What do the British people think of the English Defence League?

New polling shows the British people's attitudes to the far-right street protest movement.

Three-quarters of Britons (74%) who think that they know enough about the English Defence League to form a judgement about it believe that the organisation is motivated by racism. Just 17 per cent accept the EDL's assertion that it is not racist, which has been central to its claim to offer a modernised platform for populist anxiety, while 9 per cent didn't know whether it is racist or not.

The new YouGov polling of 1682 British adults, looking in some depth at attitudes to the EDL, explains why the movement has pariah status and is likely to remain a "marginal" and not mainstream political force, according to analysis of the results for the Extremis project published recently at www.extremisproject.org

One in four respondents said that they have never heard of the EDL, while four out of ten people have heard of the EDL but don't know what they stand for, while most of those who do know enough to form a judgement regard it as a toxic political force.

Only 11 per cent of people who have heard of the EDL say that they would consider joining it. One in five of this group would consider joining while believing the group to be racist, while three-quarters of possible EDL joiners think it is not a racist movement. 85% say they would never join the EDL, and only one in ten of this group accept the claim that the group is not racist. 

The study helps to explain why the EDL has largely failed to mobilise latent support for identity populism. 

The EDL had seen itself as having a major opportunity from the implosion of the British National Party, which failed to build on its 2009 European election breakthrough and lost every council seat it was defending or seeking to win in the last local elections.

The EDL hoped to become a more modern form of populist party, emulating European politicians such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. But its toxic reputation for extremism has put a significant celing on its potential to grow. 

Despite its high media profile, the EDL has struggled to mobilise people. Even its Luton march, which captured the front-pages partly through the coincidence of taking place as David Cameron made a major speech criticising multiculturalism, involved only 3000 people. The EDL has yet to even once hold any event as large as the average attendance (4477) for each of the 500 football matches which take place in the fourth division of English professional football. Its more recent demonstrations have drawn a few hundred or less, outnumbered in recent appearances by counter-demonstrations from anti-fascist groups. EDL messageboards have suggested a lot of discontent about the failure of these events to make an impact. 

Despite the pariah status of the EDL, the new poll provides further evidence that populist appeals to Englishness, and attempts to mobilise anxiety about immigration, Europe and Islam could resonate with significant sections of the public. While 6% of people say that they agree with the methods and values of the EDL, 23% of people say they are sympathetic to its values but do not agree with its methods. This rises to 31% of respondents from across social groups C2, D and E compared to 18% of professional AB respondents.

Though the question is not studied further specifically in this new poll, this finding speaks to how perceptions of lawlessness and a sense of its ambivalence about violence are a further toxic association for the EDL brand. The EDL professes itself to be non-violent but its street imagery conjures up the impression of the football hooliganism of the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting how it grew its street presence from groups of "football casuals", particularly around Luton Town FC and other clubs. Its leader, Stephen Lennon, who also uses the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, is among senior figures with convictions for football violence.

The EDL did have more apparent success in online mobilisation, growing to 80,000 Facebook supporters at one point. But many of these were "one click" expressions of those who did not remain engaged.  The best ever day for the EDL came when extreme Islamist Anjem Choudhury announced a poppy burning stunt, gaining the EDL 11,000 members in one day - but these have not returned. This was demonstrated by how EDL had to rebuild after Anders Breivik's expressions of support for the group led to its suspension. It has slowly built back up to around 30,000 Facebook expressions of support. 

This study captures that there is a minority niche of pro-EDL racists, who say that they share the EDL's values while believing it to be racist. But it shows too that most of the voters who give priority to these populist issues are repelled by groups who appear to be ambivalent about racism or violence, or who they perceive to be on the wrong side of foundational anti-racist or anti-violence social norms, even at the same time that some express support for softer rejectionist propositions, such as closing the borders to all immigration, or reducing the number of Muslims and the presence of Islam in British society.

The EDL continues to hope that it can stoke public controversies, and especially to benefit from a symbiotic relationship with fringe Islamist extremist groups, who share their interest in a heated and highly polarised attempt to create a grievance clash between majority and minority communities. 

The mobilisation of anxiety over identity and immigration is unlikely to go away. But this seems much more likely to boost the Eurosceptic party UKIP than to offer any more significant political presence to the EDL. 

UKIP seek to make a populist challenge within the mainstream political system, and have a leadership much better placed to observe the boundary between traditionalist appeals to disillusioned voters and extreme versions of these arguments. This could well give UKIP more potential in the 2014 European elections to reach voters who are culturally anxious, and sometimes deeply so, yet who also mostly regard the EDL as a toxic movement of street hooligans.

About the author

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future, the new think tank  dedicated to issues of identity, immigration and fairness.