Anger in the Valley - Charlton, Brexit, and the shoots of working class resistance

This is the second in a series of Forward March 'perspectives on Brexit'. Looking at the protest movement at Charlton Athletic Football Club, Rory Weal identifities the impulse it shares with Brexit, and the need to speak for communities who have been hammered by rootless free market forces. Last week's perspective can be found here. 


Most football fans remember their first match. The annointed day for mine was 29 September 2001. 6 years old, lost in the throng of fans and chants, I journeyed on my first of many trips to Valley Floyd Road, home of South East London’s Charlton Athletic. We welcomed the then not-so-converted Leicester City for what looked set to be a gritty mid table scrap. Gritty it proved to be - two red cards and a couple of broken bones later, the 90 minutes were up.


I didn’t really get what was happening during the match; the rules meted out by the referee, and the expletive rants which met them, were both equally baffling to a kid who spent most of his time playing with small plastic dinosaurs. But my ignorance didn’t matter. I remember feeling that I was now a part of something, and so began an irrational attachment to this football Club, which I have journeyed to dozens of times in the following 15 years of my life.


What does any of this somewhat self-indulgent autobiography have to do with a series committed to exploring perspectives on Britain’s recent exit from the European Union? Well, this is the best handle I felt I could get on the force which powered the Leave vote; that is - attachment and identity. We’ve heard much of these concepts since the Referendum result; senior Labour figures have rushed to state their salience (usually as a means of stroppy unconstructive Corbyn-bashing). When Tristram Hunt wades in on the issue of working class patriotism, it unfortunately has all the authenticity of an ethnographer studyinging some unfathomable tribe. Calls for the left to ‘do Englishness’ as a means of retaining its working class support imply that national identity were a monolithic political category which can be triangulated on. In short - at present the pitch on patriotism within Labour is just one of a stream of beloved platitudes which are essentially meanginless  (see; ‘aspiration’, 'labour values').


It is no point trying to 'get' something you so obviously don't. If you want to talk about identity, roots, and cultural connections it makes sense to start with your own. Charlton is my football club. But more universally, something profound is happening in this corner of South East London, something which makes this commentator deeply angry, but which – like the canary down the mine – may signal a new path beyond Brexit for labour and working class politics yet.



Taking back control in South East London

The travails at Charlton are well documented elsewhere. A once model club, having plummeted to the depths of League 1, is being mismanagered, asset stripped, and alienated from its supporters. After seven years in the Premier League, Charlton were relegated in 2007. The misfortune and failings of the Club have only burgeoned since that time. Critical escalation point occurred with the acquisition of the Club by Belgium millionaire magnate, Roland Duchâtelet, in January 2014.


Throughout Duchâtelet’s chairmanship, no interest has been shown in securing Club success as conventionally understood. Reorienting Charlton’s future as part of a network of Belgium teams he also owns, the new Chief Executive has outlined a ‘total football experience’ which amounts simply to selling on players to the higher leagues. Long-term Charlton heroes have been booted out, and a variety of sub-bar players from small European leagues which Duchelet favours have taken their place. There is little to no ambition for the Club to return to the top-flight of English football. The final damning tendency  is the new approach ownership have employed to board-fan relations; the Chief Executive has dismissed fans simply as ‘customers’, describing their emotional attachment to the Club as ‘weird’ and contrary to the laws of economics.


A Charlton fan walks past 'Roland Out' graffiti near the Stadium


This is indicative of two wider political phenomena. The first is the economic factor of asset-stripping; no longer confined to major corporations and hostile takeovers, the practice is now tearing apart community institutions. The second is the ideological war has emerged in response; on the one hand the actors serving transnational capitalism, on the other the provincial communities such forces are destroying. In Duchâtelet’s world-view, fans represent an irrational, archaic and extinguishable mass which prohibit the market allocation of optimal resources, and the justified and total ownership of shareholders. Their management strategy relies on an arrogant caricature of football fans as a Neanderthalic mass of knuckle dragging throwbacks, whose temporal power and influence defy all laws of economics and business management. Why appease an entity whose existence is temporally limited by the laws of economics?


The problem for the Duchatelets of this world is that, for all the talk of the classless millennialism, working class communities still exist, stubborn and defiant as ever. At Charlton, fans have made clear that they will not blindly accept the logic of profit whatever conclusions it draws. Last year, a small set of fans attempted to channel the anti-ownership disruption endemic at the Club’s home ground into a more codified resistance movement. The Coalition Against Roland Duchelet (CARD) is an efficient and disciplined organisation. They are innovative in their methods; disrupting matches with plane flyovers, printing alternative programmes and rebel kits, and mobilising the community behind all this action. Unlike what management would have you belief, this is not the action of a small group of thugs. Violence at protests is near non-existent. The campaign is inclusive and empowering. Above all it is efficient, underpinned by a strategy with a clear and achievable goal – to get Roland Duchelet to sell the Club.


