What makes an EDL supporter tick?

A study of the far-right group has found that supporters are pessimistic about the UK's future.

Think of the English Defence League, and the image conjured up is probably violent marches populated by football hooligans. But according to a new report by Demos -- the first study of the group -- this is not necessarily the case.

In fact, only a small proportion of those who support the EDL have actually been on a march. Only a few thousand ever take to the streets, while closer to 30,000 "like" the group on Facebook. There are no formal membership procedures, as there are for the BNP, so those affiliated with the group are more varied than the general perception.

Perhaps the most important fact in the Demos report is that extremist Islam is not, in fact, the primary concern for the majority of EDL supporters. While the group's leaders claim that opposing fundamentalist Islam is its primary aim, 42 per cent of respondents cited immigration as their top concern, while just 31 per cent said Islamic extremism. On the other hand, 41 per cent said they joined the group because of their opposition to Islam. Anti-Muslim feeling is clearly a cornerstone of the group -- many of its street demonstrations have provocatively been held in predominantly Muslim areas -- but despite motivating membership, supporters do not think it is the most important issue in the UK.

In fact, supporters appear to be drawn to the EDL for the same reasons as people have always been attracted to far-right groups. Supporters are disproportionately likely to be unemployed. Among 24 to 65 year olds, 28 per cent of EDL supporters are unemployed, compared with the national average of 6 per cent. They are also deeply pessimistic about the future. Three-quarters of those interviewed for the report were under 30,and 81 per cent were male.

While the EDL has attempted to distance itself from other far-right groups, the survey found that the BNP is the political party with the most support, with 34 per cent of EDL supporters saying they vote for the party.

The report notes that while some supporters leveled abuse at all Muslims, others offered more nuanced criticisms, drawing a distinction between Muslims and extremists.

It recommends that the EDL should not be banned as an extremist group:

The EDL is not one-dimensional, and members' views are varied. The group is probably best described as a populist movement that contains some extreme right-wing and sometimes Islamophobic elements. Although there are some illiberal and intolerant sentiments voiced by some supporters in this survey (and at demonstrations), many members are in an important sense democrats. Allowing them to protest and demonstrate is an important way to ensure the group does not become more extreme.

It continues:

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.

The reasoning makes sense; however, it is important not to overlook the more pernicious side of the EDL -- the violent marches in Bradford and Tower Hamlets -- simply because its informal network of supporters encompass a range of voices. Arbitrarily banning groups is never a good idea, but nor is inconsistency in the government's treatment of different types of extremist.


Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage