Can Football Fans Resist the Far Right Surge?

by Kieron Monks

7 October 2018

“Oh Tommy Tommy! Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy Robinson.”
– Popular far right chant

An ode to a small time crook turned icon of the nativist right, sung to a tune once used to serenade Teddy Sheringham, was one of the songs of the summer. It was ubiquitous and hard to avoid as its publicity-addict subject. The strains echoed around Whitehall weekend after weekend as supporters of Robinson – born Stephen Yaxley-eennon – flooded the capital demanding free speech, hard Brexit, and the end of ‘Islamisation.’ They heard it too in Birmingham, Belfast, and Manchester.

The adapted football chant also found its way back to the terraces. Crystal Palace fans noticed it during a home defeat to Liverpool. Sunderland fans gave renditions on away days. Chelsea supporters expressed shock and dismay to hear the song aired at Stamford Bridge. Fans of Robinson’s hometown club Luton sang his chosen name on several occasions.

Many fans took their commitment to Robinson’s movement beyond words into action. Several of the largest far right rallies in British history have taken place since May, with the “Day for Freedom,” “Free Tommy,” and “UK Unity and Freedom” events drawing crowds of thousands and often violence. Much of the manpower came from the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA).

The DFLA is a network of football firms from clubs across the country, burying ancient grudges to unite Millwall and Chelsea, Birmingham and Aston Villa, under one banner. Watchdog groups such as Hope Not Hate have been careful not to label the DFLA a far right group, mindful that its predecessor the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) was formed in response to the terror attacks of 2017, and that many who joined its mass rallies were expressing justified outrage at the horrors of Westminster, London Bridge, and the Manchester Arena. The FLA split in February over a financial dispute that led to the resignation of founder John Meighan but reunified as the DFLA in June with largely the same agenda. While much of the group’s focus is on Muslims, demanding crackdowns on terror suspects and grooming gangs, it also campaigns on issues such as justice for the victims of the 1974 Birmingham bombings. FLA and DFLA leaders have always stressed they are against extremism in all forms, and claimed to police their boundaries against far right infiltration.

But if, according to its own rhetoric, the shapeshifting Alliance cannot be straightforwardly categorised as homogeneously far right, many of its leading members and supporters can. The group has increasingly overlapped with the movement behind Robinson, which morphed into the ‘Free Tommy’ juggernaut after his arrest in May with support from Steve Bannon, Geert Wilders, UKIP, and a coalition of farright groups from Generation Identity to Britain First. Robinson addressed an FLA rally in Birmingham in March and received a rapturous reception. The DFLA event in Manchester in June included a large contingent of Robinson supporters who sang his name throughout. When the Alliance mobilised in London later that month for a pro-Brexit march, there was one name on the lips and banners of demonstrators.

The group’s claims to stand apart from the far right were further undermined after investigation of the FLA’s private forums revealed widespread racism and incitement to violence, with Diane Abbott labeled a primate, exhortations to hang “traitor” Sadiq Khan, and sympathy for Darren Osborne, who drove a truck into a crowd of Muslims outside Finsbury Park Mosque. Veterans group Walking With The Wounded withdrew from an FLA event citing concerns over far right links, and the Royal British Legion returned a donation. The Premier League has warned clubs about the group’s growing influence and several clubs have banned their flags from stadiums.

Class struggle

The far right has a long history of targeting football fans, seeing working class communities as a natural constituency. The National Front was able to maintain a constant presence at Stamford Bridge in the 1970s. Combat 18 embedded with England fans on away trips in the 1990s and orchestrated riots in Rotterdam and Dublin. Robinson’s English Defence League (EDL) was formed with the support of football hooligans in Luton in 2009.

But equally, there have always been football supporters willing to stand against far right infiltration of the game. Fans, including hooligan groups, fought the National Front at stadiums across the country and played an important role in driving them from the terraces. In 2015, Newcastle fans rallied outside St. James Park to confront a march by anti-Muslim group PEGIDA. As the far right enjoys a new surge, with its sights trained on football, fans are once again organising to challenge it.

The newly-formed Football Lads Against Fascism (FLAF) is aiming to build a working class movement to challenge the influence of Robinson and the DFLA. The group, which has a strong Scottish contingent and links with football firms across Britain, announced its pitch to supporters in a founding statement: “The basic message is football, anti-fascism and working class unity.”

Co-founder and Celtic fan Lee Stevens says the group was formed because there was “no movement that specifically addresses working class football supporters.” He believes such communities have been abandoned by the political left and exploited by far right groups peddling easy answers that blame immigrants for social problems. Stevens feels these messages must be countered at grassroots level.

