Saturday 24 March 2018 5.30pm update:
Thousands of far right racist marchers took to the streets of Birmingham today.
There were in fact two demonstrations: the first called by the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) and the second by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA). See our preview story further down for a brief analysis of the split.
The atmosphere in the city was toxic, with large groups from football hooligan firms and gangs of racists roaming the city centre and a number of bars and pubs were filled with thugs chanting nationalist slogans.
Stand up to Racism called a counter protest opposing these marches of hate.
Around 1,500 joined the FLA protest. It gathered at Curzon Street and marched to Smallbrook Queensway.
Ex UKIP leadership challenger and Islamophobe Anne Marie Waters was the main speaker at the rally. There were two elements to her speech – the first was her putrid anti Muslim bile, the other was a call for people to join her new far right party, For Britain.
But the crowd only came alive when Tommy Robinson, the poster boy of the far right, walked into the square followed by his camera crew. He did not speak at the rally but clearly wants to be the leader of a new street movement.
The march set off, with FLA supporters chanting Tommy Robinson’s name, along with, “We want our country back” and “England till I die”.
Meanwhile 3,000 joined the DFLA demo, with groups of several hundred arriving in feeder marches – with chants of “England till I die” and the regular fascist signature tune, “No surrender” – to gather in Victoria Square for a rally before heading to St Philips Cathedral to lay wreaths.
Speakers at the DFLA event, compered by Meighan’s former ally Phillip Hickin, included acting UKIP leader Gerard Batten and MEP Bill Etheridge.
The feeder marchers meant large numbers of far right thugs were marching around the city centre in advance of the main DFLA event. One feeder march – of several hundred – attempted to attack the Stand Up To Racism counter protest.
A combined total of around 5,000 joined the two far right demonstrations. This is as big as the FLA’s launch demonstration in London last June.
Of the two rival factions, the DFLA clearly won the day – its demo was twice the size of the FLA’s. While the FLA has a much more sophisticated online presence, the organisers of the DFLA have much deeper roots inside the football firms.
West Midlands football firms made up a significant part of the Birmingham protest – the turnout from the London football firms was much smaller.
Antiracists and antifascists should be should take the scale of today’s demos seriously. There is no doubt these were large protests. It is the first time the FLA and its breakaway have called a protest outside of their London heartlands, and their mobilisation suffered from the split – but the combined total was still around the size of the FLA’s first demo.
And already there is talk on the FLA and DFLA social media pages about reuniting both wings. Many believe that for this to happen the leader of the FLA, John Meighan will have to go.
Birmingham once again shows the threat of a new far right racist street movement growing in Britain – and its potential to tie up with political figures such as the UKIP leaders, Tommy Robinson and Anne Marie Waters.
Two rival factions of the Football Lads Alliance are both set to demonstrate in Birmingham on Saturday 24 March.
The event was originally planned to be the next big show of strength by the FLA, the emerging far right racist street movement based on football hooligan firms.
Its first demo in London last June drew around 5,000, pulling in some genuine football fans alongside the hooligan hardcore, to listen to a string of Islamophobic speeches.
Its second outing, in October last year, showed how fast the FLA had grown – it was at least twice the size of the first demo, with probably between 10,000 and 15,000 on the streets.
But divisions inside the FLA have now hardened into two rival factions – the FLA, still headed by John Meighan, and the True FLA / Democratic FLA (DFLA) headed by Meighan’s former close ally Phillip Hickin.
The tensions that developed into a battle for control of the emerging movement have come alongside its worryingly rapid growth.
While the two factions will be competing for turnout and for the loyalty of key hooligan firms on Saturday, it makes sense for antiracists and antifascists to consider the two together.
Both factions – like the English Defence League before them – are far right formations built from the hooligan firms, mobilising largely around Islamophobia, and with harder core fascist elements seeking to gain influence inside them.
On Saturday Meighan’s FLA is advertising as its main speaker Anne Marie Waters – the Islamophobic “counterjihadist” ideologue with links to the EDL’s founder Alan Lake (real name Alan Ayling) and its former leader Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon). Waters was also an unsuccessful candidate for the leadership of UKIP before forming her own For Britain party.
