Tommy Robinson Is Trying to Go Legit
At "the Great Betrayal March" on Sunday, former EDL leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson, got his phone out onstage and started filling out the online form to join UKIP.
And so, for a couple of minutes, the audience stood transfixed as Robinson padded away at his screen. A guy with a "#FreeTommy" cap got his phone out too and started waving it in the air, shouting, "Sign up! Sign up!" before chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets!"
"Please join and it will strike fear into the establishment!" Robinson said, before continuing to fill out the form.
A few thousand had turned out for the march against "Brexit Betrayal", organised by Robinson and UKIP leader Gerard Batten. Dwarfed by a larger gathering of anti-fascists, it saw the new alliance between Robinson and UKIP attempt to assert itself onto a national crisis.
It says something about the hold Robinson has over his audience that he can do a spot of life-admin and make it political theatre, but the moment pretty well distilled what was going on here: an attempt by Robinson to marry his street-based politics with a formal political party. Or, as Robinson put it, "We can't be on the outside, we have to be involved."
That attempt hasn't been without its problems. At the end of his speech, Robinson joked that his card had been "declined" – a reference to the fact that UKIP's NEC refused to endorse Batten’s invitation for Robinson to join the party as an advisor on "grooming gangs and prison reform".
He might not be a member of UKIP, but on the march at least, it already felt like the Tommy Robinson party. There were a lot of resounding "Oooh, Tommy Tommy!" chants, with the occasional limp ode to the "one Gerard Batten", the actual UKIP leader.
Demonstrators held UKIP placards, but a brief canvas suggested that many of those holding them were not party members. Many seemed to be 'kipper dilettantes. One man told me he had voted BNP in the past and would now vote UKIP.
There was also the wider spread of groups that turn up to Tommy Robinson events, with Generation Identity flags, For Britain banners and Football Lads Alliance badges on display. UKIP, it seemed, had become a sort of umbrella for the far-right.
This is what has scared off a number of the party's elected representatives, who have been deserting in droves since Batten went from flirting with Robinson to the political dogging he's currently engaged in. Given that Nigel Farage is no stranger to obsessing over Islam, this is presumably more to do with a perception of Robinson as a toxic brand than any real conviction. One woman told me Farage is a "hypocrite". When I asked her why, she looked at me disbelievingly and asked if I was winding her up.
In his speech, Robinson hinted that he would be up for running as an MP. He visited parliament on the invitation of Lord Pearson, the UKIP peer, and said, "I saw MPs under parliamentary privilege saying disgraceful lies about me. I sat for the first time and thought, 'One day I’ll be sitting in there amongst you.'" Joining the political class would surely be the the logical endpoint of Robinson's opportunistic anti-establishment ego trip.
Given this new association, it's worth looking at UKIP's wider electoral prospects in relation to the UKIP of the past: UKIP as a "respectable" hard-right Brexit party, versus the far-right political party they are increasingly resembling.
The BNP reached its electoral peak in the 2009 European elections with a million votes. At their electoral peak in 2014, UKIP got over 4 million. Fewer people are willing to vote for a party that is clearly far-right, which is why Batten’s courting of Robinson has gone down like a pint of sick with Farage et al. And if Farage starts a new right-wing party – which isn't unlikely – the two could nick votes off each other and consign themselves to irrelevance. Which would be cool.
However, there are differences. The BNP was a far-right rejection of street politics. The current iteration of UKIP will attempt to hang on to some vestige of its respectable brand while running in elections, combined with a Pegida-style street movement. Whether it works depends on whether the two tactics will compliment each other or be mutually exclusive.
And of course, there’s the fact that we’re living through a political clusterfuck. Robinson didn’t have too much to say about Brexit, instead making vague connection with his usual Islamophobic hobby horses: "All the problems that I raise cannot be solved and cannot be sorted unless we govern our own country and we're not ruled by bureaucrats in Brussels."
Instead, an exposition of "The Great Betrayal" narrative was left to Batten. Essentially, it's that the elite have never even tried to get the kind of Brexit deal that Batten would consider real, and so the whole thing is a sham. It's kind of impossible to prove him wrong, in the sense that the kind of Brexit Batten wants – a "unilateral and unconditional withdrawal" – is not what any rational government would ever want.
Presumably UKIP and Tommy Robinson are fairly low on the list of government priorities right now. But should they manage to make any impact, either electorally or otherwise, what would usually happen is that the political establishment would make some concessions to the parts of the far-right programme that it's comfortable with – a few racist dogwhistles here, some promises to strengthen the border there – and everything gets a bit worse. In the case of Brexit, what UKIP is demanding is surely not something that could be conceded. It's less clear how that could play out, but it seems likely that Batten and Robinson will be shouting about the Great Betrayal from now until eternity.