Far right

Are We Witnessing the Fall of Far-Right Figurehead 'Tommy Robinson'?

Since a high-point of public exposure, the UK far-right figure has lost support and alienated political allies.
August 12, 2020, 6:22pm
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Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson, reporting for The Rebel media on a Football Lads Alliance demonstration in London in 2017. Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo

In the autumn of 2009, a little-known figure named Stephen Yaxley-Lennon made his first appearance on Newsnight, using the pseudonym Tommy Robinson.

Yaxley-Lennon appeared on the BBC’s flagship news programme as the founder and leader of the English Defence League (EDL). In a clip, he wore a balaclava and burned a Nazi flag in a disused warehouse in his home town of Luton, in the hope this would reassure viewers that the EDL was not a far-right group – an impression they may have had because of the aggressive anti-Muslim protests it organised.

Yaxley-Lennon, a former British National Party (BNP) member, would go on to dominate the British far-right for the following decade. He’s been wined and dined at the House of Lords, invited to address the US Congress, frequently appeared on British TV, been invited to Russia to give a speech after being backed by the country’s foreign ministry and made a small fortune through soliciting donations and book sales. First as the leader of the EDL, then as a vlogger, he was capable of pulling thousands of his supporters onto the streets for often violent protests.

But the days of Yaxley-Lennon dominating the British far-right appear to be over, and his political career is on the wane. A recent protest backed by Yaxley-Lennon saw only a couple of hundred people show up for an event.

It has been a steep decline since his peak in the summer of 2018. After his Twitter account – which had 431,000 followers – was banned, Robinson’s team organised a protest called “Day for Freedom”. This was supported by a number of prominent hard-right figures, such as former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, then-UKIP leader Gerard Batten, and then-Breitbart News’ London Editor-in-Chief, Raheem Kassam. Donations were flooding in from supporters, bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds. When Yaxley-Lennon was jailed for disrupting a trial at Leeds Crown Court later that summer, these figures all backed him once again.

Yaxley-Lennon’s success as a YouTuber was largely down to the team of technologically savvy middle class graduates he had started working with in March of 2017 while employed by the hard-right Canadian YouTube channel Rebel Media. This team stuck with him as he left Rebel Media and became an independent YouTuber, but the summer of 2018 also saw the team break up. Camerawoman Lucy Brown was sacked after a falling out following the Day for Freedom event. Assistants Caolan Robertson and George Llewelyn-John left to work with hard-right Canadian YouTuber Lauren Southern.

Yaxley-Lennon built a new team around him, with seemingly less digitally competent individuals. The production values on Yaxley-Lennon’s videos fell and his output became less polished. Prominent figures in the new team included former Israeli soldier Avi Yemini, who was convicted of assaulting his ex-wife while working for Yaxley-Lennon, and Daniel Thomas, who was convicted of attempted kidnapping in 2016 and now appears to have drifted away from far-right politics after encountering some legal issues.

In early 2019, Yaxley-Lennon was banned from Facebook and Instagram, losing access to a million followers. Several months later, his YouTube account was restricted and his videos are now not as easy for casual users to find.

Joe Mulhall, senior researcher for anti-racist charity Hope Not Hate, told VICE News: “The deplatforming of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon has had a huge impact on his ability to spread his hateful politics. Hundreds of thousands of fewer people now see his content every month, which is a huge step forward. It also played into the severely reduced numbers we have seen at pro-Lennon events since.”

The deplatforming and changes in who surrounded him was happening at a time when Yaxley-Lennon’s behaviour was becoming more erratic, with people close to him at the time describing him to VICE News as a self-sabotaging mess.

In May of 2018 he was due to visit Iceland to give a speech, but pulled out at the last minute, leaving the Icelandic organisers $10,000 out of pocket. Rumours circulating among the far-right at the time alleged that Yaxley-Lennon texted an associate saying he “couldn’t be bothered to go”. This was not the only time Yaxley-Lennon pulled out of a public engagement at the last minute; this type of behaviour continued during his ill-fated MEP campaign in 2019. There are now a growing number of videos online made by former supporters expressing dissatisfaction at Yaxley-Lennon failing to show up for appearances they had arranged.

When Yaxley-Lennon emerged from prison on bail in August of 2018, he was an international celebrity. Protests calling for his release had mobilised thousands, and he was invited to address the US Congress. By the summer of 2019, Yaxley-Lennon’s behaviour had alienated a number of former supporters, including several of the big names who had been supporting him after his ban from Twitter and his first jail sentence for disrupting the trial at Leeds Crown Court.

When he returned to the Old Bailey in 2019 to begin a retrial for that offence, the protests outside the court were significantly smaller than the protests demanding his freedom the previous year. During a protest at this retrial, Yaxley-Lennon revealed his latest film, Shalom, about a Jewish man in east London, rather than a film his supporters had been expecting, about “Muslim grooming gangs” – the kind of subject matter they were used to, and which was the basis for his popularity.

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Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA Tommy Robinson speaking via video to a less-than-packed recent rally in central London. Stéfan Weil

This high profile backing of a Jewish person by Yaxley-Lennon was fuel for an emerging split on the far-right, between ethno-nationalists (“ethnats”), who tend to be virulently anti-Semitic and believe you only belong to nations if you’re from certain races – for example, thinking you can only be English if you are white – and civic nationalists (“civnats”), who don’t think there’s a connection between nationality and race. Yaxley-Lennon is on the civnat side of this divide, while many of his far-right critics now identify as ethnats.

As Yaxley-Lennon was serving his second sentence for the Leeds Crown Court incident, this split reached a fever pitch, with his former assistant Lucy Brown appearing on an ethnat YouTube channel and alleging that Yaxley-Lennon was using money he’d received in donations from supporters to buy cocaine.

Yaxley-Lennon’s team hit back in a video attacking one of the leading figures on the ethnat side of the split. This ethnat/civnat divide has always existed on the far-right, but it’s become more pronounced over the past year, and several far-right YouTubers who had previously been vocal supporters of Yaxley-Lennon have drifted towards the ethnat side of the split, coalescing around former BNP youth leader Mark Collet and his new far-right party, Patriotic Alternative.

The deplatforming, far-right infighting and Yaxley-Lennon’s self-destructive behaviour have all led to “our Tommy” losing support. He recently announced that he would be moving to Spain for the safety of his family, but quickly backtracked, telling “snowflakes” that they had not gotten rid of him.

The evidence shows that he is not the figure he was two years ago. That said, Robinson has returned from the brink of obscurity before. Joe Mulhall told VICE News, “None of this means his threat has gone away. While severely reduced, he has managed to amass tens of thousands of followers on smaller social media platforms such as Telegram.”

@jdpoulter