Rising to the challenge
Could the FLA develop into a fully-fledged fascist movement? That depends on the scale of forthcoming crises and the response of the left, argues James Harvey
Football supporters plus army vets: a worrying combination
Two well-attended marches in central London on June 24 and October 7, organised under the banner, ‘United against extremism’, heralded the emergence of a new grouping, the Football Lads Alliance. These events have attracted concerned debate amongst left groups and anti-racism campaigners - not least the Socialist Workers Party, which has argued that the FLA has the potential to become a new form of racist street politics, fuelled by Islamophobia. Stating that this threat must be countered before it grows any further, the SWP and its ‘united front’, Stand Up To Racism, organised a small, static counter-demonstration in opposition to the FLA march on October 7.1 They are now attempting to mobilise larger numbers to counter the group’s next planned march - in Edinburgh on November 25.2
The FLA explicitly denies that it is racist or has any connection with far-right organisations. According to its own press releases, the group has “a strong anti-racist stance and has no political or religious agendas … [it] opposes anyone who tries to impose their beliefs, will or politics on others via terrorist acts”.3 On its website and Facebook pages the FLA portrays itself in similar vein as consisting of ordinary football fans who have come together simply to oppose ‘extremism’ and demand strong action from the government.4
The marches were impressive for being organised at relatively short notice by drawing on social media networks and the links between groups of football supporters - ‘football lads’ or ‘firms’ - more traditionally associated in the past with football hooliganism. This is confirmed by the various films of the marches, showing crowds of between 10,000 and 20,000, largely composed of middle-aged working class men - although in this footage they seem more like football granddads than lads. Apart from wreaths in club colours, banners from ‘Veterans Against Terrorism’ and a campaign demanding ‘Justice for the 21’ (people killed in the Birmingham bombings in 1974) the organisers prohibited the usual flags and posters, presumably to reinforce their image as ‘just normal people’.5
This self-description is a central theme in the rhetoric of the FLA - it goes to some lengths to disclaim any connection with the far right and portray the group as a purely spontaneous, grassroots movement. In this it protests too much, however. Some FLA speakers at the first rally did indeed have far-right connections, whilst reports suggested that small groups of Nazis and members of the English Defence League had been present on the march.6 In addition, the rhetoric of the FLA is clearly reactionary and chauvinistic. Speakers called for strong action by the state against “extremism” - a rather ill-defined enemy, but clearly identified with jihadism and “Islamic terrorism”. When John Meighan, one of the key organisers, called for “suspected terrorists who are not British subjects to be deported”, the crowd at the October march responded with chants of “Get them out!”
However, much of the animus on display was directed towards politicians who had either criticised the FLA or ‘let the country down’ in other ways. Thus, a member of Veterans Against Terrorism, ‘Big’ Phil Campion, drew on familiar populist themes in his attack on ‘political correctness’. The crowd were assured that no-one was going to stop him “saying what he wanted” when he spoke out on behalf of the unheard and disregarded people of “our country”. As a representative of the multicultural elite who appeased “the enemy” and used political correctness to silence “ordinary people”, Diane Abbott was subject to special abuse. When John Meighan suggested that “it’s time for you [Diane Abbott] and your motley crew to move over - the FLA is taking over now”, he was met with loud cheers and chants of “Out, out, out” directed at the Labour politician and others of her ilk. This very contemporary sense of being ignored or patronised by the political elite came through strongly in complaints by marchers about the way the “mainstream media” ignored or misrepresented them, and in chants demanding “We want our country back”.7
So far, so very Nigel Farage or Donald Trump. Perhaps, more to the point, so very Daily Mail, Daily Express or Daily Telegraph too. Much of what was said by both the speakers and the marchers would be unremarkable in the political rhetoric of the mainstream right in Europe and North America. So, given this congruence, does the FLA merit any special attention on the part of socialists and the labour movement? Is it really a precursor to a new variant of far-right street politics and even a mass fascist movement?
The SWP’s central committee for one certainly thinks this is a possibility. In the October edition of its Pre-conference bulletin the CC suggests that the FLA is a “dangerous phenomenon that socialists have to take seriously. We need to develop an analysis of its nature - and then work with others to confront the racism and Islamophobia at its heart” (my emphasis). It goes on to correctly argue that “the FLA is not a fascist organisation” and that “at present there is a differentiation of views within its ranks”. However, the CC cautions that the FLA’s “direction of travel” could mean that it becomes “nastier, more openly Islamophobic and more of a recruiting ground for fascists”. So far, so very SWP - especially given that the statement goes on to focus on the prevalence of Islamophobia in British society and how this widespread form of racism might provide the basis of a possible future fascist reaction.8
The SWP leadership’s strategy for countering the FLA and preventing the re-emergence of a mass fascist movement is also very familiar. Tracing the history of what it describes as “mass united fronts”, such as the Anti-Nazi League, Unite Against Fascism and now Stand Up to Racism, it suggests that these types of anti-racist movement have been “successful” because they “separated the hard racists and fascists from the softer layer of people influenced by racist ideas they tried to relate to”. Urging the membership on to yet higher levels of activism through mobilising for the next counter-demonstration and “building a response in every trade union, at every club and in the sphere of popular culture”, the CC’s statement places the building of “the party” “at the heart of a systematic response to the growth of the FLA”. Whilst much of this anti-racist activity can be simply understood as providing a focus for yet more activism and recruitment, this reliving of past glories from as far back as the 1970s is also an attempt to prove the SWP’s continuing relevance in the very different world of the 2010s.
