Last Saturday’s demo by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) turned out to be a bad day for far right racist organisation made up of football hooligan firms – and a good day for antifascists.
The DFLA was outnumbered by the combined forces of two antifascist demonstrations – amounting to around 2,000 roughly split between the two groups, Stand Up to Racism and the Unity antifascist demo. This was the first time antifascists have succeeded in pulling bigger numbers since Britain’s new far right appeared on the streets in Manchester and London in June 2017.
And antifascists successfully blocked the DFLA’s march route, causing the far right demo to break up in disarray at the end. Every antifascist and antiracist should be cheered by this – it does not mark the end of the new far right, but it is a milestone for our side.
This was supposed to be the DFLA’s big day – as we noted in our preview it has lent support and token mobilisations to demonstrations called by others – the London demo on 13 October was its own event and was intended as a show of strength, drawing on the big London hooligan firms that were at the core of the original FLA and later the DFLA.
But on Saturday, the DFLA’s turnout was around 1,500 – much smaller than the FLA’s two big London demos in June and October last year, and smaller even than its outing in Manchester this June.
And some of the internal dynamics of the organisation were laid bare on the day. As expected, we saw a large mobilisation by West Ham’s hooligan firm. We watched a few hundred West Ham hooligans, accompanied by some from Millwall stage a march into the DFLA starting point.
The extent of the DFLA’s reach into the actual football club became clear when West Ham’s Under 18 manager Mark Phillips’s attendance on the march was revealed – he has since been suspended by the club.
But West Ham’s sizeable mobilisation was not matched by the other firms – the turnout from Spurs and Millwall was far smaller, although a group of Spurs thugs materialised elsewhere to attack antiracist counterprotestors on the Stand Up to Racism demo at the south end of Whitehall near parliament.
And despite the DFLA’s strategy of holding and supporting marches in the midlands and the north, it has not built from these as it would have liked. We saw a presence from Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Nottingham Forest, Watford and a few other firms, but it wasn’t substantial.
Without the impetus of a major event, such as the London Bridge attacks that prompted the formation of the FLA, the footsoldiers are less keen to turn out.
It was noticeable that West Ham – which stood aside from the internal ructions that led to the FLA splitting and reconvening as the DFLA – seemed to be the only firm whose numbers had not been massively reduced.
Without the ability to bring all the firms together on a broadly equal basis, the basic premise behind the DFLA is lost.
Political differences and strategic tensions within the group also came to the fore on Saturday. The DFLA’s base covers a range of broadly rightwing views and has mobilised around the unifying theme of anti-Muslim racism.
From the start, we have seen hardcore nazis, ex-English Defence League members, former British National Party and National Front activists moving aroudn and attempting to win support within the wider DFLA current. But much of the DFLA’s support – while attracted by Islamophobia, racism against other groups, and hatred of the left – is less politically committed.
While this summer’s “Tommy Robinson” demos have had a strong ideological component articulated by major platform speakers, the DFLA’s events have had less of this, despite the regular support of UKIP leader Gerard Batten. Without a hard ideology to hold it together, the DFLA’s formation is particularly unstable.
Tensions over strategy exploded into the open on Saturday’s march.
While the leadership had planned a disciplined silent march, and had arranged a formal deputation to present a letter to Number 10 Downing Street – part of the new far right’s focus on the centres of political power – much of the DFLA rank and file have been frustrated by this.
When around 1,000 antifascists on the Unity demo, marching south from Portland Place, cut across and blocked the DFLA route on Pall Mall, just before it enters Trafalgar Square, the far right march was thrown into disarray.
A large section of the DFLA thugs broke off to try to attack the antifascist marchers, who stood firm, while other DFLA supporters succeeded in trickling around the blocked area and filtering into the square by other routes.
Angry DFLA marchers hovered around the square until the antifascists had been moved out – with chants including the old fascist signature tune, “No surrender” – but by then the DFLA’s planned rally on Whitehall near Downing Street was a washout, with only a few hundred making it.
The Downing Street delegation went ahead – a new departure for the far right – but the DFLA marchers who were supposed to be cheering it on from their final rally point were not there to see it.
It is not clear where the DFLA will go from here – Saturday’s events have exposed its weaknesses sharply and the tensions are increasing inside it.
A section of the far right hooligans is seeking a less controlled outlet, with unannounced demos and a more openly threatening and violent stance.
By contrast, leading members of the DFLA were circulating a statement for discussion by the DFLA’s council in the wake of the demo “calling on the DFLA to enter into talks with the following Patriots to discuss the possibility of creating a united party” and listing a range of far right and racist personalities including UKIP leaders, the nazi Generation Identity, DFLA members, Tommy Robinson, members of the White Pendragons and others. They want to create a united far right political alternative.
While the DFLA appears to be in serious ill health following the 13 October demo, we have argued here that Britain’s wider new far right movement is a rapidly developing one, but very fluid, with different organisations and individuals vying for leadership.
At different times different elements come to the fore and other factors can affect the size of the various mobilisations. This is why we have argued that looking at single protests in isolation is not a fruitful way to understand the movement’s trajectory. It is developing fast and in a state of flux.
But as we outlined in our preview piece, the wider climate for the far right in Britain remains favourable, boosted by the huge “Free Tommy Robinson” protests of the summer and by the continuing gains of far right and fascist parties across Europe and the Trump regime in the US.
An illustration of how intermingled the forces of the far right are came towards the end of Saturday’s events. On the south side of Trafalgar Square, as aggressive DFLA members massed up to chant and threaten police and antifascists, there was an interesting intervention (see video below).
Danny “Tommo” Thomas – the organiser of the “Free Tommy Robinson” demos, who later spoke on the DFLA platform in this capacity – climbed up on someone’s shoulders to redirect the crowd towards Whitehall.
Despite the ostensible separation between Robinson and the DFLA, with both seeking to maintain their independent organisation, Thomas is clearly an influential figure among the DFLA rank and file – the video shows the hooligans turning down Whitehall on his direction.
While Saturday was a good day for antifascists, it would be very wrong to see this as the end of the new far right street movement. The DFLA is wounded but its footsoldiers are happy to mobilise under other banners too.
And over the summer we have seen demonstrations of up to 15,000 under the Tommy Robinson banner – historically the largest far right protests ever seen in Britain.
Robinson is due back in court on 23 October and there is likely to be another far right mobilisation in his support. And whatever the result of the legal proceedings, his supporters and the rest of the developing new far right movement remain a serious threat.