Friday 25 September 2015

The Clapton Ultras v Strike!

This article appears in the current edition of Strike!

A football club where minorities not only feel welcome, but get involved, can never really be a bad thing, no matter how much gushing, middle-class wankery gets written about them. Wankery that they aren't responsible for, remember...

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Before 2012 there were no Clapton Ultras: over the space of only three seasons, a group of left-wing anti-fascist football fans have, with their passion, noisy songs and a fondness for smoke flares in support of Clapton FC, a club in Forest Gate in east London, shaken up the staid, parochial county league that the team plays in.

In doing so, Clapton fans have also attracted increasing outside interest and often unwelcome attention. One senior left-wing union official tried unsuccessfully to use the terrace where the Ultras gather as a stage for some shameless personal grandstanding, whilst far-right groups have repeatedly complained to an indifferent London FA about the Ultras 'political' flags (something we are entirely guilty of). Last year, as numbers grew to over 200 and more and more people headed east to find out what all the fuss was about, the Ultras also started to face attempts to pin one label or another onto us. We have been described both as saviours of the left and condemned as an insufficiently hard-case anti-fascist 'firm'. Memorably, someone even called us 'metrosexual Palestine hipsters', an insult so brilliantly hilarious that it is destined soon to feature on a supporters' banner.

Why it's always seen as necessary to fit everything new into a preconceived and largely pointless category is a mystery to me. Still, none of it has come close to explaining the phenomenal rise of the Clapton Ultras or the upsurge of support – over 500 supporters at the end of last season - for a lowly non-league club long overshadowed by its rich and popular neighbour, West Ham United, who are based less than a mile away.

In reality, what is happening in Forest Gate is a reflection of a growing trend amongst an increasing number of football fans who are tired of paying £50 or more for a match ticket, or simply cannot afford to, just to watch a game with no atmosphere or spectacle. At Clapton FC, most fans also support a League side, but have adopted a local team, one with a long and rich history but forever at the fringes of football, because it means watching with friends for only £6, a beer in hand, without oppressive policing or officious stewards insisting everyone remains seated. For many, this is what has attracted them to switch to non-league football, or to return to the game after often years away from regular attendance at overpriced Premiership and League fixtures.

There is something else, however, that makes the Clapton Ultras noticeably different from other groups of football supporters: their absolute opposition to the often boorishly sexist, homophobic and right-wing sentiment and behaviour tolerated at many larger clubs. This has been coupled with the adoption of the best elements of a continental anti-fascist Ultras' culture that is strengthened by the presence of many Italian, Spanish and Polish fans.

What I love so much about attending a home game at the Old Spotted Dog Ground and standing with other Clapton Ultras is not just having a few cans of Tyskie and singing daft chants throughout, but the recognition that the people around me are socialists and anarchists, that at any moment the Italian partisans song 'Bella Ciao' may erupt from the Scaffold (the ramshackle stand made of scaffolding poles and corrugated iron where the Ultras congregate), or a banner might appear in support of anti-fascists in Greece or Germany. It's the fact that we produce all our own merchandise, just like Ultras in clubs across Europe, and that our stickers pop up randomly all over the country. It's knowing that someone might shout out a reminder that Maggie Thatcher is definitely still dead, but no-one is about to start calling the referee a 'poof' or claiming that opposing fans are 'gypos' or 'chavs'. Try that kind of shit at a Clapton game and you'll quickly find out what a crowd turning on you feels like!

This attitude extends to the club's place in its local neighbourhood, one of the poorest in London and the most ethnically diverse in the country. Acts of solidarity organised by the Clapton Ultras include distributing rights cards on the powers of immigration enforcement teams, organising food donations for a local project supporting asylum seekers with no access to public funds, raising cash for local group supporting victims of domestic violence and turning up in numbers to support campaigns around homelessness and evictions. At the end of the last season, on a truly magical day involving rainbow-coloured smoke flares, we helped launch an appeal that eventually succeeded in raising funds to keep open Newham's only LGBT youth group, which faced closure because of council cuts.

For many of us, this kind of community organising is just as important as the football: the Ultras bring together, in significant numbers, a group of like-minded activists with years of campaigning experience who can make a real impact locally. This extended to encouraging more local people so Clapton FC better reflects the community where it is based: just recently, we held a stall at the local Forest Gate Festival simply to remind local people that the club still exists and is far more welcoming and family-friendly than many might imagine. It's a real necessary because, perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of working class football fans remain white, straight and male. Constantly reaffirming our opposition to all forms of discrimination is slowly encouraging a greater level of diversity as the number of supporters increases, but not as fast as we would like.

Fundamentally, though, the Clapton Ultras remain just football fans, who happen to have created a safe, supportive space for others like themselves on the radical, largely unaligned left. It's somewhere to have a laugh, make new friends, temporarily forget what a massive cockwomble David Cameron is and still enjoy an outpouring of emotion at away game in a tiny village somewhere out in the wilds of Essex.

Disappointingly, we are not saviours of the left and definitely not a hard-case 'firm', no matter how much outside observers might want this to be true. As for 'metrosexual Palestine hipsters'? Well, as the fantastic film 'Pride' said, if someone calls you a name, you take that name and you own it. Look out for the banner in the coming season.

You can find the Clapton Ultras online at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @ClaptonUltras

The Clapton Ultras fanzine, Red Menace, is at
The Clapton Ultras podcast, The Old Spotted Dogcast, is at

Saturday 18 July 2015

Newham Labour nominates the 'Prevent' candidate for London Assembly selection battle

There were extraordinary scenes at East Ham Labour Party last Thursday evening, as a veritable chorus line of the usual party loyalists stepped up to support Newham councillor Unmesh Desai (right), Cabinet Member for Crime and Anti Social Behaviour. Desai desperately wants to become the Labour candidate to replace new Tower Hamlets Mayor, John Biggs, as the City and East constituency London Assembly member.

One of those who spoke at the meeting was the Dear Leader himself, Sir Robin Wales, who in an surprising intervention praised Desai as a community activist who had “founded Newham Monitoring Project” (not true, he was the group's first worker, but let's move on) and who fought against the British National Party in the south of the borough. This has been the message featuring strongly in Desai's campaign for local endorsement: in emails to Party members, he has promoted himself as an 'activist' with 'a solid track record of three decades of community campaigning'.

Strangely, there was no time to mention of how Desai, with Wales' support, was personally responsible for ruthlessly engineered the removal of council funding for Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) in the late 1990s, because he saw the group as an obstacle to his political ambitions. Nor did Wales mention his own unsuccessful attempts to pressure the National Lottery to try and stop NMP from receiving funding from it in 2000.

I have had cause to remark on Desai's staggering hypocrisy before. In 2011 I pointed out the irony of a man who was kicked out of the Socialist Workers Party over allegations of 'violent extremism' becoming the council's foremost cheerleader for 'Prevent', the government programme for tackling signs of alleged extremism -amongst young Muslims. If nothing else, Desai is living proof that the 'Prevent' strategy is based on a lie: there is no inevitability about an 'escalator of radicalisation' and youthful rebellion is never a guarantee of genuinely radical politics in later life. In Desai's case, quite the opposite.

One obvious question is this: why, after all these years, suddenly bring up NMP now? I suspect one answer is that the hardline, right-wing Blairite politics that dominates Labour in Newham has considerably less attraction and potential support among party members in the wider City and East constituency, which includes both the boiling cauldron that is Tower Hamlets and the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.  That may explain why Desai, who has held no job other than Newham councillor for years, is mythologising a colourful community activism that in reality he cynically abandoned decades ago.

Labour members outside of Newham should therefore have absolutely no illusions, whatever they hear otherwise. Desai is the most definitely the 'Prevent' nominee – the front man for a counter terrorism strategy that even a senior police officer has called a 'toxic brand' – in this candidates' selection.

If the kind of candidate you decide to choose is someone the security services would happily endorse, then don't say you weren't warned.

Friday 30 January 2015

Newham Mayor Guilty of Breaching Members Code of Conduct

Public accountability proceeds, it seems, at its own solemn pace. Newham council's constitution says a standards committee investigation into the conduct of an elected member should take no longer than three months. However, six months has passed since a complaint was made against Mayor Sir Robin Wales, and only now has the committee published its groundbreaking decision - that the Mayor "breached the members' Code of Conduct by failing to treat a member of the public with respect".

