Politics of the street
The Ukip leader’s embrace of Tommy Robinson shows how the ‘great Brexit betrayal’ could lead to the growth of a populist far-right movement in Britain, writes Eddie Ford
In what is clearly an interesting development, Gerard Batten, the latest leader of the UK Independence Party, has appointed Tommy Robinson (real name - Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) as his “special advisor” on “grooming gangs” and “prison reform”. These are areas in which Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, claims some sort of expertise, having been jailed for mortgage fraud and using someone else’s passport to travel to the US. And he is now awaiting a decision on his contempt of court retrial (which was referred last month to the attorney general for review), concerning his attempt to live-stream videos to Facebook of defendants in a rape-cum-grooming gang trial.
His appointment followed months of often heated debate and deliberation, as under current Ukip rules Robinson is disqualified from joining because of his past membership of proscribed organisations - the EDL, British National Party and British Freedom Party. Last week Batten announced that he had formally sought to begin the process to allow Robinson to become an actual member, not just his personal advisor - describing the former EDL leader as a “tremendously brave man” - even if he has “done a lot of things that I’m happy to say I don’t approve of”. But in “the great scheme of things”, mused Batten, “he’s a very heroic person, who stands up for the victims of industrialised sexual abuse in this country”. Indeed, Batten has previously compared Robinson to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (though you would think that Jesus would also be deserving of a mention).
Naturally, Batten’s move has not gone down well with many Ukip members. It was resisted by the party’s national executive committee, which argued that any decision on the issue should be postponed until after ‘Brexit Day’ in March (a rather optimistic assumption, it has to be said). Rather, senior party figures and others have urged Batten to focus instead on campaigning against Theresa May’s ailing Brexit plan, which is almost certain to be voted down by parliament - opposition which has helped push Ukip support up to 8% in some polls, such as Opinium (November 14-15).
Showing the disquiet in the party over Batten’s courtship of Robinson, three MEPs have already resigned in protest. The latest deserter, Patrick O’Flynn, who represents the East of England region, said Batten’s “apparent and growing fixation with Tommy Robinson” had been the final straw - the leader was now steering the party to the far right - “without any mandate” from either the membership or the party’s elected ruling body. O’Flynn has now defected to the Social Democratic Party, the successor party to the original SDP, founded in 1981 (this writer admits he had no idea it still existed).1 Curiously, given its origins, the SDP is very pro-Brexit, has two elected town councillors and picked up a massive 469 votes at the last general election.
Another person furious at Batten’s embrace of Tommy Robinson is Nigel Farage, of course - Ukip’s leader up until November 2016. For him, Robinson’s appointment was “dragging us in a shameful direction”, with the decision going “against all the things I did as leader”. After all, Farage said, if he had “one real achievement” in politics it was that he “did pretty much single-handedly kill off the BNP”. But Batten now wanted to turn Ukip into a “sort of a street activist party”, right at the very moment “when we have a betrayal of Brexit” by both the Tories and Labour Party, meaning Ukip’s potential reach is “the highest it’s ever been”. When Farage was leader, Ukip talked about Islam and immigration in a “non-racist, non-sectarian” way, he said, and Batten’s love-in with Robinson “blows a hole in all of that”. For this reason, on November 24 Farage submitted a letter of no confidence in the Ukip leader to the party’s NEC, as it is “time we got rid of Gerard Batten and reclaimed the party”.
Batten responded to Farage’s avalanche of criticism by noting that he had shown “0% interest” in Ukip since “walking away” two years ago - being far more interested in the Leave Means Leave campaign group and cuddling up to Donald Trump. So who was Farage to talk? In fact, according to Batten, he himself had saved the party from potential financial collapse - the legacy of Nigel Farage.
Under Gerard Batten then, as is clear from these latest developments, Ukip has shifted considerably to the right, with a virulent Islamophobia being the driving force - even if Batten claims that “‘Islamophobic’ is a made-up word” and “I don’t have an irrational fear of Islam”. He has called Islam a “death cult” - presumably in contrast to life-affirming Christianity - and has suggested that UK Muslims should be asked to sign a declaration “renouncing” elements of the Quran. He has also described Muhammad as a “paedophile”, mooting a possible halt on immigration from Islamic countries and separate jails for Muslim prisoners. He has also marched alongside the far-right thugs of the Football Lads Alliance. Bigot? Me?
