Running scared of the English Defence League

‘We talk about apathy, then these guys get into politics and we shit ourselves.’ The author of a new report on the EDL talks to spiked.

Patrick Hayes

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It’s a worrying sign of the times when the first large-scale study of the make-up of the English Defence League (EDL) – a right-wing group that is fiercely opposed to radical Islam – has to top its policy recommendations with ‘Do not ban the group’.

While he doesn’t think that the police or government are planning to impose such a ban, Jamie Bartlett – head of the violence and extremism programme at UK think-tank Demos and co-author, with colleague Mark Littler, of the report Inside the EDL: Populist Politics in a Digital Age – recognises that there are groups lobbying for the right-wing organisation to be added to the government’s list of proscribed organisations.

Indeed, UK home secretary Theresa May did ban the EDL from marching through the London borough of Tower Hamlets in September last year. (Perhaps out of a warped sense of fairness, May then banned all other groups from marching there, too.) Following the riots in London in August, UK prime minister David Cameron appeared more disgusted by the EDL’s involvement in so-called ‘vigilante’ groups, which aimed to defend local areas, than with the rioters themselves. Cameron declared that in the ‘sick’ Britain that he’d diagnosed following the riots, there is no group ‘sicker than the EDL’.

‘I think that the government sometimes feels under pressure from advocacy groups to ban the EDL’, Bartlett tells spiked. ‘They make these bizarre moral equivalents between the EDL and al-Qaeda and Muslims Against Crusades.’ Bartlett considers that the recommendation in his report is necessary to act as ‘a counter-balance against those groups saying that they should be banned. Not many people have written in a report that the EDL should not be banned; it’s always “let’s get rid of them, let’s get rid of them”, so it feels a bit unbalanced.’

Such a ban would be tricky to implement anyway, given the nature of the EDL. One of the most striking aspects of Bartlett’s report is the finding that a high proportion of EDL supporters are in fact ‘clicktivists’, keyboard warriors raging against Islamic extremists from the safety of their own armchairs. As Bartlett points out, ‘It’s extremely difficult to know who the EDL is. If you ban the EDL, who are you banning? People who clicked “like” on a Facebook page?’

The EDL was founded in 2009 as a reaction against a Luton-based Islamist group protesting against the Royal Anglian Regiment’s return from duty in Afghanistan. The EDL has no centralised membership and relies upon the ‘likes’ on its Facebook page to keep tally of how many people support it. From the research carried out by Demos, employing an ingenious technique of using targeted Facebook advertising to get respondents to their survey, we know that approximately 76 per cent of the people who ‘like’ the EDL Facebook page consider themselves to be ‘members’ of the group. Only 52 per cent, however, claimed they had engaged in ‘online activism’ for the group, and less than a quarter (24 per cent) said they’d attended a national demonstration in the past six months.

This nebulous sense of what it is to be an EDL supporter means that its significance can be massively inflated using online statistics. Despite official claims that their numbers are very high, Demos estimates that the EDL has between 25,000 and 35,000 supporters nationwide. However, the EDL has never been able to mobilise more than about 3,000 people to attend a single demonstration. The inflated online figures are one of the reasons the police presence is so high at EDL demonstrations: the police use Facebook estimates of attendees to estimate how many officers they need. As protests in Luton and Tower Hamlets last year illustrated, this can often lead to a bizarre situation where the vast numbers of police officers present make it look as though they are demonstrating rather than the EDL.

Bartlett rightly calls for realism on behalf of the risk-averse police: ‘It’s risk management. They don’t want to be seen to have ignored possible intelligence. People will say, “why haven’t you gotten the police [numbers]? It was written all over Facebook for goodness sake.” So they constantly set up to fail.’

Equally, the loose sense of membership can backfire and cause serious problems for the EDL. When its Facebook page crashed and restarted, the group lost tens of thousands of ‘supporters’ who have never rejoined. And when Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik was revealed to have ‘liked’ the EDL Facebook page last year, this was reported by the UK media as evidence of ‘EDL links’, resulting in some rapid backtracking on the part of the EDL that ‘liking’ their the Facebook page was sufficient to constitute membership.

‘It’s absolutely unfair to vilify the EDL on the basis that Anders Breivik may have been a Facebook fan’, says Bartlett. ‘It’s impossible for them to know who he was. He may have been on a demo. He may have just messaged them saying “well done EDL from your Norwegian fan”. But the EDL want to have it both ways: they want to distance themselves from Breivik but then use their [Facebook] numbers to say “this is how big we are”.’