Some background: in July 2014, a video [above] emerged on YouTube showing the Mayor losing control of his temper at the presence of Focus E15 Mothers campaigners at an event in Central Park in East Ham. He was so angry that the footage shows a member of council staff physically restraining him. In the week that followed, a formal complaint was made about the Mayor's behaviour, alleging that Wales had breached the Members' Code of Conduct by failing to observe the statutory principle of “always treating people with respect, including the organisations and public engaged with and those worked alongside”.

I'd met the young activists from the Focus E15 campaign for the first time only the previous weekend, when volunteering as a legal observer for a march they had organised though the borough. Appalled by the Mayor's behaviour, I gave them some advice soon after the video began to circulate about how to make a official complaint. Eventually I decided to submit a complaint myself and so, ever since, I've had a ring-side seat as the formal 'complainant' to the glacial process that has followed.

The complaint was about the conduct shown in the video, which was essentially the only evidence. However, after a meeting of Newham's Standards Advisory Committee on 31 July recommended a formal inquiry, an independent investigator was appointed. In August she interviewed me and some of of the campaigners who appear in the footage. The committee did not meet again until early October and then decided set up a Hearing Sub-Committee to consider the investigator's findings and determine whether a breach of the code of conduct had taken place. It met on 21 October and asked the investigator to rewrite her report with new recommendations. A meeting planned for December was cancelled and the Hearing Sub-Committee did not make its final decision until 15 January – but was unable to announce it because the council's constitution insists it was first checked off by its appointed 'Independent Person' (a requirement under the Localism Act 2011).

The procedure for investigating a complaint is clearly convoluted, slow and in need of reform. I have no idea either how an investigation within three months is even imaginable if evidence is more complex than a short video. I must stress, however, that the independent chair of the Standards Advisory Committee seemed just as frustrated by it as everyone else and was always as helpful as circumstances allowed. What probably hasn't helped was Wales' refusal to cooperate with the formal investigation – to this day, he has not even bothered to deny the accusation against him.

It is, nevertheless, hard to understand why there was a delay in early October to excise references to “the Mayor’s failure to deny the allegation upon which he chose not to comment at all”, when this rather embarrassing detail appears in minutes released this month. This decision was in all likelihood the work of some of the Mayor's slavishly loyal lieutenants on the committee, but as the discussions were held in secret, it is impossible to know for certain.

Even before the committee's decision was made, the question of what sanction it might recommend was always, of course, largely irrelevant. It was never likely they would adopt my tongue-in-cheek suggestion of 'anger management classes' and anyway, apart from a letter to Wales with advice on his conduct, which the Hearing Sub-Committee has asked the council's Monitor Officer to write, there are always few options available when a complaint involves an elected Mayor. His unwillingness to engage with or even acknowledge the investigation suggests any advice will disappear straight into the waste basket.

Nevertheless, what is significant is the decision itself: one of London's most powerful and imperious Labour politicians has received his first slap on the wrist in recent memory. For years, Wales has cultivated the idea that he is completely unassailable and therefore someone whose displeasure people should fear. It has worked too, I've seen it for myself both internally and amongst those who have to deal with the council. Even recently, I've been told by sympathetic insiders of threats that are a variant on “you'll never work in this town again”.

The trouble is, the notion of Sir Robin Wales' impregnability has been successfully undermined: amongst the many impressive achievements of the wonderful Focus E15 Mothers, this is perhaps the most unlikely, but it's true. It may only represent a first step, but I hope it encourages others in future who believe they have been poorly treated by the Mayor or those surrounding him to feel that it is finally worthwhile making a complaint that someone will listen to.

Maybe, too, if the Mayor ever decides to bang the table, shout down local people, issue threats or browbeat members of staff, he'll start to wonder whether his words have been secretly recorded, as evidence for a Standards Advisory Committee that has actually displayed some backbone.

The Investigation Report remains a (local) state secret, but you can see the Decision Notice here

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.