The way our politicians have dealt with Brexit, or probably more accurately not dealt with Brexit, has deepened the anger at our political class

One of the lasting memories of 2018 was the first Free Tommy demonstration held in London last June. Men, some in their 40s and 50s, clambering up the gates at the entrance of Downing Street throwing beer cans and screaming “traitors” at the armed police watching on. Up the road, a group of least 500 demonstrators were clashing with police, even chasing them out of Trafalgar Square.

Ostensibly there to protest against the imprisonment of Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), the people marching down Whitehall said a lot about the state of far right extremism in the UK today.

With possibly over 10,000 people on the demonstration, it was the largest far right demonstration since the 1970s. It tapped into the growing anti-elite feeling within society, which resonates much wider than ideological fascism or specific forms of prejudiced politics. It embodied a free speech narrative, which is increasingly being adopted by the far right and used as a cover for its extremist views. It brought together a wide range of people – from Trump supporters to hardline nazis, UKIP members to football hooligans.

international far right "free Tommy robinson" protest outside Westminster Palace, London
“Free Tommy” protest in London, 2018

And the mood of the crowd was angry, bordering on violent.

To understand the attraction of today’s far right, one has to appreciate the growing sense of disconnect between large swathes of people in society and the structures of power. Polling from HOPE not hate over the last few months has found widespread dissatisfaction with the political system and the main political parties. A YouGov poll taken at Christmas found that 68% of people felt that there wasn’t a political party that spoke for them. This was up from 61% when we asked the same question last July.

A more recent HOPE not hate poll, taken earlier this month, found that 55% of people thought our political system was broken. Only 34% thought it was working, even if not perfectly. 

Three quarters of people (76%) think politicians put the interests of big business before people like them, whereas only 7% think that “politicians generally work to represent the views and interests of people like me above big businesses.”

The way our politicians have dealt with Brexit, or probably more accurately not dealt with Brexit, has deepened the anger at our political class. In our poll earlier this month, only 2% of people were impressed with the way politicians were handling Brexit. 89% were unimpressed.

With such negative attitudes towards the political system and our politicians, it is perhaps not surprising that the far right is effectively mining this anti-establishment seam.


The far right

The narrative of ‘betrayal’ and ‘traitors’, which increasingly dominates the far right’s discourse, is heavily focused on MPs – and female MPs in particular. Over the past year numerous female MPs have been targeted by far right activists or generally by angry men.

Helen Goodman was amongst several North East MPs to have pickets and protests outside their surgeries
or party offices. Tory MP Anna Soubry has been very publicly confronted and abused outside Parliament
by James Goddard, and earlier this year Cat Smith, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, cancelled a meeting about Brexit after receiving threats from far right extremists shortly before it was due to take place. More depressingly, even Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen, the seat previously held by Jo Cox, has faced abuse from angry men in her constituency.

Last year saw the continuing rise of the anti-feminist movement. Growing gender equality has long caused a male backlash in society and this has been reflected in virulent anti-women views and policies of the far right. However, in recent years, particularly in the US, we have seen the emergence and growing popularity of the men’s rights movement.

One influence on the contemporary far right’s understanding of gender politics is the “manosphere”: a loose collection of websites, forums, blogs and vlogs concerned with men’s issues and masculinity, oriented around an opposition to feminism and, within parts, embrace of extreme misogyny. 

Tens of thousands of men in the UK regularly access these websites, some already active in the far right but most not.

Free speech

a speech bubble with the words "free speech" written inside
The increasing adoption and exploitation of the ‘free speech’ narrative by far right has enabled them to deflect attention from their own extremism and portray their opponents – from anti-fascists to the police – as being the real fascists. This has allowed the far right to mainstream their message and attract a slightly respectable audience who would probably be horrified by the tactics of the old-fashioned far right.

The elevation of Gerard Batten to leader of UKIP heralded its shift to becoming a fully-blown far right party and its adoption of a strongly anti-Muslim agenda. 

Batten has referred to Islam as “a death cult, born and steeped in fourteen hundred years of violence and bloodshed, that propagates itself by intimidation, violence and conquest” and claimed that “a normal non-Mohammedan should have a perfectly rational fear of ‘Islam’.”

The shift to the right coincided with a move to street politics, with Batten now a regularly speaker on DFLA protests and the appointment of Stephen Lennon as his advisor on grooming gangs.

