The English Defence League (EDL), founded in Luton in 2009, is widely considered to be the biggest populist street movement in a generation, with an active ‘membership’ of at least 25,000 to 35,000. Its official statements and literature suggest that its driving ideology is to confront radical Islam, yet this does not appear to be the primary concern of its supporters, according to a report published by the think-tank Demos on 30 October 2011. Written by Jamie Bartlett and Mark Littler, Inside the EDL: Populist Politics in a Digital Age is available to download at:
With the support of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Demos carried out an online survey of 1,295 EDL sympathizers and supporters aged 16 and over recruited from the EDL’s Facebook community between 5 and 11 May and 5 and 19 September 2011. Given that the EDL has no formal joining procedures or membership list, this was the only practicable option, but polling via social media sites can be problematic, not least because of the risk of ‘trolls’. These challenges are fully recognized by the authors, who contribute an important chapter (pp. 35-41) on methodology, which is well worth reading in its own right, for generic lessons which can be learned.
Asked to identify the two main issues facing the country, immigration headed the list with 42%, followed by radical Islam (31%), lack of jobs (26%), terrorism (19%), and the financial crisis (14%). On the other hand, 41% of supporters claimed to have joined the EDL because of their opposition to Islam (45% of men and 28% of women), and 31% gave reasons relating to the preservation of national values (which, for some, may also have carried an implication that such values were under threat from Islam).
Beyond this anti-Islamism element, religion was not a strong focus for EDL supporters. Although 45% professed to be Christians, only 7% cited religion as an important personal value for them, way behind the most highly-rated values of security (36%), strong government (34%), rule of law (30%), individual freedom (26%), and respect for human life (25%). Moreover, 77% said that they tended not to trust religious institutions, a far cry from the 83% who trusted the army.