Skip to main content

UK elections 2024: The dangerous return of Tommy Robinson and the far right

The Israel-embracing far right is rebuilding a movement from opposition to the Gaza protests, and the rightward-lurching political establishment is helping them
Far-right leader Tommy Robinson attends a protest in London, Britain on 1 June, 2024 (Chris J Ratcliffe/Reuters)

Far-right ideologue Tommy Robinson has been a shrunken figure in recent years.

There was a time a few years back when the English Defence League could mobilise thousands of supporters who looked to Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley Lennon, as their figurehead.

But the EDL’s 2009-2013 peak is a distant memory now.

Then came Robinson’s nine-month spell in jail in 2019 followed by attempts to reinvent himself as a journalist

Britain’s fascist forces and their counterparts internationally have long since dumped the knee-jerk and visceral hatred of Jews that they inherited from their 1930s forerunners.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


The "war on terror" was the inflexion point. It was far more effective for them to mimic and extend the Islamophobia that became the dominant ideological trope than to carry on bolstering flagging antisemitism.

The centre will not defend its core constituencies because it has become wedded to neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy

As the British National Party leader Nick Griffin put it, after the Iraq war, "adopting an 'Islamophobic' position that appeals to large numbers of ordinary people - including un-nudged journalists - is going to produce on average much better media coverage than siding with Iran and banging on about "Jewish power", which is guaranteed to raise hackles of virtually every single journalist in the western world".

So it was always likely that the far right would be cheerleaders for Israel and exponents of Zionism.

As far back as 2009, the Board of Deputies of British Jews said: "The BNP website is now one of the most Zionist on the web - it goes further than any of the mainstream parties in its support of Israel and at the same time demonises Islam and the Muslim world.

"They are actively campaigning in Jewish communities, particularly in London, making a lot of their one Jewish councillor, their support of Israel and attacking Muslims."

A turning point

The Israeli attack on Gaza has again transformed the political landscape.

Then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman gave the far right their first opportunity for a street mobilisation, with her attempt to have the Gaza march banned on Armistice Day, 11 November, last year.

In particular, her now infamous column in the Times directly appealed to far-right football fans, telling them that they were the victims of police favouritism toward left-wing groups.

This was the first time since Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech that a serving cabinet minister had directly appealed to the far right.

UK elections 2024: Tory Britain is about to fall. But what follows could be far worse
Read More »

In response, some hundreds of far-right protesters fought running battles with police around the Cenotaph on Armistice Day. They then moved on to try and attack that day’s Gaza protest as it passed through Victoria on its route from Park Lane to the US embassy. They were swept aside by the 800,000 pro-Palestine supporters on the march and by a police force clearly enraged by the morning’s fighting in Whitehall.

The day was a disaster for the far right.

Braverman was forced to resign that week and Robinson was arrested when he subsequently attempted to join a "respectable" Zionist march in support of Israel. Consequently, he was banned from central London for months.

In his absence, ultra-Zionist activists, having failed to mobilise numbers for their own marches that could in any way rival the size of the Palestine protests, decided to start counter-protesting against those mass mobilisations.

Such counter-mobilisations obviously require a high level of commitment as participants must physically confront much, much larger numbers of Palestine supporters.

The Zionist counter-protests have always been small, but they have grown from some tens of counterprotesters to perhaps a couple of hundred. But numbers aren’t the object. The street hardening of a cadre of extreme activists is what is happening, as the mixture of union jacks, Iranian monarchist and Israeli flags held by the Zionists shows.

A dangerous moment

This has set the scene for Robinson’s reappearance at the head of a demonstration variously estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 on Saturday 1 June. This was a protest whose mobilisation was behind the slogan of opposition to two-tier policing, thus continuing with the script written by Braverman and directly in opposition to the Palestine marches.

While still small compared to the hundreds of thousands that have repeatedly come out over the last eight months in support of Palestine, this is the largest Robinson protest since his EDL heyday.

This in itself is concerning, but it is the dynamic interaction with elite politics that makes it even more dangerous.

Braverman, obviously, has no problem with encouraging Robinson. And neither does Nigel Farage, who explicitly attacked the Gaza protests as he entered the general election campaign.

Farage will do what he has always done: drag the political spectrum to the right and bolster the confidence of every racist and reactionary in the country. Robinson’s supporters will certainly be beneficiaries of this development. 

How much Robinson will benefit will become clearer on 27 July, when he has called another demonstration to follow up on his recent relatively successful outing.

This is a dangerous moment. The entire far right is already looking past the election result on 4 July. They, like everyone else, expect a Starmer victory. They know Sunak, already wounded and limping towards oblivion, will be gone.

Familiar cycle

The Tory party may split with its far-right uniting with Farage, a development even more encouraging to Robinson. But even if the Tory party holds together, it will likely become even more fully the property of the Braverman-Badenoch-Jenrick far right, will be closer to Reform UK, and even more encouraging of Robinson’s street thugs.

In turn, the prospects of the far right will be all the brighter as a Starmer government does nothing to address the fundamental problems of broken Britain, adding to the ever-deepening public scepticism about establishment politicians.

This is a familiar cycle in both Europe and America: the centre will not defend its core constituencies because it has become ideologically wedded to neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy.

UK election 2024: Sunak’s far-right movement is a threat to political stability
Read More »

Its supporters become disillusioned and dispirited. The far-right gains, but also disappoints. The centre is revived, but more weakly, and then repeats the disappointment that produced the problem in the first place.

It is this cycle that has given us Giorgia Meloni’s prime ministership in Italy, the rise of the AfD in Germany and the National Front in France, to name only three of the most prominent examples.

And in the US, of course, it has given us the entire Obama-Trump-Biden-Trump II rinse-and-repeat process.

Britain’s affliction has been relatively mild so far. In part, this is because Corbynism provided a genuinely radical pole of attraction for millions, and in part because the far right became obsessed with the time-limited, one-policy programme of Brexit.

But those inhibitors have now faded and the ever-rightward lurch of the Tory party, the ultra-cautious, sleep-inducing small "c" conservatism of Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership, and the political polarisation over Gaza are creating conditions for the re-emergence of a far right which has both an electoral and a street-mobilisation dimension. 

Only a radical left which rejects the far right’s lodestars of austerity at home and imperialism abroad will be able to undermine their appeal to a section of a distrustful and disappointed electorate.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

John Rees is a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.