Batten has also revitalised the party, increasing the membership from 18,000 when he took over to 26,500 by the end of the year. He also raised money to write off the party’s debt, which was no mean feat given the party was facing bankruptcy after losing a big libel case.

UKIP leader Gerard Batten (left) with EDL founder Tommy Robinson
UKIP leader Gerard Batten (left) with EDL founder Tommy Robinson

However, not everyone is happy. Several high profile UKIP members and MEPs have left the party in disgust at the rightward shift, among them former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. He has never liked Lennon, but his public repudiation of UKIP’s anti-Muslim stance was also about repositioning himself as more moderate as he prepared for the launch of his own new right wing party.


Stephen Lennon

a picture of far right thug Tommy Robinson looking angry
Stephen Lennon, better known as Tommy Robinson, continues to be the most high profile far right activist in the UK, with 55% of Britons having heard of him, making him better known than some of our national politicians. Of those, 37% have seen or heard one of his videos on social media. This rises to 57% of 18-24 year olds.

However, people overwhelmingly have a negative impression of him, with just 6% viewing him positively.

2018 was a huge year for Lennon. In late May he was sent to prison for contempt of court, after reporting on a grooming trial in Leeds, yet this seemed to do him no harm at all as it resulted in a huge influx of donations (at least £300,000 just into his legal fund alone) and widespread international support.

US congressman Paul Gosar spoke at one of the two Free Tommy demos in London, and Lennon also received support from Donald Trump Jnr, the son of the US President. Meanwhile, the British Ambassador to the US was called in by Trump’s ambassador for international religious freedom suggesting that the British authorities should be more “sympathetic” to Lennon.

Lennon’s fame and notoriety shot up and despite being booted off Twitter, where he had 400,000 followers, he remains the fifth ranking far right activist in terms of social media reach. 

He hoped to capitalise on his growing reputation in the US with a trip to DC in November, where he was set to attend a Middle East Forum conference and then speak at an event in Congress. However, because of an earlier conviction and ban he wasn’t allowed in and similarly, he was also blocked from entering Australia, where he had planned to tour with Gavin McInnes.

The Free Tommy demos highlighted the growing internationalisation of the far right. There were demonstrations in at least nine countries, many organised by Generation Identity.

Steve Bannon, meanwhile, spent time in London as part of his attempts to create an organisation that would support far right political parties across Europe ahead of the European Elections. Called The Movement, this was to be based in Brussels and headed up by Raheem Kassam. In the end it did not materialise, mainly because far right and populist right parties have proven to be able to do well enough themselves without Bannon and Kassam’s involvement.

Online hate

a number of popular far right figures including Katie Hopins

While social media companies are increasingly removing leading far right figures from their platforms, there remains an upward trend in online hate.

Five of the 10 far right activists with the biggest social media reaches in the world are British and last year also saw the emergence of a new generation of activists, such as James Goddard, who try to earn money through their aggressive and confrontational tactics.

Internationally, the fragmentation of the alt-right as a self-identifying movement post-Charlottesville has increased apace last year and is increasingly being replaced by the Identitarian movement. We expect this trend to continue into 2019.


Terrorism

police cordon outside Palace of Westminster after a terrorist attack in 2017
© Getty Images

The number of people arrested for terror-related offences in 2018 was down on the previous year, which is probably not surprising given the Manchester and London terrorist attacks that happened the previous year. While the majority of arrests were of alleged Islamists, there was a growing number of people arrested from the far right. While most of these were connected to the round-up of National Action supporters, which has led to four trails and 13 people being imprisoned, there were several others too, unaligned to any specific far right group.

Last year saw National Action finally destroyed by the authorities. Despite having been banned in December 2016, the group carried on underground, but it was not until HOPE not hate revealed the plot to murder a Labour MP and a police officer, that the police realised that they were still operating and organised. However, while NA is not longer an organisational threat, it has been replaced by a number of smaller, and if anything more hardline, groups.

The latest, the Sonnekrieg Division, is probably the most worrying of all. Hardline nazi in ideology, it also draws on the satanic influence of the Order of Nine Angles, the world’s most extreme satanic-nazi group. The ONA, whose one time leader David Myatt was influential in Combat 18 before becoming an Islamist and a key al Qaeda propagandist, was also influential on National Action.

The trend towards younger, more violent nazis is a real concern and needs to be monitored closely. 

