The Football Lads Alliance (FLA) is in deep trouble after a major charity pulled out of working with it last week. Walking with the Wounded, which helps veterans, backed out after Stand Up To Racism raised concerns.
It is a major blow ahead of the FLA’s demonstration on Saturday 7 October when it plans to put “thirty to forty thousand” people onto the streets of London.
People with all sorts of different ideas have been attracted to the FLA’s official message of “unite against extremism”.
But posts in the FLA’s internal Facebook group, reacting to the charity pulling out, underline that prominent fascists and racists support it. And it gives a platform for Islamophobes to organise around.
John Meighan, founder of the FLA, has insisted the group has no links to the far right. But even he was forced to admit that racists were involved in the organisation.
He posted, “A charity has pulled out based on factual information, it’s not falsified in any shape or form.
“People have made racist comments, it’s simple.”
Those responding include both present and former members of the fascist English Defence League (EDL) and British National Party (BNP).
Tracey Coy Miles, an FLA supporter, posted, “I’m EDL…I might as well leave this group now then as my wall is full of anti-Islam posts.
“Although I have said many times I wouldn’t jeopardise this movement by voicing my opinions in this group.”
Paul Sturdy describes himself on Facebook as “an active and committed member of the British National Party”. He’s a member of the Football Lads Alliance (FLA)—QPR Division Facebook group.
The FLA has organised out of the general rise in Islamophobia, particularly after the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks. After the Parsons Green attack, some FLA members became more confident in posting racist and violent comments.
Richard Everson commented in the FLA internal group, “We need to start using violence in these situations.” And some are showing up the hollowness of the “unite against extremism” banner.
Commenting on the Nazi murder of Jo Cox MP Paul Edwards said, “Her killer was a mentally ill loner, unlike Islamic murders who do it for a cause”. There have also been verbal attacks and death threats against Weyman Bennett, joint convenor of Stand Up To Racism.
Some of the longest came from Toni Bugle, who spoke at the FLA inaugural protest at London Bridge in June. Previously Bugle recorded an online message to supporters before a Mothers Against Radical Islam (Maria) protest at Downing Street in 2015.
“I don’t care what you are, I don’t care if you’re Britain First, I don’t care if you’re English Defence League, I don’t even care if you’re National Front,” she said. Bugle was a member of the Nazi British National Party (BNP) and joined fascist English Defence League (EDL) demonstrations.
In 2016 she stood as the police and crime commissioner candidate in Bedfordshire for the English Democrats, a deeply Islamophobic outfit.
Her Maria group is closely linked with Anne Marie Waters, the Sharia Watch website founder who Nigel Farage judged to be too racist for Ukip. As the party’s parliamentary candidate in Lewisham East in south east London, Waters said that “the only evil we have legalised is Islam”. She called on people to “insult Islam”.
Most recently, after the Parsons Green bucket bomb Bugle posted on Facebook that the authorities had left “whites” as “sitting ducks”. She is now urging people on social media to join the FLA demonstration on 7 October.
Mohan Singh, who is part of the reactionary and sectarian Sikh Awareness Society, also spoke at the FLA demonstration in June. Much like Bugle, he paid lip service to the idea of supporting “unity” and of fighting “all extremism”.
This included condemning a racist attack at Finsbury Park Mosque in north London. “Manchester London Bridge, Borough Market and the recent one in Finsbury Park, I condemn them all,” said Singh. But the tone of the speech quickly changed.
“It’s time to cut out the bullshit and call it what it is,” Singh said. “Religious extremism is the problem and in the last three months it’s radical Islamic terrorism. “Let me say that once more—radical Islamic terrorism.” To cheers Singh called for a crackdown on Muslim people under the guise of tackling “extremism”. “What we’ve seen in the last three months is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
“We’ve got to go down and root these people out.” His demands included a “blacklist of foreign and home grown Imams”.
Singh’s Sikh Awareness Society is an influential sectarian body. It says its aim is to “protect all of our children”. In reality it promotes the stereotype from some politicians and others that Muslims are child abusers.
Singh was part of a “United Against Hate” event with former EDL leader and BNP member Tommy Robinson and Waters in June. This is not the only time Singh has shared a platform with Robinson—and he has joined EDL demonstrations. This doesn’t mean that everyone who went to the FLA demonstration is a Bugle or a Singh.
In its early days the EDL had a hardened racist core, including Nazis, with a much softer layer around them. At points it could mobilise thousands compared with the dozens it often musters these days. It mobilised six in Chelmsford last week. Sustained mobilisation defeated the EDL by breaking the broader layer away from the Nazi core.
While Nazis attend FLA demonstrations, the group is careful to try to distance itself from the EDL and other fascist groups. It has banned banners and alcohol on its mobilisations.
This tactic isn’t anything new to right wing movements. During the early EDL demonstrations, BNP members were told that they should not attend in the hope that the protests would then appear more respectable.
After the 7 October demonstration, the FLA could move in the direction of an Islamophobic street movement, taking up racist populist themes. Britain has not seen this sort of movement before. Previous street movements from Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts to the EDL have firmly involved fascists in the leadership.
But a racist populist movement on the streets is not without precedent. In the last three years the Czech Republic saw a big “No to Islam” movement as did Germany with the Islamophobic Pegida. The leadership and base was not made up of Nazis. But these movements tolerated fascists and they rose to prominence as the movements progressed.
The popularity of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has shown that the left can win support in Britain.
Yet mainstream politicians’ attacks on refugees and scaremongering over immigration means there is fertile ground for a racist movement to grow. The implosion of the racist Ukip party means that some its audience is looking for another political organisation. A large proportion deserted Ukip for the Tories in the general election, but some may also look to the far right.
Some supporters in the FLA Facebook group identify as former Ukip members and some as right wing Tories. Meighan is cautious, but the mask began to slip during his regular posts to the FLA’s internal Facebook group. In one post Meighan describes a conversation with a Crystal Palace fan who asked “why the FLA had not taken a hard line on some issues”.
Meighan’s reply was telling. He pointed to the FLA leadership’s aims of putting “mass numbers on the streets”. He described the FLA as “a new and fresh movement” that needs to “crawl before we can walk”.
“It’s imperative that we grow this movement, and have a series of successful marches before we can be classified as a credible outfit,” he wrote. In the meantime the FLA “will use our platform to raise key issues relative to the current hot topic of Islamic Extremism”. For Meighan this is “the primary threat to our society”.
The tension between the FLA leadership and the racists it attracts has been brought to the fore by the charity pulling out – and could become sharper after 7 October. In the interview Meighan said, “We will learn from the mistakes other movements have made so that we can be heard.” Anti-racists must also learn from past movements and how we opposed them.
Because the FLA is still forming as a movement, there is confusion on the left about how to respond. Some choose to ignore it because it isn’t just made up of fascists—but that was true of the EDL in its early days.
And just because a movement isn’t fascist, that doesn’t mean it’s not a racist threat. That’s why Stand Up To Racism has called supporters on to the streets on the day the FLA marches.
We have to expose the racism in the FLA—and take on the broader racism in society that’s given it an opportunity to get a hearing.