Let me make one thing clear at the outset: “Tommy Robinson” is not going to become an MEP for the northwest of England. With three parties to split the Brexiteer vote, the chances of him gaining the necessary votes are, to put it bluntly, sod all.
Perhaps that’s not the point, however. Not really.
In descending upon a Wythenshawe housing estate to launch his campaign, Tommy positioned himself as a hero of the working class, railing against both the “elites” and the perceived threat of “Islamification”, to a crowd chanting his name.
There was a big screen to broadcast campaign material, and free burgers for all until Greater Manchester Police informed him it constituted “treating” under electoral law and was, therefore, illegal.
Fellow traveller Anne-Marie Waters of “For Britain”, who once called for a reduction in Muslim birthrates, was there to lend her support, as well as Tommy’s usual coterie of hangers-on, live-streaming.
All in all, a family fun day of the damned, you might say.
Turning up to a “forgotten” neighbourhood, bringing food and promising to tackle supposed threats, is a classic tactic of wannabe authoritarians, from Weimar Berlin to the former Yugoslavia on the eve of civil war.
So the crowd get burgers, and a modicum of attention and a kind of “lovebombing” takes place – creating a strong emotional bond between followers and a leading figure.
On the surface, this is about seeking electoral success, but there’s also the goal of building a street movement among those who feel ignored and disenfranchised.
The campaign video was hell-bent on stirring divisions. It even spoke of politicians who don’t “breathe the same air” as his supporters.
Tommy – real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – may not be poised to represent Britons in Brussels but it makes little difference. In his “run for office”, he has a pretext for growing his movement, gaining supporters that he can employ both as a source of revenue and muscle.
In a fractious, divided Britain, it’s not the Ukip YouTube sideshow nor the panto candidates of the Brexit Party that should be concerning us, during what is most probably our last EU election, but the forces outside the parties – outside traditional politics altogether – that are growing.
Similarly, at a time of historically weak trust in parliamentary democracy (surveys show more than half of Britons want a “strongman”, willing to break the rules as leader), it is imperative that the forces Tommy represents are not only carefully watched but challenged at every step.
In my work, I’ve listened to the testimony of survivors of authoritarian regimes from around the world, and there is one common thread – things were “normal” until they weren’t.
While the political class and media focused on their own squabbles, the thugs slowly replaced those in key positions, grew in numbers at rallies and other events. Those who started as the disillusioned men on street corners eventually became those marching past them.
This pattern repeats, again and again. By the time the threat is clear, it’s too late.
I have my own perspective on it.
As you may know, Tommy recently used a few tweets of mine as the pretext to intimidate me at my own home in the dead of night, twice in the space of a few hours. His visit was simultaneously live-streamed to an audience of thousands, who deluged me with abusive messages.
In the wake of his visit, I’ve even had others come to my home, inspired by their hero, along with a number of significant threats delivered by post.
It’s an experience that has significantly cost me, professionally, financially and health-wise. I’ve also had to take additional security measures.
In all, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Someone who responds to criticism by enabling such abuse and harassment should not find themselves gathering any more power or any trappings of respectability.
We ignore Tommy and this tilt at electoral politics at our peril: yes, he’s not going to win, but the opportunity is still being seized.
Tommy is taking any chance to build his following and influence – and as we’ve seen, he’s not above using them to “punish” those who oppose him.
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