What's happening to the EDL?

Submitted by Matthew on 23 November, 2011 - 1:17

At the start of 2010, the BNP looked poised to consolidate the greatest electoral achievements of any fascist organisation in this country by making party leader Nick Griffin a member of parliament as well as a MEP. The total quashing of these aspirations and the intensification of disputes within the BNP has significantly altered the far-right political landscape.

The BNP is now at the point of almost total disintegration. The party is suffering not only from a series of personal and political splits, but is under investigation by the Electoral Commission (for late submission of accounts) and by the European Parliament for financial “mismanagement”.

The results of these investigations could see Griffin and other leading BNPers bankrupted, politically sanctioned or even behind bars.

Large numbers of rank-and-file BNP members have dropped out of politics or moved on to smaller organisations. Leading BNP cadre have likewise jumped ship to organisations as varied as the National Front, UKIP and the English Democrats.

Clearly the era of the BNP and Nick Griffin as the “uniting force” of fascism and the far-right is over. What remains is a far more disparate and fragmented political scene, the shape and dynamic of which has yet to be settled.

Central to the formation of a “new far right” is the English Defence League.

According to the the Socialist Workers Party and its Unite Against Fascism front, the EDL is nothing more than a straightforward fascist group. The presence of current and former BNP members, high-profile fascists and racists — many of them organised in football “hooligan” firms – within the ranks of the EDL made this an easy characterisation to make: fascists are active within the EDL, therefore it’s a fascist group.

For Workers’ Liberty and others the EDL represented something more complicated. A central focus of the EDL is anti-Muslim bigotry and racism. Whilst strenuously distancing themselves from groups like the BNP in public and claiming to focus solely upon “Islamic extremism”, the EDL has mobilised violent mass and smaller scale demonstrations that have indiscriminately targeted individual Muslims and Muslim communities. The key to their success was tapping into a very real and widespread prejudice.

Woven into its analysis of modern Britain and the threats posed to “English identity” were sharp criticisms of those who allowed and facilitated the growing influence of political Islamism. The critical language used was both populist and conspiratorial, blaming an establishment that is wilfully compromising the future of the UK.

Anti-Muslim racist populism, a conspiratorial view of politics, combined with a “march and grow” organisational approach typical of classical fascist organisations have been the hallmark of EDL activity. But there are new developments.

The Radicalism and New Media research group at the University of Northampton has produced a lengthy report, The EDL: Britain’s New Far Right Social Movement (see www.radicalism-new-media.org), describing some of the distinct features of the English Defence League as compared to other, classical far right and fascist organisations.

The report argues the organisational structure of the EDL is best understood as a Social Movement Organisation (SMO). A SMO “has a limited central organisational structure … which offers a level of coherent organisation, with a broad party line, to a wider set of networked followers.” This definition has more commonly been applied to left-wing protest groups in the past.

The report authors say such an organisational set-up allows for significant mobilisations of support by appealing to general anti-Muslim sentiment without replicating the political problems common to more formal organisational structures.

So whilst central EDL figures like Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) have well documented and exposed histories with racist and fascist organisations and the BNP in particular, those affiliated to and mobilised by the EDL do not necessarily share the same politics.

Whilst the EDL focusses upon and mobilises support off the back of anti-Muslim racism, its structure allows participants to “register more general discontent with mainstream politics.”

At its high point, the BNP attracted significant “protest votes” at election time. With the BNP’s decline, this passive support could be directed towards more public sympathy with the EDL. But such support will inevitably put pressure upon the EDL to become more politically coherent and could even propel the group into the electoral field.

The report points to other developments. Despite the SMO structure, the central EDL leadership has managed to maintain almost total control over the “core political message”. However, the lack of centralisation means the slightest disagreement or any potential leadership crisis could produce ready formed organisational splinters. The emergence of the “Infidels” fragment in the North East and North West is just one example of this potential.

It is believed that the “Infidels” are responsible for the attacks and threats of attack on the “Occupy” movement, socialist meetings and the Unite trade union office in Liverpool.

Whether the EDL either continues to grow, plateaus or fragments the results are will be significant for the formation of a new extreme right wing and possibly openly fascist party, organisation or larger “movement”.

Another recent report by Demos (a think tank closely associated with New Labour) Inside the EDL: populist politics in a digital age, uses data volunteered by people connected to the EDL Facebook page (i.e. self-identified EDL supporters) and gives some startling “headline” results.