The SWP’s understanding of Islamophobia and its approach to countering “the racism at the heart of the FLA” has much in common with official multiculturalism and mainstream liberal analyses of what is increasingly referred to as “the populist moment”. As Kevin Bean discussed in recent issues of this paper, the populist label has been applied internationally to a wide range of ‘insurgent’ movements which challenge the political and economic elite. In claiming to speak on behalf of the masses, these movements give a voice to the ‘deplorables’ whose concerns have been either ignored or deemed beneath contempt. The rhetoric of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen are examples of this phenomenon, whilst the electoral impact of the AfD in Germany and the influence of Ukip amongst sections of the Conservative Party in Britain shows how even ‘mainstream’ politics can be influenced by populist themes.9
For liberal commentators, this populist moment shows that the rise of the far right remains an ever-present danger, especially given what they see as the susceptibility of the working class to the lure of a nostalgic cultural politics of xenophobia and hostility to immigration. As Paul Mason describes it, this form of politics “is no longer a response to single events: it is about Islam and white identity, … not the economic strain brought about by refugees”.10
The rhetoric of the FLA can easily be fitted into this politics of cultural identity. The speeches attacking the political elite and the assertive plebeian pride revealed in the defence of “our country” are characteristic tropes of the populist moment. However, they are not necessarily unique to the current period, especially in Britain. Popular conservatism has often taken these forms from the 18th century onwards, especially when mobilised against radical or revolutionary movements. Whether in the form of ‘church and king’ mobs attacking Catholics and political dissenters in the 1780s and 1790s, or Orange reaction in Liverpool and Glasgow in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Conservative Party has been able to call upon plebeian movements and mobilise such forms of reaction in periods of crisis.
When combined with pro-imperialist rhetoric and an elevation of the military as a symbolic embodiment of the nation, this type of popular, working class Conservatism provided a firm electoral and social base for the Tories until the 1960s. Thus, far from being a new form of working class politics, as Brendan O’Neill suggests,11 the FLA can be located in this long and inglorious tradition of deferential chauvinism and pro-imperialism, which in its various forms successfully underpinned the Conservatives for much of the last two centuries.
However, if the FLA does echo some of these historic patterns, it is not simply a rebirth of an older, plebeian Conservative tradition. Rather, both in rhetoric and content it reflects the contemporary political moment and the particular forms of the current political crisis. Above all, this is a period of political and social volatility, which has been intensified by the slow-burning, but quite fundamental effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the decade of austerity and recession that followed.
The key political features of this crisis on the right are the electoral collapse of Ukip, the political divisions within the Tories caused by the Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum and the fragmentation of various far-right groups in the aftermath of the electoral decline of the BNP after 2010. The emergence of the FLA has occurred at the confluence of these interlocking developments and reflects different facets of each individual crisis. As the divisions within the ruling class and the Tory government grow, the form that Brexit might take becomes more uncertain and leaves the Tories - especially Theresa May - vulnerable to charges of betrayal and a failure to implement ‘the will of the people’.
Whilst the rhetoric of the FLA suggests that it could move in a more authoritarian direction, whether it takes a mass form as a fascist movement will depend not on the subjective positions of its individual leaders or any organised far-right currents attempting to exploit it, but on the scale of the political and social crisis facing British society in the next decade. Movements like the FLA show that wide sections of society are alienated from bourgeois politics and that they will attempt to find different outlets and forms to express that discontent. Whether that alienation will find its expression through the politics of the left or the reactionary chauvinism of the right will depend on how our movement understands the appeal of currents of like the FLA - and goes on to present a real alternative to its backward-looking and dead-end politics of the past.
1. R Kiernan, ‘“Football Lads Alliance”- the threat of a new racist movement on the streets’ Socialist Worker July 4.
2. Stand Up to Racism Scotland statement on the Football Lads Alliance, November 10: www.standuptoracism.org.uk/no-racism-no-islamophobia-football.
5. For films of the marches and speeches see www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dXm6t9PKm4; and
6. ‘Football Lads Alliance: inside the central London march of the far-right linked group’ The Independent October 7.
7. For recordings of the marches and speeches by John, Meighan, Phil Campion, Toni Bugle and Mohan Singh, .
8. SWP Pre-conference bulletin October 2017, pp11-12.
9. See ‘Understanding the populist moment’ Weekly Worker August 31; and ‘Possibilities and challenges’ Weekly Worker September 7.
10. P Mason, ‘Europe’s far right is on the march - and it won’t go away without a fight’ The Guardian November 14.
11. B O’Neill, ‘The Football Lads Alliance is a working class movement - and the political class wants to ignore it’ The Spectator Coffee House Blog, October 9. For one early 20th century account of how this popular Conservatism functioned, see JA Hobson, ‘The general election: a sociological interpretation’ The Sociological Review 1910: http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/sora/a3/2.