Groups like the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) want to spread their message amongst fans and recruit there too. What we are saying is that we have a different message for fans, one rooted in inclusivity and tolerance. And we will oppose what they are trying to do.”
Celtic fan, Lee Stevens is one of the founders of Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism (FLLAF), an organisation that has emerged in recent months in response to what they see as another attempt by the far-right to infiltrate the ranks of football supporters.
“The National Front (NF) and the British National Party did this years ago,” continues Stevens. “The English Defence League (EDL) tried it it recently, and now we have this new movement. Football has huge political potential, so it’s not surprising that such groups keep trying to do this.”
The Football Lads Alliance that Stevens opposes launched in June 2017, just days after the London Bridge Terror attacks. It appeared to have a simple motivation: to provide a medium for ordinary, working-class football fans to come together to protest what they saw as an inadequate approach by the government to tackle the issues of terrorism and extremism in the UK.
At the time, the FLA’s then leader John Meighan declared: “Politically, we’re not left, we’re not right, we’re centre middle and representing everyone against all forms of extremism.”
In its early days, the FLA appeared to be doing everything it could to distance itself from accusations of being part of the far-right. It’s gatherings were peaceful, local anti-fascist groups were liaised with prior to marches to explain the organisations’ desire to claim the ‘centre middle’ and the language they used was careful to stress the inclusivity of the movement.
But this changed as time passed. Policies, such as internment without trial were openly discussed, violence with anti-racist groups started to occur during protests and football hooligan ‘firms’, who had dominated the EDL, became more apparent within the ranks of the marchers, leading to greater prevalence of Islamophobic language.
On these protests, there was also a growing willingness to embrace speakers from the far-right, such as Anne Marie Waters, Luke Nash-Jones and Toni Bugle, all of whom addressed FLA crowds.
According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which has monitored the movement’s social media posts since inception, an evident shift to the right became evident online too, with the emergence of narratives that share much with those espoused by Britain First, For Britain and Tommy Robinson; narratives that highlight the danger posed by Islam, the ruinous impact of immigration and the threat caused by both to notions of ‘British identity’.
In February this year, following dissatisfaction with Meighan’s leadership, the Alliance split, leading to the creation of Democratic Football Fans Alliance (DFLA). Although each group regards itself as the ‘true’ FLA and the other as illegitimate, there seems a degree of ideological common ground, specifically over the movement’s founding ethos.
“We are anti-racist and anti-violence with no intention of seeking a political position but every intention of seeking justice based on what is right and wrong. We are not seeking to alienate any demographic but are seeking to bring to justice anyone who believes they are above the laws of this land and the values and traditions of our country,” a spokesperson for the DFLA said.
A sense of unease about the movement’s rightward shift has already led the Premier League and the UK Football Policing Unit to warn clubs about the presence of the FLA and the DFLA at matches, leading to the flags used by these organisations (boasting their respective crests) being banned at several stadiums.
‘But this doesn’t stop attempts to reach out to fans via social media and to leaflet outside grounds, according to Stevens. He hopes his counter-organisation will replicate the tactics used against the EDL. The latter group, which attracted the support of many football hooligans, tried to increase its presence among football supporters. Back then, it was the efforts of ordinary fans that helped thwart such attempts, taking inspiration from the Anti-Nazi League club groups that had challenged the NF in the 1970s.
“We are going to hopefully do something similar today,” continues Stevens. “As well as mobilising against their marches, we are going to counter them at our own clubs by leafleting, using sticker campaigns and ensuring that our voice is heard amongst fans, not just theirs.”
Despite its infancy, according to Stevens, the FLLAF has been inundated with requests by fans to set up club level groups, from non-league clubs like FC United of Manchester, to Premier League giants like Everton and Liverpool.
“We’ve had communication from across the football pyramid and from all over the country. And that tells me that people are concerned but also that they won’t take what’s happening lying down. We’ve been here before and beaten them back. I’m confident that collectively we’ll do the same again.”