First: “We estimate the total size of the active membership to be at least 25,000–35,000 people. Of these, around half have been involved in demonstrations and/or marches.”

Second: EDL supporters are “disproportionately likely to be out of work”. In the younger age bracket, this figure is 8% above the national average. In the upper age bracket, the figure for EDL supporters is 28% whilst the national average is 6%.

Third: “Immigration is the biggest concern among EDL supporters”, which neatly complements, feeds from and boosts the core anti-Muslim message.

Fourth:The BNP is the most popular party amongst EDL members and the overwhelming majority believe that political action can make a positive difference to society. Significantly, many EDL supporters are convinced that the electoral process is vitally important.

Whilst the methodology of the report is “innovative” and as such open to criticism and whilst — like the previous report — many of the policy conclusions need to be sharply contested within the workers’ movement, the data points to important potential developments.

If we understand the EDL as an SMO, then the figure of 25,000 to 30,000 “members” does not represent a “concrete”and obedient membership. But the figures do represent a sizeable political network.

The disproportionately high levels of unemployment amongst EDL supporters points to the already obvious social factor in far right political mobilisation. And the current social, political and economic situation — one where open class warfare is already a major factor — still provides the conditions in which a group like the EDL can thrive,

Finally, the support for the BNP and the high levels of identification with the mainstream political process indicates that pressure will be brought upon the centre of the SMO to change political tack when the BNP finally bites the dust. This in turn will have a significant impact on factions within the EDL.

The job of working out a coherent analysis of the data from these reports and from the movement more generally must continue. As well as developing a strategy against a re-composed far right movement/fascist organisation, it will be necessary to develop sharp opposition to the dominant analysis of the “official” anti-fascisms.

Whereas groups like Hope not Hate and interested parties around Labour couch their views around the idea that the state can prevent the rise of “extremism” through bans, total proscription and strategies like “Prevent”, UAF holds that ineffectual rallies and shouting “Nazi scum” at EDL members will crush the movement. That does come close to the mark. We need to answer some critical questions and develop strategies within the working class movement around the answers.

1. If support for the EDL is real and growing in the working class, how can this be effectively countered by working-class organisation?

2. If the EDL continues to use racist violence and stage provocative mass demonstrations against Muslims, what more can militant anti-racists do to prevent them?

3. What relation does the EDL have to the emergence of a new European far right and what does the European experience tell us about potential developments here?

4. What is the significance of developments like the “Infidels” faction and how should the left respond to the urgent task of self-defence?

5. What are the prospects for developing a broad based working class anti-fascist movement at a time of increasing working class mobilisation and industrial action?

EDL splinter targets labour movement

EDL splinter group the “Infidels” now says it wants to target trade union, anti-fascist and socialist organisations.

Quoted in the Observer (20 November), Infidels leader John “Snowy” Shaw states: “We have decided to put all our efforts into opposing everything you [the left] do. Regardless of the issue at hand, it’s your organisations we oppose.”

The “Infidels” and other EDL splinters have already attacked meetings of the Socialist Workers Party, the “Occupy Newcastle” camp and most recently the offices of the Unite union in Liverpool.

The reasoning behind this new orientation is of a piece with the deadly “logic” behind the murderous actions of Anders Behring Breivik, who slaughtered 77 children and young adults at a Labour Party youth camp in Norway last July.

Breivik's self-aggrandising pseudo-manifesto blamed the Norwegian labour movement and its Labour government for providing cover and laying the foundations for a creeping Islamist conspiracy to take over Europe. Shaw et al claim that the British left is playing the self-same role.

The left should take this new development seriously. Groups like the Infidels have already made contact with and been infiltrated by elements of the fragmentary fascist right: those splitting from the British National Party and groups like the National Front.

Meanwhile on Saturday 19 November Scottish Defence League (SDL) thugs attacked a Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign stall in Glasgow city centre.

Initial reports refer to around 30 or 40 turning up wearing masks at about 4:30pm, assaulting the campaign members on the stall, and trashing the stall. They then ran off shouting: “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”

The SDL attack on the Palestinian Human Rights stall marks a new development for the SDL similar to its counterparts in England.

Those attending the 26 November annual Scottish TUC anti-racist march (10.30am Glasgow Green) should follow up the demonstration with defence of the Palestine Human Rights stall, and the various left stalls in the same street, against a possible return by the SDL.

The left and anti-capitalist activists need to be prepared to defend ourselves. Defending ourselves will mean more than relying on the police and the Home Secretary.

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