“We strongly believe that liberal top-down campaigns initiated by clubs, the football hierarchy and the the government can only have a limited success because they are seen to come from above,” says Stevens. “The most long-lasting and significant campaigns in football have come from the fans themselves, from the bottom-up.”

FLAF has so far preoccupied itself with mass production of bespoke anti-fascist stickers for various clubs, which have begun to proliferate at stadiums around the country, as well as supporting anti-racist causes and countering DFLA supporters online. But Stevens hopes to build a presence within clubs to “organise those that are as yet unorganised at football (and) to win over by force of argument those who have strayed into the periphery of right-wing groups.” There could also be cases where direct confrontation is necessary, he adds, citing examples of Celtic firms that fought the Scottish Defence League (SDL).

Taking a stand in the stands

A group in Liverpool is already challenging the far right on matchdays. Author and activist Alan Gibbons was alarmed enough by the sight of mass pro-Robinson rallies in London to call a public meeting to discuss the rising threat, which drew concerned citizens, antifa activists, trade union officials, and Labour councillors. The unlikely coalition agreed that as the DFLA and ‘Free Tommy’ movements were targeting football fans, they should too.

Around 100 activists from the freshly-minted group Merseyside Together descended upon Goodison Park and Anfield in August armed with thousands of leaflets detailing the crimes of Robinson, attacking the “hate and division” of the DFLA, arguing that austerity rather than immigration was responsible for the crises of jobs and housing, and lauding Muslim footballers such as Mo Salah and Idrissa Gueye. The public response was almost entirely supportive.

Liverpool has strong anti-racist traditions and the far right has long struggled to gain a foothold in the city. But Gibbons is not complacent and believes prevention is better than cure. “We shouldn’t just be reacting to far right demonstrations but being pro-active, going into communities and football grounds to undercut the appeal before any demo,” he says. “When you let things fester they become hardened.”

For Gibbons, engaging with working class supporters means engaging with day-to-day struggles, which means organising against the far right must take place alongside campaigns against austerity and poverty. Merseyside Together has close ties to groups such as Fans Supporting Foodbanks, an initiative of Liverpool and Everton fans. “I don’t believe you can be an anti-racist and anti-fascist without also being anti-austerity,” says the organiser. “Austerity is the breeding ground for racism and Islamophobia.”

Gibbons wants to see progressive canvassing at every league club in Britain this year, but acknowledges the challenge is greater at some clubs than others. While there is little sympathy for Robinson and the DFLA among Everton fans, it is a different story in Luton. Robinson still enjoys considerable support in his hometown, which has faced unique challenges as the birthplace of the EDL and a hub of Anjem Choudary’s Al-Muhajiroun sect.

“Oh Tommy Tommy!” has been heard at several recent Luton matches. At pubs around Kenilworth Road on a matchday, few supporters are willing to state open support for Robinson but several suggest he makes important points on Islamist extremism that are otherwise ignored, and it is not difficult to find supporters of the DFLA.

For many Luton supporters this feels like an icy blast from the past. Black and Asian fans tell me they started following the club and joined hooligan firms to fight racism and the National Front in the 1970s. “For me, I joined to fight racists,” says self-identified former hooligan Lewis. “I used to go to fight the National Front on a Sunday afternoon and eventually they realised they couldn’t go on marches and espouse their views because eventually they would be drowned out and battered.”

Lewis and his friends who fought to kill off the far right now fear it is having a resurgence, and are genuinely concerned this might entail violence and even terrorism. Former hooligan James tell me former members of the National Front are now showing their faces in Luton pubs after a 30-year absence. He says people he considered allies are falling into far right circles, telling a story of being added to a Facebook group for football fans and invited to laugh at memes of drowning refugees. “I’m worried enough to say we’re going to take a stand against them,” says Lewis. “Whatever it takes.”

The former hooligans are supportive of FLAF and plan to place anti-fascists stickers around the stadium, the town, and potentially the homes of known far right activists. They also want to assemble something like their old crew for matchdays, partly to challenge “soft” supporters of Robinson and the DFLA who may have drifted into those circles without much thought. “I do find a lot of friends getting pushed into that side of things just want to belong to something and that’s the only thing they can belong to,” says James. He hopes they might prefer to join an anti-far right movement if given the choice. If not, “we’ll tell them to fuck off so young people don’t follow them.”

Supporters are also looking for the club to make a stronger stand. Luton chairman Gary Sweet made a statement asking fans not to sing about Robinson, but James and Lewis were disappointed that it seemed to legitimise Robinson by calling him a “political figurehead.” They want him and supporters banned from the stadium and better mechanisms for reporting racism. Luton officials say the club is committed to improving reporting and anti-racism initiatives.

Fans of non-league Clapton CFC have been able to avoid such tensions by taking ownership of the new club and leading by example. Although supporters have clashed with the far right, their anti-fascism is geared more towards radical egalitarianism in the stands through rigorously enforced zero tolerance policies on racism, sexism, and homophobia, creating a culture that is anathema to white nationalists. The club also branches out into the community through initiatives supporting refugees, food banks, and homeless people. Clapton’s anti-fascism is further distinguished by the effort to make it accessible and enjoyable, from the catchy songs (“Tons just wanna have fun”) to a new kit that uses the colours of the International Brigades and swiftly became a viral sensation.

Building a movement

The challenge for anti-far right activists in football is more complex than in previous generations. Whereas the National Front made no secret of their hardline views, the DFLA presents itself as anti-racist and has many supporters who are motivated by concerns about Islamist extremism and feel little or no affinity with far right politics.

“If you have huge numbers of people on the streets talking about how angry they are that children are being blown up at concerts…it is very difficult to speak to them about those issues in a progressive manner,” says Hope not Hate researcher Joe Mulhall. “I don’t think anyone is doing that particularly successfully.” Mulhall adds that broad-brush, militant anti-fascist actions risk radicalising their targets.

“The danger is that we can push people who are not far right but angry about terrorism toward the far right by shouting ‘Nazi’ at them or attacking them in the street,” he says. “(That risks) forcing them in that direction because they will start identifying as anti-anti-fascist or anti-left wing because counter demonstrations have gone after them.”

There is broad agreement among activists that a successful challenge to the far right must be rooted in the communities where it is strongest, which means tackling the material drivers of radicalisation such as disaffection, poverty, and weak community cohesion. Where people are exposed to far right propaganda, Merseyside Together and the FLAF want to give them alternative messages, and strengthen support networks such as food banks on the basis of “solidarity not charity.” In Liverpool, anti-far right activists are seeking to promote cross-cultural integration through initiatives such as screening matches in mosques.

Another challenge is to unify the movement against the far right in football. Merseyside Together was able to form an alliance that included antifa activists alongside Labour councillors, but tensions have emerged elsewhere. Elements of FLAF are hostile to Clapton supporters over a suspicion that they prioritise ‘Identity politics’ over class politics, and the hotly disputed details of an altercation at a Clapton match several years ago. The Stand up to Racism initiative has played a leading role in organising flyering sessions against the far right at football matches, but its efforts to present a united front have been undermined by links with the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), which have put many progressive activists off working with them.

Not every rift can be healed. But activists on different sides of these disputes suggest that some degree of cooperation against the far right should be possible – without needing to agree on anything else or abandon deeply-held criticisms. The potential for a broad alliance is clear with trade unions and Labour CLPs also willing to commit resources and manpower to challenging the far right in football stadiums and anywhere else.

The scale of the threat certainly demands a coordinated response – and fast. Some of the largest far right rallies in British history have taken place over the past year and the movement may not have hit its ceiling. The fear is that the DFLA could offer Robinson access to a vast pool of potential supporters.

“Robinson is one of the most successful far right activists the UK has had in decades and he has played on constituencies of football fans for a long time,” says Mulhall. “These are groups of people that are angry and right to be. The danger is that Robinson is the one that speak to them, and the way he speaks to them is (turning) anger about terror into attacks on Muslims. The numbers involved are so large that its a really scary prospect that someone like Robinson manages to radicalise them in an explicitly anti-Muslim way.”

Should Robinson’s movement make further inroads into the Alliance, and the Alliance establish a mainstream presence among football fans, this would represent a leap forward for the far right. A platform within the national game would offer unique exposure, prestige, and legitimacy that would greatly increase the threat to minorities and the challenge to progressive campaigners. The role of radicalised football fans in the fascist rallies in Chemnitz is a vivid illustration of the danger. But if planting their flag in stadiums would be a major gain for the far right, it would be as great a blow for them to be driven from the terraces.

John McDonnell recently called for a new street movement to take on the far right in the tradition of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). Anti-far right activists are convinced that football fans can be foot soldiers of such a movement. For Gibbons, the key lesson from the ANL is to create a dynamic, exciting culture of opposition to the far right with mainstream appeal. Groups such as Merseyside Together and the FLAF offer some, embryonic signs that a popular resistance is emerging around the game, from the streets of Liverpool to the firms of Glasgow. There is even a fresh iconography flourishing in the FLAF’s anti-fascist badges and Clapton’s Internacionales shirts that could serve as a beacon to attract converts. Luton’s ex-hooligans say the lesson of the ANL is to give people something better to belong to than the far right.

Football fans have already won the fight for their stadiums once when they helped beat the National Front into obscurity. The challenge now, to borrow Alf Ramsey’s words before extra time of the 1966 World Cup final, is to go out there and win it again.

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