Far right still a growing threat five years after UK politician Jo Cox’s murder by neo-Nazi

Murder prompted Britain to ban far-right groups

Far-right group National Action was banned after it glorified the extremist murder of MP Jo Cox in 2016. AP
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Five years ago the murder of politician Jo Cox sent shockwaves across the world and led to a "watershed" moment in the way the UK deals with far-right extremism.

The mother-of-two, 41, was shot and stabbed to death by neo-Nazi fanatic Thomas Mair as she visited her constituency office in the small industrial town of Birstall, West Yorkshire, on June 16, 2016.

It was only a week before the UK went to the polls to vote on Brexit – an issue which caused deep divisions across the country.

Ms Cox, a staunch Remain campaigner, had written a column opposing Brexit the week before, a cutting of which was later found in Mair’s home.

In court, the murderer spoke only to say "My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain" – it was later used as a slogan by far-right group National Action, which had labelled him "a hero” because of his actions.

MP’s murder led to UK banning far-right group

Within months of the tragedy, National Action became the first far-right group to be proscribed in Britain and security services began taking the far-right threat more seriously.

Previously, the UK’s list of banned organisations included international terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS but there are now five far-right groups listed.

Despite the purge, experts say far-right extremism still poses a major threat to the UK.

"The murder of Jo Cox was a turning point and a wake-up call for the security services to up their game," the chairman of Muslims Against Anti-Semitism, Ghanem Nusiebeh, told The National.

“It clearly was a failure. Things are changing but they are not changing fast enough.”

Despite the spotlight on the far right, Britain’s counterterrorism chief said it was still the fastest-growing threat in Britain.

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said 10 out of 12 under-18s arrested for terrorism last year were linked to extreme right-wing ideology.

"There has definitely been a growth in nationalistic material online, white supremacist literature, things that are extremely disturbing,” he said.

More than 60 far-right activists have been sentenced for terrorist offences since 2017 and 12 were convicted last year.

Far right will remain a threat for ‘foreseeable’ future

Dr Chris Allen, of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, warned in a recent government report that the far right would remain a threat for the foreseeable future.

The extreme right wing pose a very real threat to our domestic security

“While the relatively high number of successful convictions are likely to have damaged the group, little damage will have been done to the ideology of national socialism or those who feel or express a commitment to it. The same is true of those willing to use violence to enact that same ideology.

Dr Allen said there could be no guarantee that terrorist prisoners would "undergo a volte-face".

“It is possible that some time in the future those same individuals might re-emerge in ways that seek to reaffirm or revitalise their ideological commitment," he said.

“For this reason, the ideologies of the extreme right wing and those committed to them are likely to continue to pose a very real threat to our domestic security for at least the foreseeable future, irrespective of how damaged National Action may or may not be.”

In the last three years, eight of the 27 serious terrorist plots prevented in the final stages in Britain were linked to neo-fascist and racist groups.

Police arrest far-right gang over 3D weapons factory

Last month armed police raided homes in Keighley, West Yorkshire, yards from where the gun that killed Ms Cox was stolen and charged a gang with making 3D weapons and running far-right extremist sites on social media platform Telegram.

The area has long been a hotbed for Islamist and far-right extremism.

The ringleader of the July 2005 London tube bombings, Mohammad Sidique Khan, lived in Batley, as did Terence Gavan, a bus driver and member of far-right political group the British National Party who was jailed for 11 years for assembling an armoury in his bedroom, including nail bombs and a booby-trapped cigarette packet.

When police raided Mair’s home after Ms Cox’s murder they discovered a collection of books on the Nazis, German military history and white supremacy on a bookshelf topped by a gold-coloured Third Reich eagle with a swastika.

It was later revealed he had attended a BNP event in London.

Facebook banned the BNP – which was once based in Keighley – in 2019, forcing it to use lesser known social media platforms.

Dr Paul Stott, a research fellow at the Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, told The National that although far-right groups were losing support they were becoming more extreme.

“The legacy of Jo Cox in a way is that the British far right have continued to carry on getting smaller and smaller and more isolated and more extreme,” he said.

