While much of Westminster has been focused on the Labour and impending Tory conference, over the weekend the radical right also gathered its troops to try and stoke further resentment over Brexit “betrayals” and throw fuel on the already-raging fires propelling anti-Muslim prejudice and bigotry in the UK.
First out of the blocks was Ukip, currently undergoing a lurch to the (far) right under leader Gerard Batten. The party has experienced a small spurt in membership (mostly following the fallout from Theresa May’s Chequers deal and the arrival of four high-profile extreme vloggers to its ranks) after a disastrous tumble in finances, members, and polling.
Pre-conference talk centred on whether serial criminal and far-right thug Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who calls himself Tommy Robinson, would be allowed to join its ranks, given the membership ban on former members of the British National Party (BNP) and his old group the English Defence League (EDL).
Though that effort has been stymied by a technicality, Batten has made no secret of his affection for the former Luton football hooligan (who once led a riot, was convicted for reportedly attacking an off-duty police officer and whose group cost UK taxpayers over £10m to police between 2009-13). Batten has appeared at several pro-Lennon rallies, notably the “Free Tommy” events held this summer when Lennon was imprisoned for contempt of court (a new hearing looking into these allegations has been adjourned today at the Old Bailey).
Nigel Farage, mostly noticeable by his absence (except at the gala dinner) said that admitting Lennon to the party he once led would be a “catastrophic mistake”. Farage has also said he was concerned with the current state of debate in Ukip and warned it faced “total and utter marginalisation” if it moved to the far-right. Meanwhile, Farage and his former sidekick Raheem Kassam are cosying up to far-right political manipulator, Steve Bannon, and his much-vaunted new “Movement” (to influence European elections), over which many question marks remain.
Although anti-Muslim prejudice has moved from the margins to the mainstream, under Batten, Ukip has taken this to new extremes. This is perhaps unsurprising given his long-standing Islamophobic views (he believes Muslims must sign a special charter, that Islam is a death cult, Islam should be called Mohammedanism, etc), talking at “Tommy” events about sex slaves, the Prophet Muhammad and grooming.
The headlines from the conference give a clear steer: Muslim-only prisons, abolition of the hate crimes category, and I won’t go into the Mirror’s revelations about the Nigel Farage condoms. The party is skating on very thin ice, with LGBT+ activists branded akin to “child abusers” by a party figure, and books such as The Health Hazards of Homosexuality displayed on stalls at the conference.
To wrap it up, arch conspiracy theorist and anti-Muslim YouTuber Paul Joseph Watson was broadcast to the conference via video – the same Paul Joseph Watson who works for Infowars, whose boss Alex Jones has claimed that the massacre of 20 schoolchildren in an elementary school in the USA in 2012 was a hoax – alongside his anti-feminist YouTuber pal “Sargon of Akkad” (Carl Benjamin) and a speech by their Scottish mate “Count Dankula” (Mark Meechan) whose main achievement in life appears to be teaching his dog to Sieg Heil.
If Lennon/Robinson did eventually join the party (and former party leader Lord Pearson weighed in, calling Lennon “my friend Tommy Robinson” and adding “I’m absolutely sure he would be a huge asset to Ukip”) it’ll be interesting to see if there are further splits or walkouts – Ukip today looks far different to how it appeared even two years ago. It may end up casting for votes in the same waters in which the BNP once fished… in which case, the party will struggle to break out of a small, narrow hostile identity tribe HOPE not hate polling describes as “active enmity”.
It’s interesting to note that a number of Ukip MEPs said they’d quit if Lennon’s former Pegida UK co-leader and Muhammad cartoons planner, Anne Marie Waters, ever became leader of the party. Under Batten’s increasingly “off the deep end” anti-Muslim views, there have been no such mass walkouts. He has stabilised the membership crash somewhat, now up to roughly 24,000 members (still significantly down on its 46,000 peak in 2015), and prevented its bankruptcy, but is due to leave in April next year. The party is currently at around 8 per cent in the polls, according to Britain Elects.
Known for her extreme anti-Muslim views, calling Islam a “killing machine” and “evil”, Waters stormed out of Ukip last autumn when she came second in the leadership race (captured in an undercover ITV documentary). The party she formed, For Britain, also hosted its conference this Sunday, inviting the media provocateur Katie Hopkins along. Hopkins appeared happy to be photographed next to an ex-BNP councillor, and appeared on the same conference agenda as a Swedish anti-Muslim activist, Ingrid Carlqvist, who has engaged in Holocaust denial.
Waters’ party previously polled members with some eye-wateringly extreme ideas, such as refusing all immigration from Pakistan, Somalia and Bangladesh (backed by nearly half the respondents), as well as entertaining a video appearance at the conference by American anti-Muslim extremist Robert Spencer, banned from entering the UK since 2013 (following a Hope not hate lobbying campaign).
But given the supporters its conference attracts, and the fact its message is now electorally insignificant (in part due to Batten’s Islamophobia), it’s likely that Anne Marie’s party will remain a home for the dregs of Britain’s far-right movement.
While all this was going on, Nigel Farage joined a more “mature” (at least judging by the silver on their heads) audience at a Leave Means Leave (LML) rally in Bolton, and is joining the pro-Brexit group’s roadshow. LML was co-founded by Richard Tice, also one of the co-founders of Leave.EU, which is headed by former Ukip donor Arron Banks, who has faced intense scrutiny over alleged links to Russia during the Brexit referendum campaign.
Farage and Banks have parted ways for now, as Banks abandoned Ukip over summer to try and urge Leave.EU supporters to join the Tories in order to push for a Brexit leader – such as Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg – in a Tory leadership contest. Although there’s some question mark around this effort (Banks was rejected for membership), the drive could siphon off some of Ukip’s potential support and Farage has spoken out against the move. Meanwhile, there is the Brexit spinmeister’s alliance with Steve Bannon to consider and how or whether this might impact on affairs.
Out of a job once we leave the EU, and despite his indications to the contrary, will Farage return to Ukip? Or will Ukip continue on a rightwards lurch to electoral irrelevance? It’s likely either way that if we experience the shock of a hard Brexit, these carpetbaggers will be selling the same snake oil to the very communities promised milk and honey back in summer 2016… communities which sadly have most to lose. They were sold a line then, and the far-right parties and figureheads clamouring for attention this weekend will probably try and do it again, blaming everything and everyone – but themselves.
Nick Ryan is director of communications at Hope not hate.