On Thursday, Gerard Batten, the leader of UKIP, hired Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as an adviser, a move which marked a canny awareness of the power of digital influencers to reach new audiences, and suggested an overt shift towards the far-right under the stewardship of Gerard Batten, as well as the embracement of a new digital strategy.
In June of this year UKIP had already welcomed well known alt-light activists Paul Joseph Watson and Carl Benjamin (better known as Sargon of Akkad) to its ranks, as well as the freedom of speech activist/ comedian Mark Meechan, otherwise known as Count Dankula, who was convicted earlier this year under the Communications Act 2003 for anti-Semitic comments made on his YouTube channel. The shift can also be observed through the emergence of cluster of hyper-partisan pro-UKIP news sources, including Unity News Network, which was founded by young Scottish UKIP member Carl D. Pearson in April 2018, as well as the slightly older Kipper Central and Politicalite pages.
When Watson, Benjamin and Meechan entered the party Batten had suggested that anti-Muslim activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon also be allowed entry, but this was barred based on the party’s constitution, which prohibits former members of the English Defence League (EDL) or the British National Party to join UKIP. Late on Thursday however, it was announced that the founder of the EDL will serve as Batten’s personal adviser on matters including ‘rape gangs’ and prisons. Yaxley-Lennon, who left the EDL in 2013, is currently awaiting the retrial of his contempt of court charges after he had filmed in front of a court in Leeds in which a trial against members of a so-called “grooming gang” was being held. After his preferred candidate for UKIP leadership, Anne Marie Waters had lost to Henry Bolton in UKIP’s 2017 leadership contest, Yaxley-Lennon may get the chance to influence the trajectory of a major political party after all.
Significantly this explicitly represents that the party is shifting its platform away from the exclusive focus on Brexit and into overt anti-Muslim populism, aligning itself more directly with the stance of parties such as Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom. Whilst UKIP were only able to command 600,000 votes in the last general election, the cunning digital activism which has been honed by Yaxley-Lennon has the potential to reach untapped voters, and advertise the party to a global base of far-right activists who regularly amplify his campaigns. Far-right political parties have been on the decline in the UK in recent years, however there is the real risk that with Yaxley-Lennon’s celebrity a resurgent UKIP could pose a threat in future elections.
Perhaps more interestingly is the split which this has caused in the party. On Friday, Nigel Farage, the former leader of UKIP, who had called the idea of letting Yaxley-Lennon joining UKIP a “catastrophic mistake” weeks ago, expressed his outrage at the selection and called for the party leadership to initiate a vote of no confidence in Batten. During a LBC-interview, the key advocate for the Leave campaign during the run-up to the referendum in 2016 tried to distance himself and UKIP from Yaxley-Lennon. While fighting for Brexit and trying to have “difficult conversations”, Farage claimed he had always attempted to steer clear from racist politics. Against this backlash Unity News Network, Kipper Central, and Politicalite have all adopted a pro- stance, with Voice of Europe labelling Farage a “sellout” for condemning Batten’s new alliance with the infamous anti-Muslim agitator. This highlights how the digital infrastructure of this party is better aligned with the emergent anti-Muslim platform the party is adopting.
In the meantime, Yaxley-Lennon announced that he would participate in what he called the “Great Brexit Betrayal Protest” march organised by Batten on the 9th December, one day before the members of the House of Commons will vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. “The referendum was just the first battle in a war and that war was to get Britain out of the European Union. That battle was won, but we haven’t won the war yet, and we got to keep on fighting until we get it”, Batten said. Apart from Batten and Yaxley-Lennon, Lord Pearson, who had previously invited the former EDL-leader whom he described as a “remarkable man” to speak at the House of Lords, is also planning to speak at the rally. Yaxley-Lennon however, was careful to deflect from his own persona: “This is not the Tommy Robinson (note: Yaxley-Lennon’s adopted name) march.” Both men seem to be united in the belief that none of their other political goals can be achieved without making sure Britain leaves the European Union through a “hard Brexit”.
The decision to on-board Yaxley-Lennon must also be seen as a strategic attempt to mobilise his immense follower base online in order to present a counter-weight to the massive protests and increased calls for a “People’s Vote” on the final Brexit-deal. The coming months will tell whether this move will actually strengthen UKIP in its ambitions to push for a “hard Brexit” and a tougher stance on immigration or whether Yaxley-Lennon reputation will, despite his immense popularity on social media, hamper UKIP’s growth among members of the public for whom anti-Muslim politics are still off-limits.
Mr Jacob Davey is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and a Research Manager at Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). His profile can be found here.
Mr Jakob Guhl is an OCCI Project Associate at Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).
© Jacob Davey and Jakob Guhl. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).