The English Defence League plans to field candidates for the first time in local elections after an alliance is finalised between the far-right group and the British Freedom Party, which was set up by disgruntled members of the British National Party.
Senior figures said that the EDL, which has become known for its protests in English towns with Muslim populations, needed to "detoxify" its name by moving into politics with an existing party. Their new partners hope to capitalise on the EDL's ability to mobilise a large number of supporters.
Both groups will retain a measure of independence but will support each other. EDL members will be invited to join the newly affiliated political wing and stand as candidates under its name. "There is a gentleman's agreement in place, we are looking at the EDL becoming political early next year," said Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the leader of the far-right group. Mr Yaxley-Lennon, who also goes by the name Tommy Robinson, confirmed he had met the British Freedom Party leader Paul Weston and that discussions were at an advanced stage.
Mr Weston confirmed the plans and revealed he would offer Mr Yaxley-Lennon a place on the party's executive committee. He added: "We are going to say we support the principles of the EDL. We will get a lot of people who can stand in local constituencies and they will get a genuine political party in return."
The move is likely to meet with some resistance from those EDL members who want to see the group remain a "street movement". Mr Yaxley-Lennon acknowledged the issue, saying he will consult the leaders of the group's local divisions.
Dr Matthew Goodwin, a specialist on far-right politics, thought the move would receive significant support within the EDL "simply because Mr Yaxley-Lennon is the main face of the movement". He said: "It's difficult to tell at this point as the EDL has a very fluid membership structure. It is not the case, for example, that you ever really join the EDL. There are no official entrance mechanisms."
Babs Davis, an EDL member, backed the move if the leadership thought it was in the best interests of the group. "A lot of people have said that we should go political but the movement never really wanted to do it," she said.
"If that is what Tommy Robinson thinks is the right thing to do, then I agree with him. I think he has done a brilliant job. The whole point of being in the EDL is to follow what the leadership says."
Dr Goodwin, who is a professor at the University of Nottingham, said: "Since the widespread defeat for the BNP in last year's general election, the far right-wing landscape of British politics has seen the emergence of several small political parties and movements, all attempting to fill the gaps left by Nick Griffin's party and exploit wider public concerns about immigration."
He said at least 45 per cent of voters refused to back any of the main parties on immigration, leaving "clear potential" for a far-right group.
Dr Goodwin added: "Having passed through its embryonic stage, the EDL is now very much at a crossroads: it can either remain as a confrontational streets-based social movement, or it can attempt to transform itself into a radical right-wing political party. This shift will require members and money.
"It has also developed links with far more successful radical right parties in other European states, that may pass on successful strategies and tips."
Allies on the right: The leaders
Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson
The former BNP member is the founder and leader of the EDL. He has recently forged a strong relationship with British Freedom Party leader Paul Weston.
He is known for wearing a St George's Cross mask when making public appearances and was one of two EDL members who protested on the roof of FIFA's Zurich offices about the attempt by world football's governing body to ban England players from wearing poppies during a recent match. Earlier this month he received a 12-week sentence for assault, suspended for a year, at Preston magistrates' court.
A former electoral candidate for UKIP, Mr Weston is described by Mr Yaxley-Lennon as a "charismatic public-schoolboy type".
He took over the chairmanship of the British Freedom Party two weeks ago. Like many of the party's founders, he is said to be an experienced political campaigner. He is thought to want to keep his party free from the "historical baggage associated with parties such as the BNP".
The EDL by numbers
2,000 The number of people thought to have attended an EDL march in Blackburn, at which leader Tommy Robinson head-butted a fellow member.
26,000 The number of people who "Like" the EDL on Facebook.
172 The number of EDL members arrested at the group's last march, on Whitehall in London.
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