Britain's radical right: electoral failure but success on the streets ?

The BNP's latest electoral defeats are no indication that the attraction of its ideology has faded away. New social movements in Britain are seeking to impart change through extra-parliamentary means.

Vidhya Ramalingam
16 July 2012

The radical right in Britain has historically been characterized by failure and marginality. Despite alarmist reactions to the British National Party (BNP) and its predecessors, the British far right has failed to achieve sustained electoral success and, by 2012, is a largely spent force electorally. In spring 2012, when the BNP lost every seat it defended in the local council elections, onlookers in the UK congratulated themselves, with some claiming the BNP’s loss was a crowning achievement and testament to community cohesion and tolerance in the UK. However, with the notable exception of relentless campaigns like Hope not Hate, which have mobilized communities to turn BNP strongholds into BNP losses, the rest of us must be careful not to be overly proud of our role in defeating the British radical right.

Indeed, the relative failure of the BNP was not due to scarce demand for radical right ideologies, nor have we seen a decline in public opposition to immigration in recent years. The UK has historically been fertile ground for movements thriving on discontent with mainstream political institutions, popular xenophobia, and euro-skepticism. Since the 1960s, large majorities of the British population have been opposed to immigration, and recent research from the Migration Observatory notes that over the past 15 years immigration has become one of the most salient issues in Britain. Recent years have not only brought economic recession and political and media scandals, but increased public concern about immigration. However, there is no simple correlation between the success of radical right movements and parties and mass-level sentiments; in order to succeed, the radical right must be able to seize the moment. Even if favourable opportunity structures arise, radical right parties might fail to create strategies that enhance their power.

The comparatively weak challenge posed by the BNP is due to a number of external and demand-side factors, including the British first-past-the-post electoral system, which makes it difficult for small parties to gain seats in the House of Commons, and the effects of civil society initiatives aiming to quell the BNP’s influence and reach in local communities. However, internal supply-side factors were the bane of the party, including poor coordination, lack of strong leadership, and internal fracture. As experts including Nigel Copsey, Matthew Goodwin and others have elucidated over the years, the failure of the BNP can furthermore be attributed to the party’s ill-designed process of ‘modernisation,’ and an inability to create a sustained legitimate public image. Despite the local successes of the BNP over the years in places like Burnley, Dudley, and the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, as well as the two European Parliament seats they garnered in 2009, the party has today largely collapsed and will bear little weight on British politics in the future. In a recent Guardian piece aptly titled ‘The BNP is finished as an electoral force’, Matthew Goodwin notes: “the question that remains is what will emerge to fill the vacuum?”

In the wake of the BNP’s failure to effectively harness the fertile environment for radical right politics, a new form of the radical right has emerged in the UK employing new methods and a new approach to social change. The English Defence League (EDL) emerged in Luton in the spring of 2009 from a series of loosely defined movements that drew on football hooligan networks for support, and today claims to ‘peacefully protest against Islamic extremism.’ The EDL has operated outside of the political system, deploying mass mobilisation, or the threat of mobilisation, as its major means of influence. Across Europe, right-wing extremist violence and street-based action at the local level has had a significant and direct impact on community safety and intergroup relations. Ranging from lower-level violence to professedly ‘peaceful’ marches and protests, these activities serve to polarise communities and generate fear and tension, often resulting in ‘copy-cat’ threats or violence, even from counter-movements. EDL marches have drawn counter-protesters in the thousands, and though these encounters have at their best been peaceful and powerful reminders of respect for diversity from the majority, they have in other cases escalated into violent confrontations in cities across the UK, including Dudley, Birmingham and Bradford. Attributing violence to any particular group is tricky, and arrests often span EDL members as well as Muslim and minority youths and members of groups like Unite Against Fascism. Monitoring and anticipating EDL activity is challenging, not least because of the EDL’s lack of formal membership structures, and their tendency to capitalise on inebriation, football hooliganism and other such ‘resources’ during regional demonstrations and marches. Though police and local authorities can monitor social media sites to track and prepare for EDL marches, the EDL’s lack of formal membership structures has also allowed the movement to deny responsibility for violent rampages like those in Rochdale this year, when tensions escalated surrounding the trial of 11 men of Asian descent accused of grooming vulnerable young girls in the community, and nearly 200 youths, some shouting ‘EDL,’ attacked local businesses and damaged cars.

