The curious case of Britain First: wildly popular on Facebook, but a flop in elections

The far right party Britain First has enjoyed enormous success on Facebook. Yet it remains on the extreme fringe of mainstream politics, gaining only 1.2% of the vote in the London mayoral elections and not even contesting the 2017 General Election. What has driven its popularity on social media and what does the party intend to do next? Nigel Copsey says recent threats from its leader, Paul Golding, suggests that while it struggles to attract more than a thousand or so members, Britain First may be about to take a more violent turn.

“All Britain First groups, members, officials and supporters are prohibited from displaying, transmitting or indulging in extremist behaviour, language or clothing. This covers the following creeds/ideologies: National Socialism, Fascism, Communism, Islam, Zionism, Liberalism, Socialism and anything relating to the skinhead movement”. (Britain First Constitution, Version 1.1).

“I can promise you, from the very depths of my being, you will all meet your miserable ends at the hands of the Britain First movement. Every last one of you”. (Paul Golding, leader of Britain First, public statement January 2017).

Britain First is, as we shall see, a curious thing. As a registered political party (first registered with the Electoral Commission on 10 January 2014), it has been singularly unsuccessful. When in November 2014 it contested the Rochester and Strood parliamentary by-election, it came in ninth with a paltry 56 votes, even finishing behind the Monster Raving Loony Party. In the 2016 London mayoral elections its leader Paul Golding (ex-BNP) could only muster 1.2 per cent of the vote. The most memorable moment in this campaign was when, at the declaration, Golding shamelessly turned his back on Labour’s winning candidate, Muslim Sadiq Khan. Britain First made no impression whatsoever on the 2017 general election campaign (in fact it did not contest it).

And yet the most recent estimate is that Britain First has around 1.9 million ‘likes’ on Facebook (compared to the Labour Party’s 1 million). This from a political party that rarely contests elections – and when it has done so, its performance has been abysmal. How can this possibly be?

In 2011, as support for the BNP nosedived, I recall seeing an email by a new group calling itself “Britain First” (at the time I thought ‘oh, just another BNP splinter’). But this particular splinter had a significant benefactor: James (Jim) Dowson, an Ulster loyalist Calvinist businessman, who had hitherto (successfully) raised funds for the BNP through his company, Midas Consultancy. Fronted by Paul Golding, the BNP’s former Director of Publicity, who had been elected to Sevenoaks District Council in 2009, Britain First filled a void created by the BNP’s collapse and the near total disintegration of the EDL. Part electoral party but also part street movement, Britain First would acquire some public notoriety during 2014 as a result of a series of stunts and direct actions, such as Christian Patrols in East London (driving around in Land Rovers) as well invading mosques, confronting imams, and handing out bibles.

Greater notoriety followed in June 2016 when Britain First frantically distanced itself from the murderer of Labour MP Jo Cox, who had repeatedly shouted “Britain First” as he shot and stabbed his victim. Yet for all this offline provocation, it is Britain First’s online presence which has attracted most attention (its latest offline demonstration in Birmingham in July 2017 attracted a pitiful 250 supporters).

The EDL blazed a trail with its use of Facebook. Britain First followed its example, but unlike the EDL, it kept a much tighter hold over its social media output. Already by mid-2014, the anti-fascist campaign group, Hope not Hate, was claiming that as many as two million people were interacting with Britain First content on social media every day. Dowson’s idea, based on pro-life publicity campaigns in the US, was to use social media to push right-wing narratives (on Islam, immigration, multiculturalism, political correctness, crime, morality etc.) into mainstream society, splicing relatively uncontroversial online content (such as support for the Queen, the British military) with more controversial anti-Muslim content, often clips of its own confrontational activities (such as doorstepping Anjem Choudary and other radical Islamists). It is quite obvious that this online strategy has made its presence felt. But do not read too much into it. The level of its online ‘support’ has clearly not translated into soaring votes at the ballot-box, nor has it translated into boots on streets.

So let us look a little closer at the nature of this online ‘support’. What do we know about it?  BuzzFeed News recently analysed posts on the official Britain First Facebook page over a six week period. Its data revealed that around 350,000 people had liked at least one Britain First post. Yet this figure included many who had done so without being aware of its origin (the casual; the incidental). Behind this figure, however, were two other groups. The first was a more active group of around 19,000 who liked at least 10 Britain First posts and they comprised around 50% of the posts’ 1.1 million ‘likes’. The second was an even more active core of dedicated users, characterised as an “ultra-active” group of some 559 people who “each liked at least 100 separate Britain First posts in six weeks, collectively amounting to more than 100,000 likes”.

What is also revealing is that many of its online ‘likes’ derive from accounts registered outside Britain. “Two-thirds of the [core] group were men, and perhaps surprisingly 1 in 3 of the group lived overseas – with the US, Australia, and Spain being most common, but also several people living in eastern Europe and the Middle East.”  Further analysis has revealed that as many as 23,000 of the group’s Facebook page’s ‘likes’ actually come from Polish accounts (perhaps unsurprisingly Britain First is busy trying to recruit amongst Poles in Britain, with both Golding and his deputy, Jayda Fransen, having recently returned from visiting right-wing extremists in Poland). We should also be mindful that Britain First has reportedly paid Facebook thousands of pounds to push anti-Islam videos on its social network and whilst some of its online traffic can be accounted for in terms of public interest following particular terrorist-related incidents, one suspects that a number of its ‘likes’ may well have have been simply bought.

So what of its prospects? In a typically hyperbolic statement, Golding’s website claims that

“Paul has led the movement through troubled times to the consummate position it enjoys now with over 1.7 million supporters worldwide. Under his leadership, Britain First has emerged as the strongest patriotic and counter-jihad movement in Britain.”

However, the return of the former EDL leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (‘Tommy Robinson’) to the fold (in the shape of “UK Against Hate”) could well subdue Golding’s street protest aspirations (‘Tommy’ has more cachet and is far more popular amongst the footsoldiers). There were rumours of some kind of merger between Britain First and Yaxley-Lennon in 2015 but they remain competitive rivals. As an electoral or EDL-style public order threat, the reality is that behind all this talk of unassailable strength, Britain First’s membership stretches to no more than 1,000 or so; it has no elected representatives at any level in Britain, and it struggles to mobilise more than a few hundred followers.

So should Britain First be cause for concern? Despite what its constitution states, it is quite clear that Golding is violently opposed to the ‘traitor class’ (the corrupt ‘ruling elite’). His angry words quoted at the start, proclaimed in a video statement following his release from prison earlier this year, gives licence to the more violent imaginings of the far right. This combined with recent revelations of Britain First holding a ‘security training day’ to teach its members how to fight with knives is bound to ring some alarm bells in the Home Office. In the curious absence of genuine mass support, does the real danger lie more offline, in Golding’s gnashing of teeth, and would-be violent extremism?

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

nigel copseyNigel Copsey is Professor of Modern History at Teesside University.

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