The nature of Facebook also means that media and campaign groups can pick and choose the comments on the threads of EDL Facebook walls and attribute them to ‘EDL supporters’. This, worryingly, led to the police preemptively arresting 179 EDL members who were drinking outside a pub in Westminster on Remembrance Sunday last year, at least in part on the basis of screen grabs from Facebook group pages that had been sent to the police by left-wing groups. The EDL has claimed these posts were the work of ‘trolls’ unaffiliated with the organisation, and it’s almost impossible to know for sure whether this is true or not. As Bartlett points out, ‘You could set up a fake profile, post something, screen grab it yourself and send it off the police. It’s ridiculous.’

It also speaks to the lack of a sense of what it is to be a member of a political organisation that well over 1,200 EDL ‘supporters’ on Facebook were prepared to provide intimate details about their politics and their relationship to the organisation through an online survey. (While it’s true that this was a self-selecting sample of individuals – some supporters may well have been concerned about divulging such information – criticisms by academics and the EDL themselves that the survey overlooks the many members of the EDL not on Facebook don’t seem to hold water given that the vast majority of under-30s in the UK are on Facebook.) Equally, it’s indicative of the nature of the movement that a survey is necessary in order really to understand the concerns and profile of members.

So who are EDL members? Much of the demographic profile is unsurprising. Although Demos believes ‘supporters are older and better educated than many assume’, they are predominantly male (81 per cent), only 28 per cent are aged 30 or over and just 30 per cent have a university or college qualification. However, 20 per cent are currently students. They are also far more likely to be unemployed than the UK population as a whole, especially when it comes to older supporters aged between 25 and 64 years old (28 per cent are unemployed, compared to six per cent of that age group as a whole).

The Demos report authors emphasise that EDL members are broadly democrats, who have as much belief in the importance of voting as the rest of the population. They are more jaded with institutions compared with the public as whole, but not by much. As the report’s authors point out, the treatment of EDL members by these institutions may have contributed to cynicism. Bartlett bemoans the actions of the police as exacerbating the problem: ‘That tactic of preemptive arrests [on Remembrance Sunday] was very, very stupid and I think it’s going to backfire. Trust in the police by the EDL is already pretty low. It’s now going to absolutely plummet. And it’s really important the police aren’t seen as tools of government, but as protecting people’s right to march, rather than stopping them from marching. They’ve made a real mistake with this.’

Interestingly, despite the EDL’s claims to be a single-issue organisation opposing the rise of radical Islam, immigration (42 per cent) is cited as one of their two highest concerns by significantly more EDL supporters than Islam (31 per cent). This doesn’t surprise Bartlett, who claims that ‘on aggregate, immigration probably did benefit the country – but there are huge pockets who think that it didn’t benefit them whatsoever’.

While acknowledging immigration was once seen to be a taboo subject, Bartlett observes the situation is changing: ‘People are now saying “it’s important that we actually debate this subject”. But what does that even mean? When anyone actually voices an opinion… everyone just jumps out and calls them bigots and racists as well. What does having a frank, open debate about immigration actually entail? Because everyone’s saying that we need one, but no one seems to be willing to have one.’

Bartlett finds the reluctance to engage with the EDL dispiriting: ‘They are talking about politics. I prefer that’, he says. ‘I’ve had members of the EDL talk to me about details of what Theresa May did and Charles Clarke did. I thought, “how do you know any of this stuff?” They’re really into it. We talk about the problems of apathy and then these guys get involved in politics and we shit ourselves. We don’t want them to do it. Actually I prefer that they’re engaged.’

Contrary to scaremongering from some quarters, Bartlett doesn’t think EDL membership is going to be on the rise, despite their new partnership with the British Freedom Party, which could see EDL leader Tommy Robinson and other supporters enter party politics. Bartlett points out that it’s important to observe the differences between the rise of the far right in Europe and Britain, which has – relatively speaking – ‘done a really good job of avoiding it’. He believes the fragmented nature of the EDL will mean that the group will not rise in numbers, but won’t fall either. It will remain ‘a constant, small and irritating presence’.

‘I think a lot of people do share some similar sentiments when they are reasonably and rationally voiced, but they never are. So they’re never going to do well’, Bartlett says. ‘Every report about the EDL says they’re a bunch of “fascists”, which means they’re going to find it very difficult to shake the tag no matter how good Tommy Robinson is.’

Having spoken to Robinson, Bartlett finds him ‘refreshing’ compared to many politicians due to ‘the way that he just speaks his mind. People in the coalition don’t dare say boo to a goose. That’s why I think people were impressed by his Paxman performance [on the BBC’s Newsnight].’

The Demos report pours cold water on the hysteria regarding the EDL and rightly calls for the police, government and other campaign groups to get a sense of perspective, to engage with members rather than banning them, and to stop inflating the group’s significance. Whether this advice will be heeded by such groups – which often use the spectre of the ‘fascist’ EDL to suit their own ends – is another matter.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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