Building online communities around Islamophobia

However, the EDL are a far more complex and multi-layered movement than simply a form of organised hooliganism. Their support base, though difficult to identify, has been enhanced and amplified through the use of new media and social networking sites. The movement has constructed an impressive web presence via Facebook and Twitter, disseminating its propaganda, information on forthcoming activities and rapid responses to current affairs to large audiences. In addition, the EDL has over the past few years proudly presented itself as a diverse movement, marching behind banners stating ‘Black and white unite against Islamic extremism,’ carrying Israeli flags, and initiating ethnic minority EDL divisions (including divisions for Hindus, Jews and Sikhs, although numbers of actual supporters are unconfirmed). Unlike the BNP and those who preceded it, the EDL belongs to a new wave of movements that are distinct from traditional manifestations of the radical right, and instead campaign on purely anti-Islam platforms, even adopting the language of liberal democracy and human rights to defend their ideologies. The EDL is perhaps indicative of the dangerous nature of today’s Islamophobia: that it has transcended traditional far right xenophobic politics as a frame that can unite disparate groups against ‘a common enemy,’ allowing it in some cases to successfully eschew accusations of racism.

The EDL presents itself as part of a growing transnational movement, building on the success of counter-Jihad movements initiated in the United States and attempting to capitalise on the anti-Islam ‘hook’ increasingly uniting the European radical right. In a recent example, the EDL crossed national borders in attempts to initiate a pan-European anti-Islam movement this May, taking to the streets with Danish and other counterparts in Aarhus, Denmark. According to a recent report by Hope Not Hate, 190 groups have been identified globally as promoting anti-Islam agendas, and these groups are increasingly forging alliances and strengthening their capacities. A strategy of international mobilisation allows these movements to present themselves as part of a more respectable and increasingly mainstreamed school of ideology and action.

Certainly, the ‘politics of fear’ overhanging the immigration debate and the securitisation of the discourse surrounding Muslims in Europe are critical for the success of radical right parties. However, it is important to remember that the radical right must ‘seize the moment’ in a constructive way to succeed. As mentioned above, the BNP has long had favorable opportunity structures, or ‘demand,’ but largely failed to deliver on the ‘supply’ side. Scholars have analysed how political parties can best benefit from a favourable environment. For example, it is well documented that the European radical right has tended to succeed when able to mirror and adopt the ideological frameworks of ‘model’ radical right parties like the French Front National. However, the EDL has, until recently, avoided the political system and opted to effect change through extra-parliamentary yet professedly non-violent ways, leaving an imprint across the country through local (and locally-specific) demonstrations. Outside the political system, the natures of ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ are distinct from those that apply to political parties; and legitimacy and reputation management likewise function differently than for suit-and-tie politicians. The EDL’s recipe for success is thus unique, not only with regards to internal structure, leadership, and communications strategy, but in terms of broader purpose and objectives (which ultimately define ‘success’).

We need new forward-looking research into the goals, strategies and impact of movements like the EDL at the local and national levels, as well as the attitudes and profiles of their advocates. However, we need a holistic analysis, looking beyond the streets at the online sphere where new types of relationships are being fostered by radical right movements (see Demos and Institute for Strategic Dialogue for some new work in this domain). The EDL claims to rely heavily on its ‘armchair warriors’, those who may not attend marches, but who are ‘forming more and more blogs, putting together YouTube videos to spread the message and involving themselves in email, telephone and letter writing campaigns.’ The EDL has furthermore employed innovative tactics in its attempts to effect local change; for example, well aware of the massive costs forced upon local authorities during their marches, the EDL have been known to employ projected expenditures as a threat to encourage changes in council policy. The British radical right will not wield significant political power anytime soon, but if we look beyond electoral results at the actual dynamics and creative strategies they engage in, we can better understand how they may create alternative channels of influence, despite their marginalised status. Michelle Williams encapsulates this best in a 2006 book about the peripheral radical right: “They matter in exciting, dynamic ways...They will not be taking over governments. However that is precisely the point—they do not have to!”

However, an alliance between the EDL and the British Freedom Party (BFP), a splinter party formed by disaffected BNP members in 2010, was announced this April, allowing the EDL to field candidates in local elections for the first time. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, the leader of the EDL, has been named deputy leader of the BFP, and with this appointment the BFP has agreed to adopt virulent anti-Islam policies as its central theme. Will this toxic mix of the new and the old spell a new future for Britain’s radical right? The dynamics of radical right ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ in the UK may well be shifting, and researchers, community activists and policy makers should look not only to the polls but to the streets, and the ‘grey zone’ in between, to understand the future of these movements in Britain.

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