The crisis engulfing the British National Party opens opportunities for other right-of-centre parties and might perhaps lead to the formation of a new party altogether. Beginning a series of articles on right-wing alternatives to the BNP, Searchlight takes a look at the English Democrats Party.
Robin Tilbrook senses that this might at last be his moment. After several years struggling to get his party, which he has personally bankrolled, noticed he believes that the time for the English Democrats Party (EDP) has arrived.
The EDP was formed in 2002 to call for the establishment of an English Parliament. It positions itself on the right but denies it is racist, though this claim is undermined by the involvement of many leading activists from the English Defence League. It has contested European, parliamentary and local elections but with very little success. Its one moment of glory was when Peter Davies, son of Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, was elected Mayor of Doncaster in 2009.
With some high profile supporters, such as the columnist and TV critic Garry Bushell, the EDP thought the Doncaster result would herald a new chapter for the party. This failed to materialise and it continued its poor run of election results.
In the 2010 general election the EDP fielded 107 candidates, enabling it to qualify for a party election broadcast, but only saved its deposit in Doncaster North, the seat of the Labour leader Ed Miliband. Last month the party stood in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election but despite running a vigorous and expensive campaign it received only 144 votes, one less than the Monster Raving Loony Party. By contrast the BNP received 1,560 votes.
And this is the heart of the EDP’s problem. Whatever its internal and political deficiencies the presence and profile of the BNP has restricted opportunities for the EDP. Tilbrook has long understood that his party would be able to prosper only if the BNP collapsed.
In the run-up to 2009 European election the EDP formed an alliance with the England First Party in the North West region. The EFP, led by Mark Cotterill, is a minuscule hard-right group based in East Lancashire. Its politics are quite different from the EDP, but they share a belief in an English Parliament and a hatred of the BNP.
The two parties worked together, the EFP providing organisational and logistical support for the EDP. It was unclear whether the EDP would have been able to stand without it.
The driving force behind this link-up was Steve Uncles, the EDP’s national membership secretary, and Michael Cassidy, its Yorkshire chairman. Both are on the right of the party and appeared to favour a deeper link with the far right. Tilbrook agreed with the plan but he was driven more by short-term advantage, namely trying to stop Nick Griffin being elected as an MEP, which he believed would massively boost the BNP and end EDP hopes of becoming a major political party.
The plan only narrowly failed, but although Griffin was elected the BNP has not made the expected wider breakthrough and with its current internal problems and financial crisis the EDP senses another opportunity.
Tilbrook appears to have been keen to bring disillusioned BNP members into the EDP. However when former BNP members in Merseyside, Cumbria and Yorkshire began joining the English Democrats, it caused some rumblings of discontent.
It was the courting of Richard Barnbrook that caused most anger. Last November Barnbrook, who resigned from the BNP in August, approached the English Democrats. He knew that to retain his seat on the London Assembly, where he sits as an independent, he needed the financial and organisational support of a political party. Cliff Dixon, the party’s vice chair in London, voiced his concern but was told by Tilbrook to keep an open mind and that the final decision would be taken by the London Committee, chaired by Roger Cooper.
Uncles had other ideas and was keen to push Barnbrook’s application through as fast as possible.
Separately, Tilbrook had been in discussions with Eddy Butler, the former BNP national organiser who was expelled from the party after challenging Griffin for the leadership. However the two had different agendas. Tilbrook was looking to build the EDP while Butler was not convinced that the EDP, particularly in its current form, was the right party for him. Conscious that he had to keep the racial nationalists on board, Butler was unhappy with the EDP’s moderate nationalist programme. Rather, he preferred the idea of uniting the broad nationalist movement, from the racial nationalists to the right-wing populists, around a few shared themes while a longer discussion took place about what kind of party was needed.
Some have argued that Butler was biding time for Andrew Brons to make his move. While the Yorkshire MEP has stayed loyal to the BNP he is increasingly acting independently and separately from Griffin. Butler, though no longer in the BNP, works for Brons.
Dixon became increasingly concerned about the actions of Tilbrook and Uncles. Eventually he decided to speak out after the party hired Jim Dowson to run its fundraising. Not only did the EDP’s appeal letters look remarkably similar to those Dowson wrote for the BNP during the three years he worked for the party, but Dixon believed that Butler now had the EDP’s entire membership list.
After Barnbrook was accepted into the EDP at its January national council meeting, Dixon broke ranks and went public with his outrage.
He was quickly followed by Ed Abrams, a member of the EDP’s national council, who had already resigned from the party in disgust at the courting of BNP members.
“It does not please me one little bit to see the current turmoil that the party that I still consider to be my political home is in but if it is to survive then Tilbrook and Uncles have to go,” Abrams declared.
“I therefore call upon the loyal members of the English Democrats Party to call for a EGM and propose a vote of no confidence in Tilbrook and Uncles.
“Please remember that ENGLAND comes before everything, Uncles and Tilbrook have had there [sic] day, the cause and the good name of your party comes first and only by passing a vote of no confidence in these two will you be able to wipe the slate clean and move forward.”
Also supporting this position was Alistair Barbour, the BNP’s former Carlisle organiser who switched his allegiance to the EDP in protest at the extremism of the BNP. He too resigned from the EDP after other BNP members began to join though claims still to be loyal to the party’s overall aims.
“Do yourselves a favour, stay a progressive moderate party and do not allow the likes of Butler Barnbrook etc to take you to the right,” he wrote. “Tell them to crawl back to Griffin were [sic] they belong and take Uncles with them. Don’t let another so called nationalist party destroy England’s chances of recognition and salvation.”
The EDP is in a state of flux. The crisis in the BNP, which appeared to present an opportunity to the EDP to emerge out of the political margins, now seems to be spreading to the EDP. Whether the party can emerge stronger will be determined partly by what happens to the BNP but also by its own members’ reactions to the arrival of former BNP members in their ranks.