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Sun 26 May 2019
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Author’s Note: My visit to Salford was at the request of Stand Up To Racism, where I spoke at the counter-demonstration. I was not representing Byline Times at the event.

The truth of things, deep down, is that the man calling himself ‘Tommy Robinson’ isn’t the leader or figurehead he’s been sold as.

He’s not noteworthy, charismatic or focused.

On Saturday, many of his strongest supporters began to realise that – and that’s something to worry about.

Thousands of protesters are seen gathering outside the BBC headquarters during the protest.Stand up to Racism (SUTR) called the counter-protest, after Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon who announced that he will be holding a protest against the BBC at the Salford Media City. (Photo by Ioannis Alexopoulos / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

Gathering around 3,000 supporters to Salford, to view a screening of his ‘Panodrama’ documentary – a pre-emptive strike against a forthcoming BBC Panorama investigation – spirits were initially high.

Indeed, there was almost a conciliatory feeling as supporters and counter-protesters approached the MediaCityUk campus from trams in the sunshine, before being directed by police to their separate areas.

When ‘Tommy’s’ overseas backers in the United States and elsewhere realise that he is a bad investment in creating a populist, nationalist movement, who will they back next?

This was not to last, and not out of any aggravation between the two groups.

‘Tommy’ was late – very late – citing ‘technical difficulties’. Bizarrely, in the meantime,’Tommy’s’ wedding video was played to a restless crowd, his wife’s face pixelated. They were also treated to multiple renditions of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, lyrics changed to reflect his legal woes. In all, it was rather baffling.

A Pop, not a Bang

When he finally got around to screening his documentary – after speeches by figures such a rather defeated-looking Gerard Batten of UKIP – the ‘exposé’ landed with a pop, rather than a bang. 

Former personal assistant to ‘Tommy’, Lucy Brown, appeared to be back in the fold, wearing a wire to secretly record conversations with the BBC’s John Sweeney. While it’s true he did make some off-colour remarks, for which he’s since apologized, it was hardly the ‘shocking corruption’ on the BBC’s behalf it was billed to be.

Another part of the documentary was a little more striking, but might have ended up as making a lot more trouble for ‘Tommy’.

‘Tommy’s’ former employee, Caolan Robertson made allegations of sexual assault against members of Hope Not Hate, an organization working on the BBC film.

Some have speculated that ‘Tommy’s’ ‘technical difficulties’ in showing his film were, in reality, his crew trying to excise the libellous footage.

Robertson, it has been claimed, retracted those claims in the days before the exposé was shown. According to Hope Not Hate, ‘Tommy’ was very much aware of the fact.

Nick Lowles, founder and head of Hope Not Hate, has since tweeted that the organization could take legal action against ‘Tommy’, as his documentary was viewed by thousands via a livestream.

Indeed, some have speculated that ‘Tommy’s’ ‘technical difficulties’ in showing his film were, in reality, his crew trying to edit footage before it was shown to the crowd.

The entire experience, as viewed from the ground, was amateurish, disjointed and disorganized. Even some of ‘Tommy’s’ most stalwart fans were seen to be criticizing the documentary and expressing frustration at ‘Tommy’s’ lack of focus and organisation.

Taken for a Ride

Anger and frustration were a central thread running through the day – many of those who attended had come a long way to get there, feeling that ‘Tommy’ would give voice to their fears and anger.

Yet, there was a growing sense that some felt they were being taken for a ride.

I personally heard grumbling about yet another request for donations from ‘Tommy’, on top of several emails soliciting funds before the event.

‘Tommy’ can work a crowd – this is true. However, this can only go so far. His laddish air certainly works for a brief rally speech, or regular livestreams.

However, when spread out across what was, functionally, a political rally, what seems charming at first, soon becomes irksome. His lack of preparation, of focus, became obvious.

I personally heard grumbling about yet another request for donations from ‘Tommy’, on top of several emails soliciting funds before the event.

Many of ‘Tommy’s’ crowd have legitimate fears, concerns and grievances, and when they start to realise that ‘Tommy’ isn’t the hero they thought he was, their frustrations will only be made more severe, the coals of their anger fanned. 

When ‘Tommy’s’ overseas backers in the United States and elsewhere realise that he could be a bad investment in creating a populist, nationalist movement, who will they back next?

My impression on the day, was that the ground is shifting in terms of Far Right populism in the UK, and what many thought to be the major threat in a street movement lead by ‘Tommy’ may simply dissipate. .

Who, or what replaces ‘Tommy’ as the new face of the movement is something that we should all be considering.

The coming months will be crucial in coming to understand what anti-fascist campaigners – and Britons as a whole – will face.

Among the crowd on both sides on Saturday, there was a distinct sense of uncertainty and unease.

What’s next?

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