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After English Defence League leader quits – is racism in retreat?

This article is over 10 years, 6 months old
Following the resignation of EDL leader Tommy Robinson, Weyman Bennett looks at how fascist groups build—and how anti-fascist movements can push them back
Issue 2375
Mass anti-fascist protests, such as this one in Waltham Forest, helped push the EDL back
Mass anti-fascist protests, such as this one in Waltham Forest, helped push the EDL back (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The resignation of Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll, the two leaders of the English Defence League (EDL), is good news for the anti-fascist movement. The two announced their resignation from the group at a press conference last week. 

Robinson said that the EDL had become increasingly influenced by neo-Nazis and claimed they did not represent what he stood for.

It’s true that the EDL is riddled with fascists. Unite Against Fascism (UAF) has argued this since the EDL was set up in March 2009.

It was formed in the £500,000 Barbican flat of businessman and Islamophobe Alan Ayling, also known as Alan Lake, to organise street confrontations targeting Muslims. It was built and maintained by fascists. 

Chris Renton, who ran the EDL website, was a member of the Nazi British National Party (BNP). Another BNP member, David Cooling, did admin work on the Luton EDL Facebook site.

But it is laughable for Robinson to claim that this is not what he stood for. Robinson—real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon—is an ex-member of the BNP. He has led countless demonstrations terrorising Muslims and boasted in 2011 that he was prepared to break up the student protests.

In Robinson’s resignation statement he tellingly described street demonstrations not as wrong but as “no longer productive”. By this he means that, at every turn, mass anti-fascist demonstrations confronted the EDL. 

Their hate-filled invective was challenged.

Robinson has not experienced a “sudden conversion on the road to Damascus”. Instead his resignation represents a retreat from an attempt to build a mass organisation that could control the streets. 

Such shifts and turns are common in fascist organisations. Fascists ultimately aim to seize power and smash all forms of democracy. 

They are marked out from racist and far right movements in general because they pursue a dual strategy. They want to build up gangs of street thugs that can attack minorities and the left while also fighting to win political legitimacy.

Opposition, along with tensions in this dual strategy, can force fascist groups to alter their emphasis.

For instance, attempts by fascists to organise openly were often met with revulsion in the decades following the Second World War. So fascists in France, led by Le Pen, stopped openly praising Hitler to try and win influence through legitimate channels. 

Instead they claimed to be nationalists concerned about immigration.


In Britain the BNP was, until recently, relatively successful in winning elections. It broke through when it won three council seats in Burnley, Lancashire, in 2002. Mass campaigning against the Nazis has since shattered their electoral strategy.

But its initial success meant party leaders had to rein in hardcore elements and retreat from building on the streets to protect the party’s image. The EDL grew to fill the vacuum this created.

Fascists don’t stop being fascists when they put on suits and stand in elections. They try and hide their politics in order to win votes and build up influence. 

But it’s vital that anti-fascists oppose them however they choose to organise.

The EDL has at times managed to pull off some big protests. 

Over 1,200 EDL supporters ran amok in an anti-Muslim riot in Stoke in January 2010. Around 2,000 protested in Blackburn in April 2011. Five mosques were vandalised after the protest, with the initials “BNP” and “EDL” spray painted on them.

But several high profile mass anti-fascist mobilisations damaged the racists’ morale. 

The EDL’s first rampage took place in Luton in April and May 2009. But when they returned in May 2012 only a few hundred supporters showed up. Some 2,000 UAF protesters marched against them.

Some in the anti-fascist movement failed to recognise the danger that the EDL posed when it launched. The Hope Not Hate group argued that anti-fascists should ignore the EDL and it would go away.

This idea has now been shown to be completely wrong. UAF was right to oppose the EDL every time it took to the streets. We have played a major role in splitting this racist movement.

It was right to create a broad based campaign. From the start UAF was backed by the likes of Peter Hain MP, Glyn Ford MEP, Muslim groups and national trade unions.

This broad campaign helped to create a crisis for the EDL that it hasn’t managed to recover from.


Robinson’s resignation is a blow to the EDL, but it doesn’t mean the EDL is finished. Just two days after Robinson’s departure, the regional organisers of the EDL met to reorganise. 

They elected Tim Ablitt, a south west EDL organiser, as chair and agreed to go ahead with planned EDL demonstrations in Bradford and Exeter. Around 250 racists turned out for the EDL protest in Bradford last Saturday.

And it certainly doesn’t mean that fascists won’t form new organisations in the future. Helen Gower, Tommy Robinson’s “personal assistant”, claimed last week that, “A new group, that isn’t street-based, is going to be formed. 

“Tommy is definitely going to be in the new group, and Kevin will be in it too.”

Mainstream politicians have created a political climate that helps groups such as the EDL to flourish. David Cameron and his Tory government have attacked multiculturalism, scapegoated migrants and pushed an Islamophobic agenda.

Home secretary Theresa May declared yet another clampdown on immigration just last week. All of this boosts the fascists and makes every racist more confident.

Depressingly many in the Labour Party leadership have either ignored these attacks or at worst aped them.

Fascism will remain a threat as long as we live in a system wracked by crisis and racism is used to divide us. 

But anti-fascists have shown, once again, how it is possible to drive back fascist groups. Everyone who wants to stop the growth of fascism should learn these lessons for the future.

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