Sean Ballie argues only a movement from within football lads and lasses can fight successfully.
Recent mobilisations and demonstrations by groups such as the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) have shocked many but should have surprised few. It is widely accepted that these newer organisations are just the reincarnation of loosely held together far right street movements such as the English Defence League (EDL).
But what is different this time is the move from the right to draw support from a cultural identity rather than a national one. In the past, far right street movements have attempted to unite their base and speak to anyone that feels their nationality or patriotism is under attack. Today, we see them trying to unite a much broader base with a less tarnished face, by presenting themselves as the voice of ‘Football Lads’ and the defenders of free speech. They are attempting to tap into both popular culture and some sense that democracy itself is under attack.
Far right groups have attempted to recruit from football crowds for years – they’ve identified the fertile ground and potential power any large groups of prominently working class young men have when angers and frustrations are channelled. This is a something sadly missed by many when they echo elitist condemnations of football fans as mindless, drunken thugs.
The combined attempts of the far right leaders and those condemning their followers have almost been successful in creating a cultural hegemony around the movement – saying if you are a young, working class ‘football lad’ then ‘you are one of us’; we are protecting you, and this is where you politically belong. No other political narrative speaks to them at all, never mind in the same way. When liberal political commentators denounce the affiliations people like Tommy Robinson have had with football groups, they are only reinforcing and amplifying that embryonic political and cultural hegemony.
Unemployment, poverty, debt, alienation and sense of lost hope drive hundreds of men to kill themselves each year. It’s clear young men are the most likely to commit suicide, the most likely to develop drug and alcohol addictions, and the most likely to be drawn in by the far right. When these conditions contribute to the twisting of young men’s ideologies, it’s little surprise far right groups are the predators. Breaking the growing political and cultural hegemony amongst ‘football lads’ will be essential if we are to combat this growing fascist sentiment.
Many football lads not on these demonstrations understand and share many of the frustrations and anger. Anger and resentment due to economic mismanagement that has seen the destruction of our social infrastructure such as housing and education is being fuelled and directed by far right middle class opportunists to divide the working class in order to line their own pockets or to achieve a public platform for dangerous, bigoted and racist beliefs.
Continued failure from an out-of-touch and self-interested political elite will only force more football lads to flock to the banners of bigoted loud mouths. We need to acknowledge that many of today’s problems have been deliberately caused by economic plans designed to crush working class people, the consequences of which are now being played out as a cultural war. The longer these divisions are left to take hold in our communities the further we travel from a solution.
Any attempts to speak directly to football lads, or the presence of a ‘left wing’ football lads movement coming from ‘football lads’ themselves, will likely not be welcomed by either the left or the right, but many feel that action must be taken to prevent the situation deteriorating further.
We cannot forget some of the most important anti-racist and anti-fascist efforts have come from football clubs and ‘football lads’. Many of those who risked violent retribution for actively opposing the far right in the 1980s and 1990s would be classed as ‘football lads’ today.
Even today, many supporters groups maintain a non-political stance as a compromise and this has as much to do with preventing outside subversion from right wing groups as preserving unity among fans. Today’s problems pose a greater danger exactly because they are presented as cultural rather than political.
There is hope that by reaching out and offering an alternative narrative to today’s social and economic issues, by telling a story that is relatable and easily understood, told by those they recognised as ‘some of their own’, that we could turn the tide and begin to protect our communities from both out of touch politicians and divisive bigots.
Already we have organised representation at over 20 different teams across Britain with dozens more coming forward every day, every one of them with decades of experience, commanding respect that comes from being rooted in the fan culture within our clubs. Already we have caused a stir within the ranks of the DFLA, but our aims go far beyond merely opposing a hardcore of bigots at the centre of these groups. We will engage and deliver an alternative that can hopefully draw from their support to deliver a cultural and political change that truly represents the working class history of our football crowds. Only by standing shoulder to shoulder on the terraces, in the streets and in our communities will we have a chance doing what needs to be done.
Sean Ballie is an electrician, community organizer a member of Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism (FLAF) and was previously banned from every ground in Britain. For more on FLAF, see https://www.facebook.com/FootballLadsAgainstFascism/photos/flaf-is-a-group-by-and-for-football-lads-and-lasses-we-are-not-a-liberal-pressur/494628914332294/