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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John McDonnell's seminars are restoring Labour's economic credibility

The Shadow Chancellor's embrace of new economics backed by clear plans will see Labour profit at the polls, argues Liam Young.

It’s the economy, stupid. Perhaps ‘it’s the economy that lost Labour the last two elections, stupid’ is more accurate. But I don’t see Bill Clinton winning an election on that one.

Campaign slogan theft aside it is a phrase Labour supporters are all too familiar with. Whatever part of the ‘broad church’ you belong to it is something we are faced with on a regular basis. How can Labour be trusted with the economy after they crashed it into the ground? It is still unpopular to try and reason with people. ‘It was a global crisis’ you say as eyes roll. ‘Gordon Brown actually made things better’ you say as they laugh. It’s not an easy life.

On Saturday, the Labour party took serious steps towards regaining its economic credibility. In January a member of John McDonnell’s economic advisory committee argued that “opposing austerity is not enough”. Writing for the New Statesman, David Blanchflower stated that he would assist the leadership alongside others in putting together “credible economic policies.” We have started to see this plan emerge. Those who accuse the Labour leadership of simply shouting anti-austerity rhetoric have been forced to listen to the economic alternative.

It seems like a good time to have done so. Recent polls suggest that the economy has emerged as the most important issue for the EU referendum with a double-digit lead. Public confidence in the government’s handling of the economy continues to fall. Faith in Cameron and Osborne is heading in the same direction. As public confidence continues to plummet many have questioned whether another crash is close. It is wise of the Labour leadership to offer an alternative vision of the economy at a time in which people are eager to listen to a way by which things may be done better.

Far from rhetoric we were offered clear plans. McDonnell announced on Saturday that he wants councils to offer cheap, local-authority backed mortgages so that first-time buyers may actually have a chance of stepping on the housing ladder. We also heard of a real plan to introduce rent regulations in major cities to ease excessive charges and to offer support to those putting the rent on the overdraft. The plans go much further than the Tory right-to-buy scheme and rather than forcing local authorities to sell off their council housing stock, it will be protected and increased.

It is of course important that the new economics rhetoric is matched with actual policy. But let’s not forget how important the rhetoric actually is. The Tory handling of the economy over the last six years has been dismal. But at the last election they were seen as the safer bet. Ed Miliband failed to convince the British public that his economic plan could lead to growth. The branding of the new economics is simple but effective. It does the job of distancing from the past while also putting a positive spin on what is to come. As long as actual policy continues to flow from this initiative the Labour leadership can be confident of people paying attention. And as economic concerns continue to grow ever more pessimistic the British public will be more likely to hear the Labour party’s alternative plan.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.