You could say that by appointing Robinson as his advisor, Batten has made official Ukip’s new-found fascination with the politics of the street and the alt-right. Obviously, Robinson has a strong base of support within the FLA/alt-right/far-right milieu, which defended and crowdfunded him when he received a 13-month prison sentence in May. These include charming individuals, such as Paul Joseph Watson, an editor at the US conspiracy site Infowars (owned by the raving lunatic, Alex Jones) and Mark Meechan (aka ‘Count Dankula’), now notorious for his YouTube video teaching a dog Nazi salutes by repeating to it, “Want to gas the Jews?” - something that has been viewed over three million times.2
It almost goes without saying that the Socialist Workers Party calls Tommy Robinson a “Nazi” - a word the SWP robotically slap onto virtually anyone with reactionary or rightwing opinions. However, it is extremely rare for British people - no matter how rightwing - to sign up to Nazism, which was a form of German nationalism that glorifies Germans as the master race: the vast majority of British people were brought up to regard it as the epitome of evil. Hating Hitler and the Nazis is almost the very essence of being British in the post-World War II world.
True, Tommy Robinson can be categorised as a fascist - which does not mean therefore that he is a follower of Benito Mussolini or anything like that. For us fascism is the anti-working class politics of the street, which is usually intent on demonising this or that minority section of the population - in this case Muslims. From that perspective, the EDL and FLA fit the description of fascism - opposed equally to the left and ‘the elite’ - with their obsessive promotion of national myths, irrational prejudices, and so on.
The fact that Gerard Batten has recruited someone like Tommy Robinson says a lot about Ukip and where it is going - and also a great deal about British contemporary politics. In reality, Ukip was the Brexit party: that is what it existed for, even if it did develop other policies and ideas over time. But, thanks to David Cameron and the EU referendum, there was now much less space for a specifically anti-EU party and Ukip has slid right down in the opinion polls. That is why, under Batten, Ukip is clearly reorientating itself to the streets and away from electioneering.
If you look at the UK’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, you can see another reason. Ukip was able to come first in the 2014 European parliamentary elections under a system of proportional representation, despite getting only 27.5% of the vote, giving it 24 MEPs (it now has 15). But it was unable to get any MPs elected - although it did attract two rather eccentric defectors from the Tory Party, who unsurprisingly did not hang around very long when they saw the bitter reality of Ukip’s internal life. In that situation, the street looks like the best bet, it seems.
Perhaps partially disproving Nigel Farage’s criticism that Ukip is obsessing about Islam when it should be concentrating its guns on Brexit, Tommy Robinson - no doubt with Gerard Batten’s blessing - has called for a ‘Great Brexit Betrayal March’ on December 9, just two days before the planned ‘meaningful vote’ on Theresa May’s deal.
This is exactly the sort of development that communists would expect. If you are a true Brexiteer - which, it needs to be mentioned, includes the likes of the Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain - under May’s plan Britain is still going to be subordinate to European Union rules and regulations: that is just a fact. European law would still apply to the movement of capital, the City, and a whole host of other things - meaning that Britain’s ability to strike trade deals here, there and everywhere is going to be severely restricted. Another unforgiving fact. From a hard Brexit position, May’s deal is a betrayal - or ‘Brino’ (‘Brexit in name only’) - there is no getting around that. It does not make you Jacob Rees-Mogg to recognise this obvious political-economic reality. Thus it is easy to imagine ‘Brexit betrayal’ politics, of the sort envisaged by Tommy Robinson on December 9 and afterwards, having a real effect amongst many who believe they have once more been stabbed in the back by liberals and the metropolitan elite.
In other words, Ukip is evolving fast - with Robinson acting as a catalyst. On the other hand, what is Nigel Farage doing? In recent years he has expressed admiration for the Five Star Movement in Italy - which is a classic Bonapartist organisation running numerous electronic plebiscites, where members can vote for various propositions from the safety of their computer or laptop. It is not hard to see why that appeals to Farage - obviating the need for all those boring meetings and exhausting election work. But where and how to take such a project in Britain without a proportional representation system: is it a movement or a party?
Nevertheless, under present conditions, it is reasonable to think that we will see a growth of the populist far right in Britain - just as we have had a growth of the left in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. But the worst thing that could happen to the left is a Corbyn minority government of the sort seemingly imagined by John McDonnell - but which has a “majority position in parliament” with regards to its alternative Brexit plan and other matters. Under those circumstances, what sort of programme could such a government carry out, dependent as it would be on the support, and votes, of MPs from the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Greens ... and Tories? Labour’s rank-and-file and activists should rebel against such a notion. It could only lead to disaster and the discrediting of the party for untold years.