The Woolwich attack has given the EDL a new lease of life

After appearing destined for irrelevance, the group has been re-fuelled on anger.

No matter how terrible and awful an event, someone somewhere will usually benefit. Until Wednesday's attack in Woolwich, the English Defence League was going the way of many street based far-right groups: riven with multiple factions and in-fighting. Social movement theorists (if you’re ever lucky enough to meet one) will tell you that keeping a movement together is harder than founding one. People were slowly drifting away, perhaps losing faith that the EDL was achieving anything. Then, in just 24 hours, the EDL’s Facebook page tripled in size – from 25,000 to over 75,000 – with new vim and vigour, re-fuelled on anger. 

The EDL’s identity is closely wrapped up with the army. The group emerged in 2009 out of the United Peoples of Luton, which Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) helped form when an Islamist group protested the Royal Anglican Regiment's return from duty in Afghanistan. A survey I ran of EDL supporters in 2010 found that the only institution they trust – by a considerable margin – was the army. As a rallying call for the EDL, brutally murdering a soldier in broad daylight is just about the most effective action imaginable.

The effect on the EDL of this murder will be profound. One of the great dangers now is a cumulative spiral of reprisal and counter-reprisal between EDL groups and their enemies, both online and off. The EDL and the Islamist groups it opposes have always fed off each other, attending each other's demonstrations and whipping themselves up to a state of mutual hatred. When I interviewed Robinson back in 2010, he told me that they they were "sick of being caged in like animals" by the police, and were on the verge of holding unannounced demos instead. This is the nightmare scenario: the EDL hitting multiple locations simultaneously, resulting in weekly street battles with counter-demonstrators before the police can get there. We would see a spiralling, self-reinforcing anger on all sides. Academics call this 'cumulative radicalisation'.

Judging by last night’s events – documented by the NS's Daniel Trilling – and the vitriol, death threats, and general hardening of language online since the murder (both by and at the EDL) this is now a real possibility. When I spoke to Robinson in 2010, his overriding feelings were urgency and frustration. He told me that "something has got to give. If nothing happens, something drastic might happen. I don’t know what it might be". I’ve never seen the EDL as angry as it is now - their supporters' frustration will surely diminish as time passes, but, for now, it has been given a new lease of life.

The English Defence League (EDL) wear balaclavas as they gather outside a pub in Woolwich in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.