The threat of terrorism still remains overwhelmingly from the Islamist spectrum, and 2018 saw the release of several of the leading al-Muhajiroun leaders – either because their sentence had come to an end or out
on license. While leaders like Anjem Choudary will have such strict conditions placed on him he cannot do anything, the mere presence of these people back on the streets is likely to inspire and regalvanise his supporters.


Antisemitism

Antisemitic post made by Melia in the official For Britain members’ Facebook group

The Labour Party continues to be embroiled in its antisemitism scandal, which sadly is mostly of its own making. While it is undoubtedly true that its opponents have publicly exploited as anyone involved in politics would exploit problems in their opposition, he fact remains that a few Labour Party members and supporters, from the top to the bottom, have either engaged in antisemitism and the party has a whole has failed to deal with issues as they arise.

Central to Labour’s problem has been Jeremy Corybn himself, whether that is his conflation of his anti- Israeli position with the Jewish people more generally, his repeated presence in the company of Holocaust Deniers and anti-Semites, his failure to apologise for his past statements or associations and his complete lack of empathy with the concern of his own Jewish MPs and activists and the wider Jewish community more generally.

a picture of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn looking frustrated

Even his own closest advisers privately admit that his handling of the antisemitism row has only made matters worse.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members, supporters and MPs are not antisemities, and as research on conspiracy theories shows, those people who voted UKIP in 2015, which is four million people, are far more likely to believe in Jewish conspiracies than Labour voters. Indeed, there is virtually no difference between the number of Labour voters who believe in anti-Jewish conspiracies than Conservative Party voters.

However, left wing antisemitism on the left is very real amongst a small but very vocal group of people.
A study of thousands of left wing social media accounts by HOPE not hate shows gives a glimpse into the extent of the problem. While overt antisemitism and Holocaust Denial is uncommon, a larger group engage in conspiratorial antisemitism and use antisemitic tropes, especially in relation to supposed Jewish power, and an even larger group are involved in denying a problem exists and dismissing the issue as a right wing and Zionist smear.

Islamophobia

a man with stickers covered all over his face, saying "Saddam...al Qaeda...terrorism...fanatic...fundamentalist...Muslim"

While Labour has its problems with antisemitism, the Conservatives have their own issues with anti-Muslim prejudice. Half of the party’s 2017 voters think that Islam is incompatible to the British way of life and 47% think there are no go areas in Britain where sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter.

The negative attitudes of Tory voters towards Muslims and Islam has increased in recent years as many of the four million voters who backed UKIP in 2015 switching allegiance to the Tories. And with it they brought their hostile attitudes to Muslims and immigration more generally. 

While the Government has spoken out against Islamophobia, and overseen a more robust
reporting system within the police and Government departments, it needs to do more to better educate their own members and challenge their negative views.


Prospects for 2019

a sea of people protesting against Brexit in London
© Getty Images

Brexit is going to dominate British politics in 2019 and with a hard Brexit extremely unlikely, a narrative of ‘Brexit Betrayal’ will be heavily used by the far right. UKIP claim that it will stand 3,000 candidates in May’s local elections, but this is likely to be overshadowed by the launch of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

We are likely to see the continuation of street protests, which will no doubt fluctuate in size and anger depending on events, and a strong far right vote in the European Elections will give a boost to the far right and populist right in the UK.

Growing anti-politics mood

a picture of Westminster Palace, London

A sense that the political system is broken, that there is a democratic deficit, and that elites and the establishment do not speak for ordinary people has charged populist far-right movements across the world. When people feel that the system is broken, they look outside of the traditional system where the far-right has capitalised on these fears, offering simplistic answers based on nation and race for complex problems.

The UK is facing a crisis of mistrust, and a growth in anti-politics sentiment. Our most recent polling, from February 2019, shows a massive 55% of people think that our political system is broken. A huge three quarters of people (75%) think that politicians put the interests of big business before people like them. Social group C2DE (58%), Labour voters (65%) and UKIP voters (70%) are most likely to think the political system is broken. A feeling of distance from the political system has grown as the Brexit negotiations have gone on, with many feeling they are not represented by the political system.

In just six months, our polling shows that the proportion of people who feel that any of the main political parties reflect what they think has fallen, with just 32% of people saying that they feel represented by any of the main political parties. A staggering 68% of people now feel that none of the main political parties speak for them.