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Policing the rise of the right


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Retired Met officer Chris Hobbs says  policing tactics are overlooked by both sides of the political divide.

Police separate demonstrators in Bootle, Merseyside, after Tommy Robinson leaves following an election campaign event.

Police separate demonstrators in Bootle, Merseyside, after Tommy Robinson leaves following an election campaign event.


Date - 21st May 2019
By - Chris Hobbs

To read the accounts of events in Oldham on Saturday from those on the Tommy Robinson side, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that the police provided an ‘escort’ to Muslim Defence League youths opposing Robinson with the sole intention of facilitating an attack on his meeting.

In fact, remembering the riots in Oldham and other towns in 2001 fuelled by racist attacks on the Asian populace, I thought I’d keep an eye on events via twitter and You Tube during Saturday afternoon. I was quite surprised to find a very recent tweet which clearly showed footage of a large number of youths and young men walking along an Oldham street with the tweeter helpfully pointing out their eventual destination; namely Robinson’s meeting in the Limeside area.

I opted for not informing Greater Manchester Police (GMP) via the Met’s notorious 101 system, before finding a GMP number only to discover it was an incident room with an answerphone. I then went on GMP’s website and found a live chat link. It was responded to within two minutes. Sadly, I could only give them the briefest information which didn’t include a precise location.

Further footage shows a police van passing the group and then stopping after presumably noticing this large number of Asian males. My guess is that this van was able to ensure the deployment of a handful of officers and indeed footage shot from the Muslim side shows a small number of officers ‘escorting’ but they clearly lacked the numbers to stop the group in its tracks.

Eventually the group can be seen reaching the area where the Robinson meeting was taking place. There was a greater police presence there which was able to halt the group at a police cordon but missiles could be seen to be thrown and there seems little doubt that some of these would have placed the safety of those attending at risk.

Footage taken from the Robinson side clearly shows his supporters as eager for a confrontation as those on the other side of the police lines. Shouts of "paedos" and "paedophiles" could clearly be heard although it’s unlikely that these could be heard by the MDL protestors.

Additional resources were scrambled with officers in ‘riot gear’ being deployed and twitter shows these officers, batons drawn chasing a large group of Asian protestors; it’s likely that this took place after those extra resources had been called in.

Despite the venom unleashed at police by Robinson supporters together with allegations of stabbings and shootings, the simple fact is that there were no pitched street battles between the two sides and, it would appear, no injuries worthy of note. One white youth was however photographed being attacked by a group of Asian males in what appears to be a racist attack.  Clearly a serious injury or fatality on either side could prove disastrous in terms of public order.

GMP will doubtless be looking at the events of Saturday and assessing the impact of cuts to intelligence units and community policing and whether existing systems were adequate in terms of this event. However, if, as has been suggested, the majority of the MDL came from Halifax, the chances of GMP obtaining relevant intelligence would have been considerably reduced.

Bootle Policing

Bootle provided a different scenario. Here, instead of Robinson supporters criticising police it was the local Labour MP, Peter Dowd, in a series of tweets who seemed to be suggesting that police should not be deployed to ‘protect’ Robinson.  

Banning an election campaign meeting, would of course, have considerable implications and in any event would still need policing as activists from both sides would still be likely to materialise and indeed policing numbers would probably need to be increased in order to enforce the ban. Such practicalities are clearly lost on Mr Dowd.

There were clearly enough police to prevent any major disorder while there was some amusement that a local resident, clearly with a powerful sound system, was able to project the hit milkshake into the heart of the meeting.

The opposition to Robinson seemed to come from the left and local residents rather than large numbers of Asian youths and men. Robinson activist, James Goddard, currently on bail because of the Anna Soubry incident, decided to enter into a debate with opposing protestors.

Goddard, these days, appears to be always armed with a camera and indeed filmed an ‘interaction’ with a Muslim officer earlier in the week. The officer famously kept his cool and with arms spread calmly ensured that Goddard went where he was directed to go.

Goddard would appear to have issues with police and there is widely circulated footage of him threatening police in general during an incident in London before stating to one officer; "What the fuck it’s got to do with you, you’re not even British?"

On this occasion, after his exchange with local residents, during which he reportedly described Liverpool as a "shithole", Goddard can clearly be seen being protected from protestors by a lone officer with his baton drawn. Other officers then arrive to assist yet even the individual posting it amazingly criticises police for "doing nothing".

Despite the unhelpful remarks by the local MP, police tactics were clearly successful in keeping both sides apart. Needless to-say those tactics failed to win approbation from either those on the left or those on the right.

Peaceful Preston

The Monday evening meeting at Preston saw social media comment that the Muslim Defence League would again attend. They didn’t although a thrown brick did cause some minor damage to the large screen which forms part of the Robinson presentation.

Robinson’s speech to a crowd of around 200 revolved around a skilfully edited video of events in Oldham which also featured clips and repeat clips of the disorder. The video also showed extracts of Robinson’s speech on that day during which he stated MDL were "aided" by the police, police had "allowed" that (disorder) and police "led" a masked mob.

No mention of the riot police, batons drawn dispersing the MDL protestors or indeed of police protecting James Goddard at Bootle. It would be interesting to count the number of times the word Muslim was used in both the video and Robinson’s actual live speech to his Preston audience.

Police will doubtless breathe a sigh of relief if the Euro elections conclude with no major incidents, injuries or worse. There seems little doubt that the main threat to public order now comes from the right although Robinson’s supporters during the campaign aside from his entourage, seem to have been confined to locals. Nevertheless, substantial numbers were present during his recent appearance at the Old Bailey.

A threat from the right?

Whilst it is always preferable to attend public order events in person to see exactly what is going on, Oldham and Bootle were a bridge too far. Nevertheless, personally witnessing the activities of Robinson supporters which include the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) and London’s yellow vests does give cause for concern.

I’ve witnessed, on numerous occasions, London’s uniform police officers receiving in your face abuse from Robinson activists on the basis of the negligent actions of a few CID officers in Rochdale and Rotherham. During the first protest following the arrest of Robinson for contempt of court, I watched hundreds of his followers sweep down from Trafalgar Square to their meeting stage in Whitehall and physically attack the handful of non-kitted out officers standing outside the gates of Downing Street.

Further extreme levels of violence against police occurred at the meeting’s conclusion, despite, in fairness, appeals from the stage for a peaceful dispersal.

I have seen and indeed followed them as they have tried to outflank police cordons in central London to attack their rivals. Where they came face to face with police cordons that prevent them from taking their intended route, officers are again subject to abuse and even violence.

If there is an upside to the "rise of the right" it see ms to be a decline in opposing left wing groups such as ANTIFA who appear to have conceded that physical confrontation with those on the right would be counter-productive.

An attack by ANTIFA on a small group of rightist football supporters in Parliament Square ended with the leftists sheltering behind a hastily formed cordon of police. Even where they and other anti-racists blocked the DFLA march on Pall Mall there was little appetite for a physical confrontation as the DFLA broke through their police escorts and ran up Pall Mall clearly intent on clearing the route themselves. They were turned back by the Met’s public order units including the mounted branch.

Overarching all the difficulties concerning the rise of the right and the repercussions of Brexit, is concern by front-line officers as to how they would be able to cope in the event of public disorder on the scale of 2011, which could also incorporate disorder upon racial lines.

Certainly, issues raised during the peaceful Extinction rebellion protests does not inspire confidence and indeed the forthcoming Trump state visit could provide challenges especially if the right decide to show their support for the President in significant numbers.

Chris Hobbs is a former Metropolitan Police officer who served for 32 years before retiring in 2011.

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