This article, by Tash Shifrin, Martin Smith and James, first appeared on Dream Deferred on 8 October 2017.
London witnessed the largest demonstration of the far right in generations on Saturday 7 October 2017. This was the second outing of the Football Lads Alliance.
And it was not the usual sort of protest demonstration. The FLA mobilises through a secret, invite-only Facebook group. Its publicity was put out via a paid-for PR firm.
The FLA was started by “football lads” – this is what members of football hooligan firms call themselves. This time they were joined by Veterans Against Terrorism – and the FLA has also succeeded in boosting its numbers by pulling in some ordinary football fans, although the bulk of the marchers were clearly attached to hooligan firms. It was an overwhelmingly white, male demo.
In the run up to the demo, groups of hundreds of supporters of the FLA gathered in pubs around central London. Other large groups were on the Tube, dishing out occasional racist abuse.
Thousands then gathered at Park Lane, near Hyde Park Corner to hear speakers from the top of a double-decker bus. As with the FLA’s first outing in June, speakers were careful to use a dog-whistle technique rather than explicit racist statements. But patriotism, nationalism, opposition to immigration were repeated themes. Labour MP Diane Abbott, who is black, was a particular target.
Missing from the speakers list this time was Toni Bugle, the “counterjihadist” Islamophobe with previous connections to the EDL and links to other figures across the far right. Bugle spoke at the FLA’s 24 June demo – a fact we exposed in our eyewitness report at the time – but the FLA cancelled her at the last minute this time, citing PR advice.
Mohan Singh, another EDL associate and close ally of its former leader Stephen Yaxley Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), who also spoke in June, was also absent.
It’s just as well all the speeches were at the start, because by the time the demo reached Trafalgar Square its numbers had dropped noticeably. Unlike most demonstrations, the opening rally was the key element of the demonstration.
As the march moved off it was very disciplined – the FLA’s no banners, no chanting rules held up for a while. But as it moved up Piccadilly, marchers were already peeling off and heading for the pubs.
Despite the lack of banners, aimed at maintaining the unity of the different football firms and keeping the fascist element under wraps, it is clear there were fascists among the FLA marchers, including members of the English Defence League identifiable by visible EDL tattoos and the March for England group.
The true nature of the FLA was exposed when the remains of the demo moved down Whitehall, where campaigners from Stand Up to Racism were peacefully handing out leaflets appealing to marchers to reject racism. The FLA marchers responded with hostility, racist abuse, the odd flying bottle and can and chants of “We want our country back,” and “You’re not English any more.”
Estimates of the size of the demonstration vary from between 5,000 and 20,000. The FLA, of course, is claiming far more. We feel that there were around 10,000 or so there – a sharp increase on June when the FLA mobilised up to 5,000. By the time the march reached the end, these numbers had fallen significantly.
But even taking numbers at the lower end of this scale, the FLA demo was a serious mobilisation and the biggest protest of the far right since the Second World War.
The FLA leadership was buoyed by the turnout and is planning a third protest in the north of Britain.
But the FLA is still a new organisation and in a state of flux. It faces a major dilemma, driven by sharp internal contradiction. Its leadership have argued that maintaining its public stance of not allowing open racism, and staging demos without flags, placards or chanting has allowed it to grow. But many FLA members, also lifted by the size of their mobilisation, are openly frustrated by the softly, softly approach.
The FLA’s leaders risk demoralising the FLA’s core racist, hooligan support unless they harden their nationalistic and racist rhetoric – something that in turn could disillusion their softer supporters.
But we saw with the EDL’s “march and grow” strategy that the growing size and increasing violence of its early demonstrations gave the fascist elements inside the organisation the confidence to gradually harden up the racist street movement and widen its targets. A key feature of all racist and fascist street movements is that if left unchecked they can grow very fast – it is important to take the threat of the FLA seriously.
Six things you need to know about the FLA
The FLA claim to be the birth of a new movement. But what kind of movement is it?
Dream Deferred observed and reported on the FLA’s first demonstration in June. Our article described the FLA as an emerging far right street movement, based on football hooligan firms, which was able to draw into its ranks some genuine football fans. The article also highlighted the FLA’s links with racists, and the fascists trying to build in its midst.
Since we produced the article we have been asked a number of important questions about the FLA. Here we try to answer a few.
- What are the origins of Football Lads Alliance?
The FLA was launched in the wake of the London Bridge, Manchester and Westminster terrorist attacks. Up to 5,000 people joined its first protest on 24 June in central London. The vast majority of the marchers were from hooligan firms based in London and the South East of England. The second demo brought in more people from the midlands and the north of England.
The FLA is based on “football lads” – the term the hooligan firms use to describe themselves. This is not the same as groups of “football fans” or “football supporters”, who have often got together to campaign around real football issues, such as the Hillsborough disaster or ticket prices.
Historically fascist organisations such as the National Front, British Movement, British National Party and the EDL have attempted to organise and recruit hooligans to their groups, and attract genuine football fans as well.
The ultra nationalism and glorification of violence of many of these hooligan groups meant that many were susceptible to fascist and racist ideas. And the firms are used to operating under the radar to avoid the attentions of the police. While the FLA has developed out of the football firms, it is not a football fans’ movement and it is wrong to treat it as such.
- How is the FLA trying to recruit it to its ranks?
The FLA has used secret Facebook groups to build up its support, and is trying to use genuine online football fans’ forums to promote its demonstrations. They have brought FLA banners into a number of club stadiums already this season and FLA supporters have leafleted some grounds.
