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Old 17-05-2019, 05:04 PM   #1
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Default Tommy Robinson - his modus operandi and support network

'Punches, attacks, milkshakes': inside the Tommy Robinson campaign
As the far-right activist fights to become an MEP, the Guardian learns new details of his modus operandi and support network

A drone hovers high above the crowd on a Wigan housing estate. About 300 men, women and children are gathered before a mobile billboard on a sun-drenched spring evening. A cheer erupts when the main speaker arrives.

Waving a St George’s flag, Tommy Robinson wants the crowd to send a deafening message to “treacherous politicians” and vote him into the European parliament on 23 May. “I am one of you,” he shouts across the estate. “They don’t breathe the same air as us. They do not care about us. But I can guarantee you: I am one of you.”

The far-right anti-Islam activist, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, has delivered the same speech countless times on a chaotic and ugly campaign across the north-west of England. On the Norley Hall estate, one of Wigan’s most deprived neighbourhoods, Robinson addressed one of his biggest crowds of the tour.

“Right now, can anyone say our country is going in the right direction?” he asks. “No, it’s turning into ****ing Tehran!” shouts back an activist handing out flyers and membership forms for the far-right party For Britain. Although Robinson is officially an independent candidate, and an adviser to the Ukip leader, Gerard Batten, For Britain has pledged its support to his campaign.

There has been a more surprising presence at Robinson’s rallies, however: Lisa Barbounis, a senior executive of the conservative US thinktank the Middle East Forum, has been a central figure on Robinson’s campaign team and present at many of his rallies, the Guardian has learned. Her exact role is unclear but Barbounis, who says she has worked on several Republican campaigns including John McCain’s run for president in 2008, has been on the trail with Robinson for about a fortnight. The Philadelphia-based group, which is well funded by a number of US rightwing donors, says its goal is to defend “anti-Islamist authors” and last year spent tens of thousands of pounds on Robinson’s demonstrations and legal fees when he was jailed for contempt of court.

The Middle East Forum said it continued to pay Robinson’s legal fees but had not contributed to his campaign, which would be in breach of electoral law. It said Barbounis was “on vacation in the UK” and spending her “personal time and personal expense” on the campaign.

There has been outside help, too, from Robinson’s former employer, the rightwing Canadian website Rebel Media, which said this week that it had paid for the Israeli-Australian commentator Avi Yemini to fly from Melbourne to cover his campaign. Yemini, who was recently denied entry to the US, has described Islam as a “barbaric ideology” that has taken over England and called Muslim countries “Islamic ****holes”. Yemini is little known in the UK but has been ever-present at Robinson’s rallies, often as a warm-up act on stage or in videos taking aim at critics of the would-be MEP. His recent videos promoting Robinson include “PROOF: Tommy Robinson PROTESTORS are just PAID thugs” and “CONFIRME Tommy Robinson ‘protestors’ are cowards”.

Robinson’s international supporters stand in stark contrast to the deprived estates of Manchester, Stockport, Bolton, Cumbria and Wigan where he has focused his campaign, drawing crowds of between 50 and 300. Political rivals are split on whether he has a genuine chance.

If turnout is low, he may need just 8% of the vote to be the first MEP in Britain elected as an independent – a possibility keenly apparent to the main political parties, which recall the election of the BNP’s Nick Griffin in the north-west with just 8% of the vote in 2009.

“He will do very badly – he’s not got a chance of being elected,” said one MEP privately. Another believed he could win if Brexit-weary voters decided to stay at home: “One of the biggest worries is apathy – people saying they’re not going to vote.” Those fears – that a low turnout could help anti-European insurgents – are echoed across the continent amid forecasts of historic gains by populist parties such as Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.

The election of Tommy Robinson MEP would cap a once-unthinkable rise for the convicted football thug, who started leading nationalist street protests in his hometown of Luton a decade ago. He became a global cause célèbre for the far right last year when he was imprisoned for three months over a broadcast that allegedly risked prejudicing a child sexual exploitation trial in Leeds – a conviction that was eventually overturned but will be retried at the Old Bailey in July.

