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23 November 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:04pm

Tommy Robinson’s Ukip appointment will allow him to exploit the anger of hard Brexiteers

And the media isn’t helping. 

By David Lawrence

Ukip has been plunged into a fresh crisis after former leader Nigel Farage slammed current leader Gerard Batten on Radio 4 on Friday morning. Farage was pushing for a no confidence vote to “get rid” of Batten due to his ongoing “fixation” with Islamophobic extremist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson).

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Batten is taking Ukip in a “shameful direction” where the party is fixated with “Tommy Robinson, discussing Islam, and dragging Ukip into the direction of effectively being a street activist party”. Batten, a veteran anti-Muslim activist, has appointed former English Defence League (EDL) leader Lennon as his “Special Personal Adviser on Rape Gangs and Prison Conditions and Prison Reform”.

Some have been quick to point out the irony of Lennon’s new role, given his extensive criminal record and numerous periods of incarceration, including convictions for violently assaulting a police officer in 2003, playing a leading role in a 100-man hooligan brawl in 2010, attempting to enter the USA with a false passport in 2012, and mortgage fraud in 2014. Batten has responded that Lennon’s convictions are “minor”.

Lennon is also a former member of the British National Party (BNP), which, alongside his status as former EDL leader, disqualifies him from membership of the party according to Ukip’s currents rules. This has done little to perturb Batten, who has fallen under Lennon’s spell and has been pushing for his entry into his party since the latter expressed his wish to join in September.

Since taking the reins of the ailing Eurosceptic group in February, Batten has saved Ukip from imminent bankruptcy but also taken the party into increasingly far-right territory. This has included rolling out the red carpet for a series of extreme figures, including conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson and disgraced former Breitbart star Milo Yiannopoulos, who has claimed that Muslim immigrants would bring “lamb chops, yoghurt and gang-rape” to America. He has also welcomed anti-feminist YouTuber Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad), a man who, in a February 2018 video chat, said “Maybe you’re just acting like a bunch of n***rs, mate. Have you considered that? You think white people act like this? White people are meant to be polite and respectful to one another”, continuing “don’t expect me to have a debate with one of you faggots”. (According to BuzzFeed, Benjamin’s defence was to claim that his language was not directed at black and gay people, and that “n***er” is not offensive in Britain like it is in the USA).

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By engaging with such figures – Watson and Benjamin, for example, were photographed alongside Batten at a strategy meeting in August – Batten is using Ukip’s more “moderate” reputation to provide extreme actors a veneer of respectability. His incessant campaigning for Lennon threatens to do the same.

It also ensures yet more news coverage for Lennon, who has scarcely been out of the press in recent months. Like Anjem Choudary before him, Lennon has become the high profile, international figure that he is via the media coverage that he has received. In recent months alone, he has made appearances on Sky News, Fox News and BBC Newsnight. His new platform may help him capitalise on the anger of disaffected Brexit voters over the coming year. Indeed, Lennon has already announced the “Great Brexit Betrayal March” for 9 December.

Farage is concerned that Batten’s obsession with Islam (which he calls “Mohammedanism” and has labelled a “death cult”), and his compulsion to cheerlead for Lennon may scupper Ukip’s opportunity to become a serious political force once more. Ukip’s National Executive Committee also shares this view, postponing Batten’s motion for a members vote on Lennon’s entry into the party, claiming that “the focus of the Party must be on Brexit” as “Brexit has reached a crucial juncture”. Ukip has seen recent gains in the polls, but membership remains roughly half of its 46,000 peak during the 2015 general election. 

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Of course, as Anoosh Chakelian has written, Ukip under Farage was itself no stranger to nativist politics. His distancing from Lennon is in part strategic, and he has previously hinted that he may return to lead Ukip.

But his attack on the current Ukip leadership reveals the chasm within the party. With the tumultuous political situation and rising anger amongst many hard Brexit supporters, there remains the very real possibility that Ukip, in alliance with Lennon, could still capitalise on the situation. Over the coming months this will likely mean large street protests, with Lennon at the fore. However, Ukip will already have one eye on next year’s local elections, with a view on further exploiting local tensions and a sense of betrayal for potential political gain.

David Lawrence is a researcher at HOPE not hate, where he monitors European radical right movements and the alt-right.