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Where Now for the EDL?

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Tommy Robinson and the rarely seen but equally important Kevin Carroll are going to leave the English Defence League. It's not much of a surprise: but the resulting fall out might be.

The reason, according to Tommy, is that he can't contain extreme right wing elements with the movement. Of course, Tommy is hardly angelic. He often says plenty of offensive and inflammatory things, not to mention being arrested more than once. Nevertheless, readers might be surprised to know that he is the face of the moderate wing of the EDL. When the group was founded in Luton in 2009, Tommy and others were involved in fights - fists not tweets - with the National Front who had turned up. "[They] turned up to our second demonstration thinking they would be welcomed, but we kicked them out of town," Tommy told me in an interview in 2010, "because we [Luton] are a multicultural town."

From that point on, Tommy has always struggled with internal factions that think he's too moderate for saying he opposes militant Islam not all Islam (a rule he doesn't always follow himself). A couple of years ago a number of more radical splinter groups, 'the Infidels', split from the main group in protest. I suspect that at least some of the hacks on the EDL forums and Facebook pages that have punctuated the movement since 2010 were by extreme right splinter groups. My sense is that these elements have caused him more of a problem that the left wing opposition groups like Unite Against Fascism.

This is a result of how the EDL works. As I have argued elsewhere, it is perhaps most accurately described as a social media group with a militant wing. Membership is more or less open to all - just click Facebook or turn up to a demo. This means anyone can join, and anyone does. Although the official ideology of the group is to fight Islamist extremism, there isn't much of a whip system. With this sort of loose franchise model it is practically impossible to ensure everyone follows the rules, and extremely difficult to know who is 'in' the EDL and what they believe. It is perhaps closer to a brand than a political party. In my 2011 survey of Facebook supporters of the group, we found that behind the hundreds (sometimes a couple of thousand) that demonstrate on the street, there is a much larger, highly motivated online community of sympathisers and supporters who blog, recruit, proselytise and organise. They are a very varied bunch. Some are known football hooligans or Neo-Nazis. Some mask Islamophobia behind the haughty language of defending the Enlightenment. Others feel mainstream politicians don't care about the white working class. Some do have a genuine desire to march against Islamic fascism.

Tommy has managed to hold them together. Without him and 'Kev', it's uncertain what happens now. The EDL has always had a regional structure, each region with its own leader. Without any obvious heir, the group is likely to splinter into more smaller subgroups of this type, meaning fewer large national demonstrations and more, small, local ones. To complicate things further, Tommy has also said he will start a new group, which will almost certainly clash with any remaining EDL supporters. This is the nightmare scenario: lots of smaller, nastier EDL sub-groups hitting multiple locations simultaneously, and weekly street battles with counter-demonstrators. It's harder to contain and can easily spiral. I don't think we've quite seen the last of the English Defence League, or Tommy Robinson, just yet.

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