Meanwhile the DFLA is countering with UKIP interim leader Gerrard Batten and MEP Bill Etheridge on its platform. It has also pulled the Veterans Against Terrorism group away from Meighan’s faction.
And it has a tie-up with the “J4T21” and has been seeking to mobilise support in Birmingham on the back of the 1974 pub bombing in the city, in which 21 people were killed.
Meighan’s faction are set for a rally with speakers followed by a march through the city centre.
The DFLA has gone for three feeder marches – or “walks” as it terms them – led by pipers into its own central rally, followed by a short joint march and wreath laying. It promises “Indian Dhol drummers and dancers” along with “Gurkha dancers”.
Whichever side attracts the biggest crowd, the combined total could be very large, given the scale of the FLA’s two previous mobilisations – although these were in London and were centred on London-based hooligan firms, particularly those associated with Spurs, West Ham, Arsenal and Millwall.
It is unclear in advance of the rival marches how much pulling power the street movement as a whole has in the Midlands or how far the recent split might have affected the overall turnout.
An additional factor is the role of Tommy Robinson, who has been courted by both sides. Robinson is now the posterboy of Britain’s racist and fascist movement, with a huge social media following and very significant pulling power on the street.
We saw this in Manchester last June, where thousands turned out to hear him just two weeks before the FLA’s first London demo. And last week, on Sunday 18 March, a huge crowd gathered at London’s Hyde Park at very short notice, where Robinson read out a speech by Martin Sellner, a figure from the nazi Generation Identity movement who had himself been banned from entering Britain.
Robinson is expected to be in Birmingham, allegedly “reporting” for Canada-based far right channel Rebel Media. At the time of writing has yet to declare for one FLA faction or the other. But he is capable of bringing out numbers on his own account.
There has also been some online flirting between Meighan’s wing of the FLA and notoriously racist media “personality” Katie Hopkins.
The leadership battle in the FLA was partly provoked by concerns over finances – we previously exposed how Meighan had set up a company, with himself as sole director, to channel the thousands of pounds made from FLA merchandise. Leading figures within the FLA want to know where all this money has gone.
Meighan’s challengers have also established a 20-strong “council” of “guardians” from the different hooligan firms, to tackle the lack of accountability of the FLA leader’s dictatorial approach.
Tactics – such as whether to have the third demo in Manchester or Birmingham – have been in dispute. And the general political direction is a source of unrest too. Many inside the FLA have been keen to ditch the controlled “no banners, no chanting” rules of the first two FLA demos.
The pressure to harden up the FLA’s politics has already had results – we have seen much more explicit material posted on its social media outlets, including links from the nazi organisation Generation Identity.
There is also a desire for a political voice alongside the street mobilisations. It is notable that leading individuals on both sides of the FLA’s power struggle have joined a new joint liaison group – UK Freedom Marches, as we revealed here – alongside former EDL leaders, ex-BNP members, hardened nazis such as Eddie Stampton, far right military veterans and UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge.
UKFM wants to coordinate the various far right street organisations and establish a “political direction”.
The state of affairs in Birmingham on Saturday will be a lot less coordinated. There is a potential for a face-off between the rival FLA factions.
But while the factional infighting may weaken the FLA movement, internal battles can also result in a consolidation and hardening up of its organisation. We saw repeated splits followed by regrouping and a hardening of its politics in a more fascist direction several times with the EDL – before it was eventually broken by a series of huge mobilisations of antifascists and local people on the streets.
State of flux
What is clear now is that amid the state of flux and internal conflicts, fascists and the far right in Britain are seeking a formation that will stick, a combination of street movement and ideologues. The final shape of that formation will not be decided in Birmingham.
But there are significant forces on the move. Antiracists and antifascists cannot afford to assume that the far right street movement will remain divided or that infighting alone will break it up. The EDL was broken by mass mobilisations against it on the streets – and that is what will be needed to deal with the FLA.