Yesterday the English Defence League held its “Way Forward” meeting in Birmingham. It had been widely predicted beforehand that Stephen Lennon (“Tommy Robinson”) would announce he was standing down from the EDL leadership in order to pursue electoral politics as a member of the far-right British Freedom Party. According to this report, things didn’t quite work out like that. Lennon declared that he did not consider himself to be the leader of the EDL (contrary to numerous statements he has made in the past) but stopped short of offering his formal resignation. And he stated only that he “may elect to join British Freedom” some time next year. However, the EDL did agree to endorse the BFP and “will utilise their divisional structure to support British Freedom”.
Lennon had previously argued, under the inspiration of the Daily Star, that the EDL itself should contest elections, but it seems he has concluded that the organisation he leads (or doesn’t lead) is an inappropriate vehicle for pursuing his electoral ambitions. He is certainly correct to draw that conclusion. The British National Party began to get its candidates elected in any numbers only after adopting a “suits not boots” approach, which was based on the recognition that the traditional fascist “march and grow” strategy didn’t impress voters with the far right’s supposed power to control the streets but rather repelled them by projecting the public image of a gang of violent hooligans. And that, of course, is precisely the reputation that the EDL has won for itself since its formation in 2009.
Last Saturday 179 EDL supporters were arrested in London after the EDL posted a threat against Occupy LSX protestors on its Facebook page, and trade unions have warned that striking public sector workers also face attacks from the EDL and its various splinter groups. A few days ago the EDL’s heavily promoted token “Muslim” member, Rangers supporter Abdul Rafiq, was fined £600 and banned from football games for five years after being convicted of shouting anti-Catholic abuse at a match. Indeed, barely a week goes by without EDL members being fined or jailed for offences involving racial or religious harassment and assault. The EDL may be able to mobilise up to a couple of thousand anti-Muslim bigots to take to the streets to protest against the Islamification of Britain, but an organisation with that sort of public profile is unlikely to attract any significant electoral support.
The BFP are elated over their link-up with the EDL, which will at least provide their tiny party with some forces on the ground. As one of the BFP’s leading activists wrote recently: “Imagine, a grass-roots social movement (EDL) working in tandem with a political party (British Freedom) – the possibilities are endless.” But the problems this alliance faces are also obvious.
First of all, Lennon may hope that a political party which is organisationally separate from the EDL will avoid being tarnished by the EDL’s record of racism and thuggery, but this is far from guaranteed. By effectively becoming the political wing of the EDL, the BFP will have considerable difficulty dissociating itself from the increasingly violent actions of EDL members. And then there is the small matter of the political origins of the BFP itself, which was set up by disillusioned former members of the BNP. Where does that leave the EDL leadership’s repeated assurances that their movement has no links with fascism?
When the BFP attended an international “counterjihad summit” in London in September, along with the EDL leaders, its representatives included the BNP’s former legal officer Lee Barnes, Simon Bennett who was once in charge of the BNP’s website, and a former BNP regional organiser named Peter Mullins. Mullins was the BFP’s chairman, while both Barnes and Bennett were executive council members, as was another former BNP activist, Michael Wood.
No doubt partly in order to remove any obstruction to an alliance with the EDL, but more importantly to assist the BFP’s bid for wider electoral support, the ex-BNP activists recently resigned their positions and were replaced by individuals with no known fascist background. The new chairman, who is now being promoted as the public face of the BFP, is Paul Weston, a former UKIP member who stood as a parliamentary candidate for that party in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency in the 2010 general election. Weston reportedly broke with UKIP because he didn’t think its leader Nigel Farage was taking the threat of Islamisation seriously enough.
Weston has stated clearly that the removal of Barnes, Bennett et al did not amount to a purge of known fascists but was rather a manoeuvre to deflect attacks on the BFP:
Former members of the Executive Council were in full agreement that British Freedom was being held back because of its previous links with discredited nationalist parties. As many of you are aware, there was a recent survey suggesting that a political party based on the policies of British Freedom would be supported by a large percentage of the population, but many are held back because of their history, no matter that the committee members had broken those links.
It is a shame that this is the case. The former committee members are all good people driven by passion and bravery in the defence of their country which is being slowly destroyed before our very eyes.
But we must face up to the political reality of the situation, which is exactly what has now been done. British Freedom can longer be attacked by the leftist media via character assassination, which has strengthened the party considerably.
As for Weston himself, he may have no background in organised fascism but his views on the “ethnic cleansing of the English” demonstrate that he shares much of the ideology of those who do. It will be interesting to see how Lennon tries to square the EDL’s claim that they reject racism with support for a party led by a man who unabashedly describes white UK citizens as the “indigenous race”.
Whether the EDL/BFP lash-up will lead to the development of a far-right political force capable of filling the gap left by the disintegration of the BNP is questionable. It seems more likely that the BFP will remain stuck on the political margins before collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions. The task of anti-racists is to assist that process by exposing the real political character of this latest exercise in far-right regroupment and challenging the BFP whenever it stands in elections.