“It is a classic case of terrorism being a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Poster boards showing a photograph of Jo Cox are seen during a memorial event for the murdered Labour MP (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Poster boards showing a photograph of Jo Cox are seen during a memorial event for the murdered Labour MP (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

“The strength was the personal tragedy for her family but her death showed the weakness and lack of appeal of the far right.

“The BNP was really strong in Keighley and now it just exists for its legacy income.

“The recent arrests actually show something more serious with them allegedly using 3D guns. If you look at the prosecutions for the far right, it is very often in the north-east [of England] and Yorkshire because of the historic legacy of it being so strong in the north.

“But they also show that the police are quite on the ball now with these groups.”

David Lowe, terrorism expert at Leeds Beckett University and an adviser on the UK’s anti-radicalisation Prevent programme, believes the government needs to encourage more people to use Prevent for far-right as well as Islamist extremism.

“What has happened in Keighley is a big concern,” he said.

The far right remain at large and undeterred, unified along anti-migrant and anti-Muslim lines

“We will not stop dead determined people but we will on the periphery. We need to work on Prevent and encourage people not to feel frightened of referring people.

“A concern with the pandemic has been young people and young minds getting information online from extremists. The far right has been infiltrating online gaming to target youngsters to then groom them.

“Other issues which have helped fuel support have been Brexit and former US president Donald Trump’s ‘making American great again’ rhetoric but I think things have got better in the UK regarding the far right.

“The UK has some of the most comprehensive legislation globally and has a raft a counterterrorism tools now, so many more groups have been disrupted."

Mr Lowe said five such organisations had been banned in Britain since the murder of Ms Cox.

Far-right groups field candidates in by-election

The far right still has hopes of being politically prominent in the area, though, with two candidates standing in the forthcoming by-election in Ms Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen next month.

The group For Britain is fielding anti-Muslim activist Anne Marie Waters and the former deputy leader of far-right group Britain First, Jayda Fransen, who was previously convicted of religiously-aggravated harassment, is standing as an independent candidate.

Ms Cox's sister Kim Leadbeater will stand against them as the Labour Party candidate.

CLECKHEATON, ENGLAND - JUNE 10: Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer and Batley and Spen by-election candidate Kim Leadbeater visit the Jo Cox Community Wood created in memory of Jo Cox MP, the sister of Kim Leadbeater, on June 10, 2021 in Cleckheaton, England. Kim Leadbeater is campaigning for the Batley and Spen seat after MP Tracy Brabin stepped down to become West Yorkshire’s Metro Mayor. The Batley and Spen seat was once held by Kim Leadbeater's sister Jo Cox MP, who was murdered by a far-right extremist in 2016. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer and Batley and Spen by-election candidate Kim Leadbeater visit the Jo Cox Community Wood created in memory of her sister Jo Cox MP. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Dr Stott told The National he did not believe far-right groups would gain a foothold in the area.

“I do not think any party on the far right has any real chance of an electoral breakthrough in the constituency,” he said. “If you look back to 2016 when they had a by-election after Jo Cox's murder, the main parties stood aside but a few far-right parties did stand. However, Labour’s Tracy Brabin was comfortably elected.

“The far right is far from being in an electoral position. It seems to be in a period of quite dramatic decline but this is overlapped with some individuals who are clearly quite dangerous.

"You have had Thomas Mair, Darren Osborne's attack at Finsbury Park Mosque in London and National Action. That violence is a sign of their political failure. That potentially makes them more dangerous and why the authorities are spending more time on them."

Anti-racism group Hope Not Hate is working in the area ahead of the election and believes the far right still poses a very real threat.

“Since Jo's tragic murder in 2016, the far right remain at large and undeterred, unified along anti-migrant and anti-Muslim lines,” founder Nick Lowes said.

“There is a very real risk that far-right extremists will use this high-profile election to stir up hatred and division and given the history of the area this could be really dangerous to the community cohesion.”

He said the group is working with the community to help deal with “any upsurge in extremism” caused by the election.

Dr Lowe told The National that security services seriously overhauled the way the far right are treated since Ms Cox's death in efforts to prevent another tragedy.

“The far right have always been there and now we are dealing with them,” he said.

“Many far-right terror plots have been prevented. We are seeing coverage of arrests, trials and convictions, all due to the proscribing of far-right groups.

“This was Jo Cox’s legacy.”