At the root of this clash is the same impulse which powered Brexit. It should therefore be no surprise that, for all we hear of London’s solid Remainer status, the stadium’s adjacent (and solidly Labour) council seat of Abbey Wood pumped for Brexit by 54% to 46%. The language of both campaigns – Brexit and fan ownership - is fundamentally alike. This is because the debate in Charlton is not just over the fate of one football club, but over the very existence of community. ‘We want our Charlton back’ is the watchword of the campaign, reflective of our acute sense of loss and disempowerment. One need not spell out the semantic similarities with the striking and successful ‘take back control’ slogan of the Leave campaign.


Other aspects of the protests expose a more uncomfortable side to the phenomenon; the often fraught line between strong communal identity and implicit xenophobia. ‘Made in Charlton, destroyed by Belgium’s’ read one banner. Another Charlton fan sardonically put it:

‘I would be absolutely mortified if dear old Roly [Duchelet] was stopped from bringing in his Euroshite from the Lithuanian equivalent of the Unibond League, or wherever. He might have to source homegrown players, some of whom have experience of football in this country. This of course would be a tragedy.’

The articulation of these sentiments might not be the way many of us on the liberal-left would go about it, but when you share the cultural connection which underpins such views it is hard to see legitmately bummed out people dismissed out of hand as UKIP-toting racists. To try to understand the place from where the more malign attitudes arise, as the Charlton case shows, is not to excuse it but to begin to formulate solutions.




The politics of identity and the value of authenticity

The Charlton example shows the practical and tangible basis of national identity; not as some abstracted, anachronistic feeling – but rather operating in tandem with the tangible and the material; creating a mental framework and means of understanding the fraught times we live in. Labour does indeed need to start ‘getting’ the identities which for too long its MPs and members have regarded as parochial or unsophisticated, but it should not do so in such a way which betrays that very condescension.


In other areas of identity politics, lived experience stands front and centre of emotional appeals - this is the case in the feminist, LGBTQ+ and BAME movements. Yet when it comes to labour and working class politics, the distance commentators have from their subject matter is striking. (I'm well aware of the scope for accusations of hypocrisy here - I'm no working class hero, having had a well-off middle class early upbringing. But with parents who never even thought about going to university, being plunged into relative poverty since 13, and evicted from our home more than once, I certainly have a perspective on how financial insecurity shapes cultural world-views). Hence we get a situation where working class Leave voters are patronised and demeaned rather than sincerely understood. Equally patronising though, is the attempt to ‘understand’ an abstracted and monolithic Englishness - reducing it to a crude nationalism and resulting in just fangirling the Royal Family. National identity is complex, and is refracted through a multitude of lenses around region, socialisation, and class. The left cannot 'show' that it ‘gets’ identity, for in such a contrived performance the left betrays its very distance and insincerity. The answer must lie in the connection of the commentator to their subject matter. When politicians talk about feelings they don’t understand, everyone sees through it. Corbyn, Trump, Farage – these men succeed in their sincerity. Identity is subjective – you cannot triangulate on it. Authentity is the path to the left's rebirth; another wave of managerial tirnagulation will only see us swept aside in this age of emotional appeal. The technocratic left is dead - we have to embrace so-as-to shape an era which is defined by post-material attachment, and a seething anger at the way politics is done.


Charlton fans storm the pitch after the team's 3-0 defeat to Burnley, May 2016.

The battles ahead - getting our Charlton back

What is happening at Charlton is a frontline in a war not just for the soul of football but the soul of the nation too. It is not clear what fate will befall Charlton Athletic. It is likewise not clear what fate will befall Britain outside of the EU - especially for those working class communities like Charlton’s Abbey Wood which powered the Leave vote. Just as there is an odd similarity in both of these seemingly disparate phenomena, I suspect the outcomes for Charlton and for Britain could be oddly similar too. Whether or not each will be able to retake control in the way they believe they can, I do not know; whether that control will manifest as egalitarian and empowering, or hostile and racist, is equally ambiguous. But to view this pheneomenon crudely as fundamentally racist, and to have nothing more to do with it, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will allow the right to seize the initiative and claim it as its own – this would constitute a shameful abandonment of who Labour was founded to represent.  To shape the outcome of Brexit, we must first connect with its impulse.  


A provincial club, more than most community institutions, forms a bedrock for a great many peoples identity; a manner of seeing the world through values of association, loyalty, and commitment. When those values become challenged by a perceived malign outside force, who is intent on corrupting the core identity of a great many people, it is entirely logical for a defensive, often conservative solidarity to emerge. This is what has happened at Charlton with Roland Duchelet, and what the Brexit vote represented a rejection of. It is not excusable for this defensive solidarity to manifest in exclusionary hatred. Yet if this outcome is to be avoided, we must own and shape the impulse without being squeamish. Recognising the existence of this new working class politics is only the start - Labour must now become the voice for those who seek to defend their community against the large faceless forces of capital. Charlton fans have led by example - it's time for the rest of the labour movement to get our hands dirty and pitch in.