The FLA is trying to widen its support, by claiming that it now has a “Football Families Alliance” and a “Football Ladies Alliance”. It is working with some military veterans’ organisations. Saturday’s march included members of Veterans Against Terrorism and some Gurkhas.
- What kind of organisation is the FLA?
Since its inception we have argued that the FLA is a far right racist street movement in which fascists are organising. Despite its claims not to be racist, it uses Islamophobia – anti-Muslim racism – either openly and explicitly or more covertly.
Publicly the FLA claims it opposes all forms of “extremism”. The founder of the FLA, John Meighan, claims that the group is neither “left or right” – a slogan widely used by fascist organisations in the past. But this is an organisation whose inner circle is secretive and tries to hide its political associations.
It has spent a great deal of time and energy refuting the accusations that it has links to the far right – yet Meighan readily gave an introductory interview to far right Islamophobic website Shy Society. And the FLA twitter account has also retweeted material from US “alt-right” nazi outlets.
A look at the Facebook profiles and activity of key figures in the FLA, such as those on the platform and holding the banner at its 24 June demo, shows several are followers or friends of Tommy Robinson, fascist Britain First leaders Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen and the like. So are many of those involved in bringing their own hooligan firms into the FLA coalition.
A number of political viewpoints are common to most of the FLA’s followers. Firstly racism – in particular Islamophobia – plays a central role in their world-view. Second they despise Jeremy Corbyn and the racist invective and vitriol aimed at Diane Abbott by many of these people knows no bounds. Finally they are cheerleaders for the military and Britain’s imperialist exploits in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The FLA leadership may make great efforts to hide its racist agenda, but its supporters are not so secretive. Many on social media make openly racist comments, happily re-tweet posts by Donald Trump, Tommy Robinson, Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins and other far right demagogues.
- But the FLA say they’re not racist…
Well they would, wouldn’t they? Almost all far right populist and fascist leaders from US president Donald Trump, to French fascist leader Marine Le Pen claim they are not racist. They understand only too well that if they were to proclaim their true beliefs they would remain in the political wilderness.
No one should forget that when the EDL was launched in 2009 it boasted that it had black and Asian members and was only opposed to “radical Islam”. Its slogan was “Not racist or violent but no longer silent” – although racism and violence rapidly became its calling cards.
The EDL even produced a video showing supporters – including its early few black members – burning a Nazi flag.
But within a year its leadership links with the BNP were exposed, its members were often engaged in violent attacks on Muslims and mosques, and its leader “Tommy Robinson” was bragging that it would break up the Occupy Camp at St Paul’s Cathedral and sort out student protestors. EDL members were also engaged in attacks on socialist and trade union meetings.
You also have to judge the organization by the company it keeps. As we highlighted in our first article on the FLA:
“Before the march, there were speeches, including a token Sikh – remarkably, exactly the same token Sikh, Mohan Singh, who spoke at Lennon’s [Tommy Robinson’s] demo in Manchester a fortnight ago…
“Another speaker was Toni Bugle, founder of the far right Islamophobic organisation Mothers Against Radical Islam and Sharia (Marias), who has previous links with the EDL.”
Bugle was invited to speak to the second demo as well – her invite was cancelled only the day before for what the FLA admitted were PR reasons. On twitter, the FLA was still expressing hope that Tommy Robinson’s ally Mohan Singh would turn up again for the October demo just days beforehand.
The FLA has also described its own relationship with Tommy Robinson as one of “mutual respect”.
The argument that the FLA is only opposed to “Islamic extremists” and not to Islam itself was exposed as a lie in a twitter exchange between the FLA admin and a supporter. The Lone Ranger said: You need to tackle Islam to defeat Islamist extremists or we will all go around in circles forever… bottom line. And the Football Lads Alliance replied: Yes we will as part of our agenda buddy.
It is clear from this comment that the FLA leadership is not just concerned about “radical Islam” but wants to target all Muslims. This is Islamophobia – anti-Muslim racism.
The real attitude to racism among key FLA figures is also gruesomely illustrated by this photograph, showing central FLA figure Phillip Hickin and his cronies dressed up in antisemitic costumes designed to mock orthodox Jews. The photo was also posted on Facebook by at least two more of the FLA’s banner carriers, who also appear in it.
- How do they finance their organisation?
One thing is crystal clear: the FLA is putting serious resources into developing a major FLA merchandising operation. It now sells FLA hoodies, T-shirts, badges and banners.
Merchandise sales raised large amounts of money for nazi organisation such as Combat 18 and the EDL. The FLA seem to have gone one step further in its money making enterprise. John Meighan has in fact set the FLA up as a limited company, with himself as director.
- If we ignore the FLA will it just go away?
Some in the antiracist movement argue that it’s best just to ignore the FLA and it will go away. Others say the football firms will be unable to work together and will end up fighting each other, so the FLA will eventually implode. We believe that waiting for the FLA to disappear or self-destruct would be a mistake.
It is true that all far right street movements are unstable and prone to splits. The same arguments were used in relation to the EDL. But as we have seen in countries such as France and Hungary, if you ignore the rise of far right populist and fascist movements, they can take root and pollute the political climate.
The first FLA demonstration was 5,000 strong; Saturday’s was much bigger. This is already the biggest far right wing street movement Britain has seen. It took several years of hard campaigning to break the EDL. If the FLA is allowed to grow unopposed now, it will be even harder to defeat.
The first stage in combating the FLA has to be to expose its far right racist agenda and to warn the antiracist movement, trade unions, community groups and faith groups of the danger it presents. This is essential to broaden the forces that can come together against the FLA. This task is of the utmost urgency.