Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
Since the English Defence League (EDL) first appeared in 2009, it has sought to make its presence felt among the country’s football fans. And although football might be a more tolerant sport than it once was, there remains a small element within the game that has responded to their overtures.
The majority of these supporters can be found among the ranks of the hooligan ‘firms’ that are still associated with some football clubs. These first emerged from the ‘casual’ sub-culture of the 1970s and 1980s as a way for fans who enjoyed post-match violence to organise themselves along team lines. Although these firms are much diminished today, some have survived, with several even enjoying continuity in membership.
According to Paul Jenkins, north west regional organiser for Unite Against Fascism (UAF), these fans represented a readymade army that the EDL could unite and organise: ‘Not all of the men in these firms – and it is just men – share the views of the EDL. But there’s enough that do for the EDL to have representation at several clubs. These are the people who are trying to bring racist and Islamophobic chants and language onto the terraces and who come out to protest and instigate violence on the streets with the EDL. At the moment you’re not talking about massive numbers, but the problem is that these people can be used to recruit other football supporters, something they are increasingly trying to do.’
What’s happening today has parallels with the 1970s and 1980s. Then it was the National Front (NF) organising among football supporters and managing to gain representation at several clubs, such as West Ham, Chelsea, Leeds and Millwall. Much of this representation was also drawn from the ranks of hooligan firms. Both the ‘Chelsea headhunters’ and the ‘Leeds United service crew’ possessed links with the NF.
Along with wider societal changes in attitudes towards race and religion, from the late 1980s onwards several factors combined to diminish the problems faced by the sport. The increasing prominence of ethnic minority players, the rise in the number of women, children and ethnic minority supporters attending games and a more aggressive approach by the police and the clubs in targeting hooligans (such as banning certain fans from a ground) all played a part in changing the face of the game. These have been complemented by a succession of anti-racist campaigns, such as Show Racism the Red Card and Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football, as well as anti-racism community work undertaken by the clubs themselves.
The EDL has also so far failed to make any significant impact among fans at England matches, despite this being an area where the far right has had a presence in the past. ‘I can honestly say that I have never seen any evidence of the EDL at England games over the last few years,’ says Mark Perryman of the England Supporters Club. ‘A lot of football hooligans are already banned from these games and few real fans would risk getting a banning order because of any suspected involvement with the EDL.’
The England team has also gone to great lengths to take a stand against racism – not least because they have been the targets of racist chanting and abuse at away games such as the recent Euro 2012 qualifier in Bulgaria. Both the manager Fabio Capello and captain John Terry made strong public statements on the subject before September’s game against Wales, where the team wore ‘Kick It Out’ armbands to stress their commitment to anti-racism.
But although the overall picture has improved, there remains inconsistency across the sport. In the lower divisions and in non-league football, a lack of adequate stewarding and enforcement of banning orders has meant that racism and religious intolerance remain more of a problem.
‘This is why the EDL has targeted clubs outside the top divisions,’ says national UAF organiser Paul Sillett. ‘In the lower leagues the EDL feels more confident in speaking out and organising.’
While the EDL as yet is confined to the margins, the fact that it has been able to establish a presence at all is worrying. ‘They’ve got a toe-hold and a message that a lot of people give time to,’ says Paul Sillett. He believes that unlike the simplistic racist views of the NF in the past, elements of the EDL’s message today find an audience across a much wider swath of society.
‘The EDL portrays itself as a protest movement against militant Islam and excessive immigration, two perspectives that find sympathy among sections of our society,’ Sillet says. ‘There are plenty of football supporters, specifically young lads who like the appeal of being part of a gang and have an affinity with the patriotism that the EDL wrap themselves up in, who are going to be open to the superficially persuasive message that the EDL provide, specifically when they see aspects of it mirrored in the tabloids and echoed by certain leading politicians. These are people who might not consider themselves racist and would never use conventionally racist language but who nevertheless find the anti-Islam rhetoric of the EDL acceptable. This means that although the EDL might be confined to the hooligan fringes at the moment, it will not necessarily stay that way.’
According to Gav Sutherland from Show Racism the Red Card (SRRC), the rise of the EDL has to be taken seriously. ‘The increase in popularity of the EDL is having a big impact, particularly their targeting of young people. As an educational campaign that uses professional footballers to talk to young people about racist and religious intolerance, we will continue to do our best to tackle the myths and lies about Islam and Muslims that the EDL is trying to spread.’
These educational campaigns would be immeasurably aided if there were more British-Asian football role models. But there are only a handful of British-Asian professionals playing in England and they make up less than one in 100 young players in football academies.
At a club level, although many mirror the work undertaken by SRRC in their own communities, as yet there has been no specific action against the EDL, even among clubs where the EDL has been active. Instead, the strongest reaction is coming from the supporters themselves, who in the absence of any meaningful response from the teams they follow have decided to take matters into their own hands.
‘One of the most pleasing aspects of this is the way some existing casual firms have taken on the EDL,’ says Paul Sillett. He says that although the link between the far right and the hooligans is an established one, it’s not the whole story.
‘Back in the 1970s not all hooligans were racist. There were examples of mixed-race hooligan firms and examples of casuals that organised themselves against the NF, something that is also happening today. At West Ham their firm is active against the presence of the EDL.’
Ordinary supporters are getting involved too. Across the country, fans are part of a growing grass-roots action against the far right. Bolton supporter Lindsay Bessells is one of many fans who joined with UAF last season in a concerted campaign to counter the presence of the EDL. ‘I’d begun seeing an increasing number of men at the Reebok stadium wearing EDL t-shirts and began to realise that this hooligan element in our fan base was partly responsible for the rallies that were happening locally, and for much of the violence that was associated with them. I felt that I had to get involved and do something to stop their influence spreading.’
By mobilising and engaging supporters the campaign has sought to mirror what the EDL has tried to do. But whereas the EDL has been appealing to a minority element within football, the anti-EDL campaign has been preaching to the majority, according to Linda Jones, who leafleted outside Bradford City’s ground.
‘We’ve leafleted a few times and now and then you might get people refusing to take one or telling you that they are sympathetic to the EDL but in general most fans support what we are doing. As in wider society, football fans as a whole are much more tolerant than they used to be. They recognise the EDL for what it is, just another incarnation of the far right – something that has no place in the modern game.’
This supporter-led action harks back to the late 1970s, when, in the absence of any action by the football authorities or the clubs, fans began to fight back against the influence of the far right themselves. This was often done in an organised way, with Anti-Nazi League groups being established by football fans at 20 or more British football grounds. And this more formal organisation is already evident today with the creation of anti-fascist organisations at clubs such as Leicester, Aston Villa and Tranmere.
‘Following the formation of the EDL we began to see the development of something worryingly reminiscent of the 1970s. It struck us that the best way to counter this was to organise properly, providing a better chance of countering the EDL’s propaganda,’ says Bidston Moss of the Tranmere Rovers Anti Fascist group (TRAF).
TRAF has already undertaken a mass leafleting of the ground and organised a number of anti-fascist social events in Birkenhead. The group has ambitious ideas for the future, with a possible outdoor festival and large evening events planned.
‘Our overall aim is to appeal to our supporters to resist sly right-wing “come-ons” from these far-right bigots,’ continues Bidston. ‘The EDL sing from the same hymn sheet as other far-right groups. Its demos are dominated by Nazi-saluting thugs and chants of “dirty Muslim bastards” and “we hate Pakis more than you” are evident whenever they congregate. This is the reality that football supporters need to understand – and it’s a message that more and more of us fans are beginning to spread.’
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee