Some six thousand supporters of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance marched through central London yesterday, outnumbering anti-fascists by around ten or twenty to one. Speakers included Milo Yiannopoulous and Tommy Robinson, while spotted in the crowd were members of the London Brigade of the Ulster Defence Association, the Racial Volunteer Force (a split from Combat 18), and Generation Identity, as well as the FLA and DFLA’s more familiar constituency of football supporters organised through fans’ networks, often without any previous history of mobilisation by the right.
The event was billed as a day for free speech. But these are politics which are repeatedly allowed a public platform. If there was a secret Islamic conspiracy limiting the far-right’s access to Newsnight or Question Time then it has not been very successful. Neither Milo nor Robinson ever owned their own newspapers or television stations, rather they have been able to build up social media followings on the scale of film stars through being promoted by other more mainstream voices. What they mean by free speech is free and unchallenged speech; the right to frighten and subordinate Muslims.
The DFLA isn’t a “finished” party. It is making every effort to be something, it has not found its final form yet. You can see that sense of trying in the group’s name. It calls itself the Democratic or (sometimes) the True Football Lads Alliance, because last year there was an FLA, which split. Several of its leaders are former supporters of the English Defence League which they are plainly trying to recreate. Even the EDL wasn’t a finished party: most of the time it felt like a racist and violent project with no other unifying politics (like the Klan in the US or the British Brothers League a century ago), but it also went through long periods of trying to be the UK affiliate of someone else’s far-right international, and it even had a short and successful electoral phase (Kevin Carroll won ten percent of the votes in Police Commissioner elections in Bedfordshire).
On the left, the most common understanding of the EDL has been that it was either a fascist party or evolving rapidly in that direction. Given its racism and appetite for violence, that seemed a plausible enough theory. But nine years have passed since the EDL was launched. There about half a dozen books now about the EDL plus we have examples of EDL type parties in around ten other countrie). We can see much more clearly now where it was heading.
If we’re serious about political categories, then the EDL did not evolve towards fascism. It started at a distance from the politics of Hitler or Mussolini (it did not put forwards Tommy Robinson as a leader capable of saving Britain, it never evolved a coherent fascist ideology, it expressed no loyalty to the interwar past) and never came closer to fascism. Neither have any of the other EDL-type parties in Germany (Pegida), Italy (the League) or Eastern Europe, which have also remained in a constant racist and Islamophobic state without going over to fascism.
The EDL did provide a milieu in which fascist groups and individuals could win new recruits, but that did not make the EDL or even the DFLA fascist (after all, Donald Trump has done much the same in the US: benefiting from fascist support without building a fascist party).
A far more likely next stage for the DFLA would be for it, or for one of the parties sheltering under it, to turn to electoralism.
We can see how that has happened – in the last two years – in Germany with the rise of a party (the AfD), which won 13% of the vote in elections in September 2017 with a base in exactly the same Eastern cities (Dresden and the surrounding area) where a street movement (Pegida) had recently enjoyed mass support.
If I am right about this risk, it is not exactly good news. There are still serious barriers to the rise of a properly fascist party in European popular memory. That’s why, with the exception of Greece, Slovakia and Hungary, there are no mass parties in Europe which combine street politics and far right electoralism. Everywhere else you look, it is one or the other, but not both. Where the far right turns hard towards fascism it affronts beliefs which are shared far wider than just the revolutionary left. Even in countries such as Slovakia where left-wing traditions were very weak, anti-fascism movements grew in response to Our Slovakia and stopped them.
As we have been reminded repeatedly over the last two years, the barriers towards a populist, racist, non-fascist demagoguery are much lower. Politics of that sort can win elections or can come close.
From that perspective, the parts of the DFLA which require the most careful opposition aren’t necessarily the central London street rallies, but events such as its Birmingham mobilisation, for which the FLA and the DFLA reinvented themselves as the allies of a local political issue (the lack of prosecution for the Birmingham pub bombers), and tried to create the sort of local right-wing culture which could justify standing in future elections. That’s the next step which worries me the most.
What should the left be doing in response to this new threat? Part of the reason the DFLA has been able to turn out numbers on this scale is that almost the whole far right has been willing to mobilise behind a single banner and no doubt in future weeks, a call will go out that the left needs to do the same. Plainly, some of where the DFLA comes from is the threat of a Corbyn government. A different approach, more concerned with unity, could potentially appeal to the JC4PM generation. If we could open up the closed-seeming ranks of anti-fascism to new generations that would be more than welcome.
But if I am right about the direction that the DFLA is heading then what is needed is not just a practice of mobilising from one demo to the next. We also need to create local cultures of anti-fascism. No-one from DFLA would think about setting up a chapter for Celtic fans, or for Liverpool fans (who spent yesterday singing the Mo Salah song even in defeat to Chelsea), or in Brighton with its strong AFN group, or in Kent where several years of localised anti-fascist campaigns have made life unbearable for UKIP. We need similar cultures of anti-fascism in every city.