A couple of reports on the English Defence League that have been published by the think-tank Demos recently make for interesting reading.
The first argues that far-right populism is on the rise across Europe, pointing to the new breed of rightwing, anti-Muslim nationalism represented by the EDL, various populist groups and parties, and “lone wolf” terrorists such as mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik (whose connections with the EDL were broken on this site before the Grauniad picked up the story). The specifics of this political tendency has already been detailed here.
More interestingly, the second DEMOS report argues that the EDL is very much a (post)modern phenomenon, which is utterly reliant on the internet and social networking to survive. As we've pointed out previously, the EDL – despite claims to have hundreds of thousands of members – have no membership process at all, count membership through Facebook “likes” and forum membership, and have a self-appointed leadership. To a degree this is mirrored on the other side of the political spectrum by the global #Occupy protests, which have been largely organised and propegated online, even if they have actual democratic decision-making structures in place on the ground. Only around half of the EDL's members have been on a demo, and the authors conclude the theoretical maximum they could mobilise in one go is 12,000 (their highest attendence at a demonstration has been 2000-3000). Under a quarter of those surveyed have travelled further than 100km to protest.
The second Demos report, Inside the EDL, consists of a survey of over a thousand social media supporters on their opinions and concerns. There are a few things of casual interest: for example, despite the leadership's attempts to distance themselves from the BNP, around a third of EDL “members” vote BNP. They form the most popular political party for EDL supporters, followed by UKIP and the Tories. Despite the EDL's claims to be a “counter-jihad” movement and nothing else, it's surveyed supporters see immigration as a bigger problem than Islamic extremism.
Inside the EDL has this to say about the basic ideological makeup of its support base:
The EDL appears to be symptomatic of a new brand of loosely
nationalist movements across Europe, which finds common cause
in opposing a perceived Islamification of secular liberal and
Christian societies. These groups lay claim to the mantle of the
enlightenment, espousing support for fundamental liberal values of
free speech, democracy and equality, which they seek to defend
from the threat of Islam. It is hard to know accurately when this
language is being used as a cover for more sinister or intolerant
views, and when it is genuine. There is little doubt that the EDL
contains some racist and openly anti-Islamic elements – but this is
by no means true of all supporters. The task ahead is to engage with
those who are sincere democrats, and isolate those who are not.
Of course, the idea that the UK is at risk of “Islamification” is total nonsense, and this needs to be opposed rather than engaged with. What is interesting though is that this group of casual supporters appear to be gradually dissapating (or at least refusing to leave cyberspace) as the EDL see diminishing returns on their national demonstrations. It seems that many can't be bothered with demonstrations that consist of being surrounded by an army of police in a car park. As a result, the hardcore appear to be turning to a strategy of “controlling the streets” which resembles that of traditional fascism while the wider support increasingly stay at home.
This “controlling the streets” strategy has been the model of the more openly racist EDL splinter groups North West Infidels and North East Infidels for a while. The groups split from the main EDL due to political differences and “too many chiefs, not enough Indians” syndrome. Importantly, they've pursued a strategy of threatening to attack anything they consider “lefty”:
We have decided to put all our efforts into opposing everything you do regardless of the issue at hand its your organisations we oppose. Unlike you we won’t be announcing it all over internet when and where we will be, neither will we post your details over the net even though we may have them. Every event you hold will be a potential target along with your meetings, fund raisers and social events.
So says leading light of the Infidels, “Snowy”, who also moonlights as an anti-Irish loyalist bigot.
This strategy has also been used by EDL groups to attempt attacks on various left and anti-racist events. We have detailed some of their attempts to attack “left” events previously (which had largely been unsucessful), and won't do so again here. However, more recent events have been more serious.
EDL and National Front supporters recently attacked the Occupy Newcastle protest camp, hospitalising one person and bragging of the attack on Facebook afterwards. This weekend Liverpool EDL tried to attack the offices of the trade union Unite, but were seen off by officials. They then headed to News From Nowhere bookshop, which has become a target due to its “support for illegal immigrants”. This follows their recent appearance at an anti-cuts rally to heckle and abusing recently sacked workers laid off from a bust outsourcing company while "patrolling for leftys."
Most recently, police arrested 156 EDL supporters in London at the weekend, with reports variously citing theft from the pub they were drinking in, racial abuse of its staff, and threats made to attack the Occupy London protest camp at St. Paul's cathedral. The argument could be made that the police are looking to show some political parity following the heavy policing of last week's student demonstration (and threats to use baton rounds against it), and the banning of Islamist micro-group Muslims Against Crusades. However, actual threats had been made online:
In reality the Met likely wanted to avoid the PR catastrophe fighting between the EDL's finest and the Occupy protests on the steps of St Paul's on Remembrance Sunday would represent.
Given the Newcastle attack, it would make sense to view the threat to Occupy London as a genuine one. Which leads onto the main point of this blog article
What's the point?
At a time where living standards in the UK and across the world are facing the greatest attack in generations, and we are seeing a broadly anti-capitalist, grassroots protest movement developing around the globe, the question could be asked whether there's any point to discussing the likes of the EDL beyond political trainspotting.
It's no doubt true that investing huge amounts of time and energy into opposing the EDL to the detriment of community and workplace organising is a waste of time. However, it is becoming clear that as the EDL “boil down” to a core of activists targeting anything “left”, and in particular the burgeoning anti-austerity movement, we need to be prepared for confrontation with them.
Part of the problem is that the likes of the SWP and UAF have thrown rhetoric around about “smashing the EDL” without having anything near the muscle or political willingness to back up the threat. There's something farcical and embarrassing about EDL activists being able to turn up and disrupt anti-fascist events without suffering any real consequences. As a result their confidence has grown to the stage that they feel they can attack anti-austerity protesters at night and put them in hospital.
Anti-fascism and physical confrontation with the right shouldn't be fetishised, not should we promote getting into a gang war with the EDL or other groups.
However, there's now a clear need to be much more security conscious, both at our events and during anti-austerity meetings and demonstrations. Politically, the sacrifice in autonomy represented by gladly accepting police protection rather than organising our own defence is very problematic. There needs to be an increase in security consciousness and planning for anarchist groups, anti-cuts groups and events like bookfairs and conferences, and an awareness and planning for the fact that the right are going to attempt to intimidate us.