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
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.