While Robinson regularly complains of being smeared as a racist and a Nazi, he has been filmed saying things like: “Somalis are backward barbarians”; British Muslims are “enemy combatants who want to kill you, maim you and destroy you”; and refugees are “raping their way through the country”.

In remarks unearthed by the Guardian, Robinson told a meeting of far-right activists in Cork in 2016 that the west was “too weak to say our culture is superior to Muslim culture” and – in comments picked up off-camera – told one rightwing campaigner it was fine to use violence against counter-protesters as long as it was not on camera. “If the cameras aren’t there, ****ing punch the geezers right in the head,” he said, adding that being seen to be aggressive “just turns people off”. “You want to be seen as the victims – people viewing you like: ‘****ing hell, look how they’re getting treated. Give them a chance’ – you know what I mean?” The unguarded remarks were made during filming for an RTÉ documentary, I Am Immigrant, which has never aired in Britain.

Robinson’s chequered history with the law does not prevent him standing for the European parliament. The 37-year-old father of three has at least five convictions for violence and public order offences from 2005 to 2014, and has served prison sentences for using a false passport and a £160,000 mortgage fraud.

On his campaign trail, Robinson has been surrounded almost permanently by a security team and his own film crew. He is keenly aware he will be scrutinised whenever he is on camera – but the mask occasionally slips.

The footage of Robinson being doused with milkshake in Warrington became a viral sensation. In the aftermath, he could be seen throwing a volley of punches at the assailant, who Robinson’s team pounced on. The incident sparked chaotic scenes, currently being investigated by Cheshire police, when two anti-racism protesters were punched to the ground leaving them needing hospital treatment. Alice Edwards, one of the victims, said she was punched in the face by Danny Thomas, Robinson’s campaign organiser, and suffered a broken nose. Thomas has not denied the incident but claimed Edwards was “attacking our team”, which she disputes.

The Guardian has learned that the man who filmed the milkshake incident has been receiving police protection after a far-right activist threatened to pass his and his parents’ contact details and address to “the most far-right groups online”. Police placed an urgent response marker on the homes of David, who was afraid to give his surname, and his father following threats made online by a former BNP parliamentary candidate. The 31-year-old bar worker, from Wigan, said: “I’ve been told by police to keep my door locked and get a basket for my letterbox in case someone tried to put anything fire-related through it. It’s quite intimidating.”

Robinson was quick to use the milkshake incident to rile his supporters. In a video later that day to his 40,000 followers on the encrypted app Telegram, where he was forced to turn after being banned by the major social networks, Robinson claimed he was “politically targeted … and the police have done **** all”, urging viewers to “get angered with what they’re watching”. He added at the end of the clip: “Ah mate, I so wanna win this. No amount of punches, milkshakes, attacks or anything’s gonna stop me. I’m coming to every city …”

After posting the video, he wrote on Telegram: “Shake it up baby! Comments here.” His followers responded with more than 700 comments, including many that attacked Muslims including referring to the milkshake-thrower as a “paki”. One user wrote: “Muslims need eradicating from UK probably sounds a bit harsh but they have raped this country and its citizens for the last 30 years disgusting uk gov corrupt paedophiles.”

Another commenter called Muslims “cowards” and “inbreds”. A supporter also said they were “sick of these Islamic appeasing left extremist groups” which he said were “all funded by Soros”, referencing the Jewish financier George Soros, who is often the target of antisemitism. Another follower said the man who threw the drink represented “spot on the attitude of the typical Muslim teenager throughout the UK, absolutely zero respect”.

In response to a series of questions from the Guardian, Robinson said: “You are fake news.”

While he does not acknowledge responsibility for his supporters’ behaviour, on the campaign trail he has sometimes revelled in their shared agenda. “I am one of you,” he told supporters on the Norley Hall estate. “I’ve made mistakes like all of you. I’ll make more … [but] I can guarantee you one thing: we are building a movement.”
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