16 December 2011

Rightwing extremism “may be on the wane”

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You report on new research from the thinktank Demos, where researchers “persuaded more than 10,000 followers of 14 parties and street organisations in 11 countries to fill in detailed questionnaires”(‘We’re at a crossroads in history: either we fight or hate and division will win’, 7 November).

This tells us more than ever before about what motivates online engagement with far-right movements, including the BNP and English Defence League, in the UK. But this innovative method of research does not – indeed cannot – reveal anything about whether their support generally is growing.

You state that the “far right is on the rise across Europe”. Whatever the situation in the rest of Europe, the far right is not on the rise in the UK. Both the BNP and EDL are in a state of chaotic collapse. The BNP is crippled with debt. The party denies that it uses funds available to Nick Griffin as an MEP for national party work, but some believe it could not function otherwise. The EDL is seen as a greater contemporary threat, but its influence may have peaked too.

You note that the EDL “struggles to muster more than a few hundred supporters for demonstrations” and it has shrunk online too. Hope Not Hate’s monitoring shows that the EDL had more than 80,000 online supporters on Facebook before the massacre in Norway. After killer Anders Breivik’s online engagement with the group led to its temporary suspension, the EDL has failed to rebuild this level of interest, which currently stands at 18,700. Many had joined with one click of the mouse – over 11,000 in one day when the EDL successfully exploited Anjem Choudary’s idiotic poppy-burning stunt – but were not engaged enough to return.

Nick Griffin’s BNP troubles are well known; the factional fight engulfing the EDL is not. This pits the EDL “Infidels” faction, strongest in the north, against EDL activists from the south and the Midlands. The Infidels hark back to the street fascism of the 1980s, working closely with the remnants of the National Front. This disrupts the EDL strategy of maintaining a moderate facade, claiming to oppose Islam without supporting racism or violence. A Newcastle meeting to resolve differences last month collapsed into a street fight.

It is unlikely that both the BNP and EDL will survive for long. Disaffected members of both the EDL and BNP are planning to form a new group from the wreckage, and hope to link up with the English Democrats and fringe elements of UKIP, though it is difficult to see how any new populist party could escape these poisonous roots.

None of this is cause for complacency. The chaotic failures of far-right movements does not mean that the grievances they exploit have gone away. As you report, the Demos research finds culture, not economics, has driven far-right populism. Mainstream parties must address issues of identity and belonging, as well as opportunity and economics. But there is no reason to gloomily accept that the extremists are winning.

This article was first published in The Guardian.

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