonder whether this potential powerhouse actually succeeds in anything. It was founded in 2012 by Esther McVey and relaunched in 2019 as a caucus of Tory MPs who regard themselves as working class. But ask yourself: How often do I hear spokespeople from, say, the New Conservatives on the radio and TV? Quite often, I’ll bet. And how often from the Blue Collar Conservatives? Admit it, you had never heard of them until 30 seconds ago.

One Nation Conservatives (ONC)

What are the One Nation Conservatives (ONC) doing right down here? you ask. They are a genuine caucus and, with 110 MPs, bigger than any of the Five Families. And these are very fair points. Their problem is that they are moderates (by Conservative standards), do not shout all that loud, and are all but ignored by prime ministers.

Although the idea of “one nation conservatism” stretches back to Disraeli and held sway until Thatcher became party leader, the ONC was only formed in 2019, as a caucus to try to ensure that a candidate who did not favour a no-deal Brexit won the coming party leadership election.

In the event, Johnson won, and appeared to appease the caucus by appointing both of its chairs, Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd, to his front bench. With hindsight, it may be argued that he bamboozled them. When Johnson decided to withdraw the whip from 21 MPs, ONC demanded that he reversed the decision. Nearly two months later, Johnson reinstated just 10. The gap was long enough and the reinstatement small enough that it was clear Johnson had in essence told the ONC to eff off. Despite imposing membership numbers, it will probably get the same message from Sunak.

The group is chaired by May’s deputy prime minister (in all but name) Damian Green.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Searchlight magazine