Online support for the EDL has soared since the murder of Lee Rigby. But who are its supporters, and what does the far-right group stand for? Channel 4 News investigates.
The group first appeared in 2009 as a reaction against the Muslim protest at a homecoming parade in Luton.
It quickly became known for holding street demonstrations and protests, often in majority Muslim areas: between 2009 and 2012 it held over 50 street-based demonstrations, which at their 2010 peak mobilised between 1,000 and 3,000 activists.
The EDL (English Defence League) sees itself as a defender of British values, which includes the army. Current leader, known publicly as Tommy Robinson, recently told Channel 4 News he was “extremely passionate about our troops”, and supporters clearly feel an affinity, however unfounded, with murdered Drummer Lee Rigby.
In its mission statement, the EDL says its first priority is “protecting and promoting human rights”, which it believes are threatened by Muslim extremists. Mr “Robinson” also told Channel 4 News: “We want an end to political correctness. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have such an Islamist problem”.
However a survey of 1,600 EDL supporters found that this concern extends into the wider issue of immigration. This was the top concern of respondents, followed by the economy, while “Muslims in Britain” was named as the third most quoted concern.
It’s actually a sense that British society generally, as they see it, is under threat. It’s a broader fear about society. Matthew Goodwin, extremism expert
Matthew Goodwin, who carried out the research for Chatham House based on the YouGov survey, says that a wider discontent with society is the EDL’s focus: “It’s actually a sense that British society generally, as they see it, is under threat,” he told Channel 4 News.
“It’s a broader fear about society, rather than a fear of Muslim terrorists. It is much more nuanced.”
Mr “Robinson” told Channel 4 News that it is not a fascist organisation. “We oppose a fascist ideology. I hate Nazis as much as I hate Islamists, but Nazism isn’t a problem in this country.”
He also insisted that the EDL is not racist: “The truth cannot be racist”. He added: “You can be any colour, but you can be a terrorist Muslim.”
But Matthew Collins of Hope Not Hate says that as its numbers have dwindled over the last few years, the EDL has become more fascist: “It became a ‘something for everyone’ organisation, a means of protest, and it became increasingly fascist and extremist,” he told Channel 4 News. “People went from being concerned about extremism, to them radicalising themselves.”
And the EDL supporters are more likely to see violence as justified (see below). At a recent protest at Westminster on Bank Holiday Monday, an estimated 1,000 EDL supporters chanted “Muslim killers off our streets” and “There’s only one Lee Rigby”.
Police made 13 arrests and four men were charged with a range of offences.
On Wednesday morning last week, before the murder of Lee Rigby, the EDL had 20,000 followers on Facebook: that figure is now 130,000 and rising. But Mr Collins, author of the book, Hate, My life in the British far-right, said that this is not an accurate representation of support.
The campaign group says there were only a maximum of 300 actively engaged members before the Woolwich murder. At its peak mid-2010, there were around 3,000 members, but around 80 per cent of active members had drifted away.
Mr Collins says the organisation was on its last legs, beset with infighting and leadership changes.
Online, however, it is a different story. The EDL can still tap into networks and contact people who have left the organisation, as the post-Woolwich effect has shown. Immediately after the Woolwich attack, the group and its leaders were vocal in their condemnation of the attack – and what they saw as the causes of the attack.
EDL supporters are more likely to be white working class, according to Hope Not Hate, while the Scottish Defence League (SDL) are more likely to be Protestant.
It became a ‘something for everyone’ organisation, a means of protest, and it became increasingly fascist and extremist Matthew Collins, Hope Not Hate
Compared to other far-right groups like the BNP or the National Front, the EDL attracts many more women supporters. Indeed, the organisation quotes Islamic attitudes to women as one of its grievances with Islam. However this appears to be where its feminist principles end.
Although supporters see themselves as defenders of British values, this is always manifested in opposition – either to Muslims or to anti-fascists. While they have not been seen on recent anti-cuts marches, EDL supporters in Leeds recently protested against the closure of a pub that may be converted into a Muslim centre.
What characterises supporters is a strong disillusionment with politics: EDL supporters were almost twice as likely as the average respondent to feel very dissatisfied with the way democracy is working, according the Mr Goodwin’s research for Chatham House.
The same research found that supporters of counter-jihad groups like the EDL are not overtly racist: 58 per cent agreed that non-white citizens who were born in the country are just as “British” as white citizens. But they tend towards xenophobia.
EDL supporters are more likely to believe that violence is justifiable – and inevitable: 72 per cent say that violence between different groups is “largely inevitable”, compared with an average of 46 per cent.
According to the Chatham House report, this may be because of a pessimistic, apocalyptic vision presented by the EDL.
“The vision that they offer to supporters is one in which different ethnic, racial and religious groups are embroiled in communal violence, and where violence may be called for (and justified) in order to protect the native group,” reads its report.