Tommy Robinson, the British anti-Islam activist who has gained a following in the U.S., landed a new gig Thursday — advising a political party on “rape gangs.”
The United Kingdom Independence Party, which spearheaded the push for Brexit, asked the high-profile extremist to also counsel on prison reform.
The move has entrenched the party’s lurch to the far-right, sparking disquiet among its ranks — including from the party’s high-profile former leader, who warned that aligning with such a divisive figure could consign the party to political oblivion.
Nigel Farage, who led the party, known as UKIP, for most of a decade until 2016, said the appointment dragged it “in a shameful direction” and would undermine its standing as a “non-racist, non-sectarian party.”
Current UKIP leader Gerard Batten said Thursday he had appointed Robinson as his “personal special adviser on two subjects on which he has great knowledge.”
“I am looking forward to working with him,” he said.
What is UKIP?
UKIP is a fringe euroskeptic, right-wing populist party that was one of the major forces pushing for a referendum on Britain leaving the European Union.
Over the past decade, under the leadership of Farage, the party achieved impressive results over a series of elections, as it sought to capitalize on anxieties over immigration.
It caused shockwaves when it picked up the largest share of the popular vote, 27 percent, at Britain’s 2014 elections for the European Parliament — traditionally a contest in which minor parties perform more strongly as a result of “protest votes” against the political status quo.
The party’s rise was a major factor in the government agreeing to a referendum on leaving the European Union. But since the “Leave” camp unexpectedly won the 2016 vote, essentially accomplishing the reason for UKIP’s existence, the party has struggled for relevance and has been riven with infighting.
Current leader Batten, a Member of the European Parliament for London, is the fourth person to lead the party since Farage stepped down after the 2016 referendum, and current polling has the party at about 7 percent.
Who is Tommy Robinson?
Tommy Robinson — real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is Britain’s most high-profile far-right agitator. The 35-year-old was a co-founder of the anti-Islam street movement the English Defense League in 2009, and in recent years has rebranded himself as a citizen journalist and activist publicizing the numerous “grooming gang” trials in the United Kingdom, where groups of predominantly Muslim men have been jailed for the systematic sexual abuse of vulnerable women and girls.
Robinson was jailed in May for 13 months for contempt of court after potentially jeopardizing a grooming case in Leeds by broadcasting to Facebook Live from outside the courthouse. His conviction was later quashed over procedural issues and the case has been referred to the attorney general.
During his incarceration, a #FreeTommy street and online protest emerged in support of Robinson, gaining him a new following in the United States that saw his cause taken up by right-wing provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Ann Coulter and Mike Cernovich and receive tweets of support from Donald Trump Jr. and Roseanne Barr.
His propaganda has been linked to at least one act of far-right terror in the UK. British authorities say Darren Osborne, who killed a man and injured nine when he drove a vehicle into a crowd of worshipers outside a London mosque last year, had voraciously read Robinson’s anti-Islam material in the weeks leading up to the attack.
Why is UKIP aligning itself with Robinson?
Since becoming leader in February, Batten has taken the party in an increasingly far-right direction, speaking of his desire to reinvent UKIP as a “radical populist party that stands up to the “politically-correct thought police.”
He shares Robinson’s hardline views on Islam — which he calls a “death cult” — proposing British Muslims should be made to renounce elements of the Koran, and floating a Trump-like ban on immigration from Muslim countries.
He’s previously compared Robinson to Mandela and Gandhi for his anti-Muslim campaigning, and when Robinson was released after his latest court appearance last month, Batten spoke alongside him on stage and then took him for a lavish lunch at the House of Lords.
Batten’s appointment of Robinson follows his welcoming of other young social media activists with large followings into the fold, in a bid to rejuvenate the greying party’s appeal. In June, Infowars senior editor Paul Joseph Watson, and two YouTubers known as Sargon of Akkad and Count Dankula were accepted into the party, with the latter two speaking at a UKIP conference in September.
What does it mean for the party?
Robinson’s appointment will only inflame party divisions, which has already seen recent defections as a result of Batten’s tack to the far-right. In recent months, two UKIP MEPs have quit, lamenting that Batten was taking it “further and further to the right” and had earned the party a reputation as a “vehicle of hate towards Muslims.”
Farage has said he will call for a vote of no-confidence in Batten’s leadership over the appointment, which he said would destroy the party’s appeal to more mainstream eurosceptic voters by affiliating it with far-right street movements. “If [UKIP] continues in this direction, electorally it is finished,” he said.
The party itself has not agreed on whether Robinson — who, as a former member of the English Defence League, is automatically banned from membership — can join the party, although Batten says he can serve as his adviser either way. On Sunday, its national executive committee deferred a vote on the issue until after Britain leaves the European Union, saying that should be the main focus.
But some critics say the affiliation with Robinson is merely a reflection of UKIP’s true colors.
“UKIP dragged this country’s politics into the gutter of xenophobia, division and hate. For too long it got away with claiming to be a reasonable single-issue party,” said Labour MP David Lammy. “Now it has been exposed for what it is: a far right rabble of dangerous nationalists.”
Cover image: Far right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who goes by the name Tommy Robinson, stands next to a man in a Donald Trump mask after leaving the Old Bailey where his contempt of court charge was referred to the Attorney General, in London, Britain, October 23, 2018. (REUTERS/Henry Nicholls)