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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit