Why Red Star Challenged Peter Soulsby: The Story of the Founding of Leicester Nirvana FC

The following article is an attempt to provide a brief summary of the early history of Leicester’s Nirvana Football Club, which started life as Red Star. All quotes are taken from Sallie Westwood’s excellent book chapter, “Red Star over Leicester: Racism, the politics of identity, and black youth in Britain,” which featured in the 1991 edited collection Black and Ethnic Leaderships: The Cultural Dimensions of Political Action. Sallie Westwood’s earlier book about workers in Leicester was published as All Day, Every Day: Factory and Family in the Making of Women’s Lives (University of Illinois Press, 1985). She is also the author of Sadness in My Heart: Racism and Mental Health: A Research Report (University of Leicester, 1989).

“The Red Star project is part of a long history of organised black struggle in Britain”. “As the leader of Red Star made clear, one of the aims of Red Star was ‘to take politics out of being a spectator sport’.” Around the time that Red Star was formed unemployment rates were already high (14.9% in Leicester), but for “black people, and young black people in particular, the situation was markedly worse.” Thus for young white people (16-19 years old) the rate of unemployment in 1983 was 23.6%, versus 38.5% for young Asians, and 45.5% for youth of West Indian heritage. Compounding these problems, Leicester — like the East Midlands more generally — has the unfortunate fortune of being marked as a low-wage area:

“[T]he Leicester City Low Pay Unit estimated in 1985 that 40 per cent of the workforce were low paid, that is, earning below £117 per week, and that an estimated 78 per cent of working women in Leicester were low paid. Leicester when it can work, is a working town, and when it is not working it is a deeply impoverished city. By 1987 one in five of the Leicester workforce was unemployed.”

So in this regard it is important to note that “The Red Star project was itself an example of… the refusal of young black men of Asian and Afro-Caribbean descent to be cast as victims in the system, but, instead to act upon and shape their world and the world of Leicester politics.”

Galvanised by racial injustice, exemplified by the rise of the National Front and continuing persecution of people of colour at the hands of the police across Britain, Red Star was born in a climate of growing political resistance. “The reason that Red Star was able to place a collective identity ‘Red Star’ so firmly on the political agenda in Leicester was because an identity had been forged both through the politicisation of the project as members came to know themselves through struggle”.

Red Star “took its name and had its roots in a football team, and it has remained closely tied to football up to the present time [although the team is now known as Nirvana FC]. The Red Star football team satisfied a demand for sports made by local black youth, but resources were limited, and after the 1981 riots the organiser of the football team started to negotiate with the city council for a youth club.” Through effective organising Red Star were eventually able to negotiate use of the first floor of a vacant secondary school that had recently closed down.

“With Red Star’s entry into the school in 1982 also came project money from the Inner Area Programme and the city council, who voted a grant of £56,500 in 1982/3 and £32,800 in 1983/4 with a projected £67,000 for 1984/5…

“By 1983 the city council had decided to review the relative autonomy of all voluntary projects, and in 1984 Red Star had its accounts frozen because it was late in returning audited accounts. At the same time the County Council, who were Red Star’s landlords, decided to move on the school building and to convert it to a community centre. Red Star were told to move out as a temporary measure, but they were not offered another base in the immediate locality and negotiations between management committee representatives and the council began and continued for months. It was clear that the County Council wanted the project out of the building, and Red Star responded in January 1984 by occupying it on a twenty-four-hour basis so as to secure their licence. But their problems were not over; the City Council now refused to continue funding the project, and by November 1984 the County Council had applied to the High Court for a possession order, following a notice to quit which had prompted a second sit-in. Red Star went to court and successfully fought off the notice to quit, but the County Council was granted a possession order through the courts, one which was never invoked.”

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When interviewed at the time of one of the later occupations one Red Star member said: “We will fight to stay here because we are needed” (Leicester Mercury, 14 November 1984). And fight they did. Although Red Star’s management committee played a critical role in organising youth resistance in Leicester, it is acknowledged that the “driving force behind Red Star” was a member of a local Trotskyist organisation (the International Marxist Tendency). Given the political climate it is hardly surprising that…

“From the moment that the project was given access to the school building there was opposition to Red Star. A petition signed by residents in the immediate areas received some publicity — publicity out of proportion to its support because the numbers involved were small… More serious opposition to the project came later from the local state and the city Labour Party” then led by Soulsby.

When the first occupation of their premises took place at the beginning of 1984, “several hundred young black men were involved” and were able to maintain their epic occupation “over several months.” But in addition to the occupation and the organisation of demonstrations in and outside the offices of the Labour council, Red Star members became involved in local Labour politics in an attempt to make their voice heard.

“The members had tried to galvanise the left in [Soulsby’s Spinney Hill] ward, and they did have some support which they mobilised as they moved further into the local Labour Party, producing a censure motion on the two ward councillors after the money to Red Star was cut off. The leader of the council and the other councillors were accused by the leader of Red Star of working against the interests of young black people, and in a charged atmosphere the leader of Red Star likened the machinations in the Labour Party to those of Macbeth, invoking Shake-spearian tragedy and politics as a way of highlighting the roles played by prominent Labour councillors in the troubles of Red Star. It was a dramatic speech and one which, of course, called up an icon of English culture and nationhood in the service of black youth. It was powerful both in this and in the way that it dramatized, through Shakespeare, the treachery of the councillors as this was viewed by Red Star members.”

“The Red Star issue had serious repercussions for the cohesion of the Labour group in the city, which culminated in members of the left wing of the group picketing the Labour group meeting… Needless to say, the party leadership fought back both within the ward and in the city more generally. It did so by concentrating on discrediting the Red Star project, and most especially its leadership because by this stage the interventions in the Labour Party had become more than the lobbying or disrupting of ward meetings.”

Those members of Red Star who had joined the Labour Party then launched upon a reselection battle, in which the leader of Red Star stood against Labour leader Peter Soulsby in the Spinney Hill ward – a fight that “nearly paid off”. Soulsby “had called up a section of the Muslim community, alongside his owner white support in the ward party, to defeat the challenge by the leader of Red Star. The Labour leader and others in the Labour group had used the divisions between generations and between political identities, emphasising a Muslim identity at the expense of a black one. They used, in effect, the politics of difference, emphasising a Muslim candidate, in fact a Welsh convert, when an initial strategy to involve an Asian Muslim lecturer from the university failed because he refused to stand. Although the Labour councillors did their sums the vote was not easily won; there was considerable uncertainty, and the case was referred to the National Executive of the Labour Party, which supported the vote against the leader of Red Star.”

“As a move to highlight their case and generate public support Red Star produced, through the ward party, a leaflet pointing to the needs of black youth and the undemocratic and racist ways in which city councillors were responding to these needs. In addition, they tried to secure support from other voluntary sector groups and the communities adjacent to the project. The Labour Party and the local newspaper had, however, been quite successful in identifying Red Star with rowdiness and anti-social behaviour, and this did little to enhance the reputation of the project in the city.” Soulsby even took the leader of Red Star “to the regional party for investigation on the charge of ‘bringing the party into disrepute’.” When the leader “threatened to sue for libel” Soulsby eventually “backed off”. And “despite the spirited defence of Red Star, and the strategic acumen of the leader, Red Star did not have its grant reinstated.” Nevertheless Red Star, through guts and sheer determination, continued to exist, and were vocal in their presence at the “picket of the [Labour] council meeting in February 1989 which protested about cuts to voluntary sector projects, most of which were black youth projects.”

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