Roland Out Today Party

The Valley Party

Background – The Valley Party

Charlton fans have an extraordinary history of political activism, and It is well documented that a major factor in returning Charlton Athletic to its stadium, The Valley, following a 7 year exile to Selhurst Park and Upton Park, was the formation by Charlton fans of The Valley Party, to contest the Greenwich Borough Local Elections of May 1990.

Although The Valley Party won no seats under the British “first past the post” voting system, it drew the public’s attention to the issues through leafletting and imaginative, award-winning posters. It attracted sufficient support (10.9% of the vote, which under the Belgian proportional representation system could have gained them 4 seats) to impact the major parties, and sent a clear message of local opinion. 

In April 1991 the planning committee reversed its earlier decisions, thus paving the way for the club to return to The Valley.  Without the efforts of the 60 candidates and many activists of The Valley Party, there would probably be no Charlton Athletic FC today.

Charlton fan Richard Hunt was a Valley Party activist and he played a significant role in the success of 1990. Richard has very kindly contributed the following account, describing how the campaign came together:

Why was the Valley Party formed?

Charlton Athletic Football Club was forced to leave its stadium, The Valley, in 1985, for financial reasons, and share the stadium of another club one hour’s drive away. In 1989, the Club had a plan and finance ready to return. The local council had previously encouraged the Club to return, but became negative and obstructive.They had calculated that they might lose votes from people who had moved into the area after the Club had moved away. The Club didn't require funding from the council, but the council refused to allow the stadium to be rebuilt with sufficient commercial potential. The council finally held a public meeting of their planning committee to discuss and decide on the issue in a ‘democratic’ way. The meeting was attended by 1,000 people, but it quickly became clear that the decision had already been taken to refuse permission. The next day a group of fans announced the formation of the Valley Party to contest the local elections, four months later, on the single issue of allowing Charlton to rebuild and play again at The Valley. 

The UK electoral system:

The Valley Party contested the London Borough of Greenwich, - where the stadium is located. There were 62 council seats to fight for, and the Valley Party contested 60 of them. The public votes for individuals in each seat and the individual with most votes would win the seat.

The UK electoral law:

It is not necessary to have a large number of signatories to form a political party to contest UK local elections. However very tough rules exist about how much can be spent on election publicity. If a party were found to have exceeded the limit, the entire election could be declared void, and be re-run.

The Advertising Campaign:

I was fortunate to be working the advertising agency BMP DDB. At the time, it was considered one of the best in the world, but in particular it had a reputation for political campaigns. It was the agency     used by the Labour party, ironically the party in power in Greenwich borough, but the agency chairman, Chris Powell, had no hesitation in agreeing to work for free for the Valley Party - provided the creative work was good. The agency had its own very strong media department which persuaded the owners of billboards to donate sites for free. The politicians never quite understood how such a professional and extensive campaign could have been     bought without breaking budget limits. The answer was that advertising company directors are also citizens.

Political strategy:

We would be a single issue” party. We would make no comment on anything other than The Valley. We said it would be up to the voters to decide if the issue was important enough to vote for. We recognised that many people would think it would not be important, so we asked them to consider raising the issue of the Valley with those politicians for whom they were going to vote. However, we had to earn the votes of those who were not football fans. We identified the football club as a symbol of the community, of local pride. The Council was already criticised for losing touch with the concerns of its citizens. We were ordinary citizens of the borough, and many people voted for us for that reason alone.

The Party and the Candidates:

Most of our candidates were completely without any political experience, and many would never have imagined they would stand in an election. Several of the original group behind the party could not be candidates because they did not live in the Borough, but they were able to play important roles, often as spokespersons.

Activity was co-ordinated through weekly meetings, but one of the most remarkable aspects of the party was that there was no ‘leader’. Different people chaired the meetings each week, and individual ideas and initiatives flourished. People gained strength and confidence from each other, and from the huge billboards they saw as they walked and drove around the Borough. 

Responses and tactics of the politicians:

In 1990, ‘football fans’ did not have a good image, so the politicians initially portrayed us as a group of fanatics who had no idea what it meant to run for election, and were behaving irresponsibly by bothering the electorate with their trivial concerns. However, when we unveiled the billboards at a well-attended press conference, which produced TV and national newspaper coverage, their attitude swiftly changed. Rumours emerged; of a mysterious millionaire behind the Valley Party; of secret assistance from other political parties, and I was particularly targetted for not being a local” resident. Because in 1990 there was no internet, the battleground was the London media, including the letters pages” of newspapers. Labour party officials often wrote letters to papers pretending to be ordinary citizens, but usually we discovered and exposed them.

The politicians had a problem, however. They also had to fight their traditional battles against their usual opponents, on a wide range of issues. We had just one issue and more and more active people helping the cause. The politicians used their usual weapons, but we responded with a range of weapons that came from nowhere, because they were the spontaneous acts of citizens. In BMP DDB we had a ‘communications machine” whose power would normally only be seen in the national election, but individuals came forward with their own expertise. We had in our team lawyers, employees in the council offices, journalists on local newspapers, accountants; and the support of celebrities”; rock stars, comedians, and particularly Michael Grade, then the director of Channel 4, and later to become the director of the BBC. It was he who publicly linked our campaign to the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe which had captured the public imagination. As a result of all this, we were always one step ahead of the politicians, without ever quite knowing how we managed it.

For most of the campaign, the national Labour Party assisted the Labour dominated Greenwich council, because they were simply ‘programmed’ to do so. However, the Thames Reports” TV programme, which went out two days before the election, exasperated the national party. The programme clearly showed that their own” advertising agency had turned against them, and the national party suddenly remembered that football was the working man’s game and, as such, the Labour Party was supposed to represent it. The national party decided that if the Valley Party did well, the local politicians would have some hard questions to answer.

Election results:

The result exceeded everyone’s expectations. We took 11% of the vote. Just under 15,000 votes were cast for the Valley Party, a figure three times the average attendance at Charlton’s matches at the time. It was quite clear that many people voted for us who were not even interested in football. Although we did not actually win a seat, the individual politicians who were seen as the biggest opponents, suffered badly. The politician in charge of Planning lost his place completely, and with it his career in politics. The Council Leader only narrowly defeated the Valley Party candidate, and his political career was permanently damaged. 

What happened next:

Thanks to the advertising, and the resulting media attention, the result was keenly anticipated across the country. When it was clear that the Valley Party had made a significant impact, the media descended on the council, demanding to know what they would do about the Valley. The council immediately made it clear that they would enter into new constructive discussions with the Club. They were under great pressure from the national Labour Party too, because the council’s opposition was now seen as an unnecessary antagonism of traditional Labour supporters.

Happy ever after:

Although finances remained difficult, Charlton made an emotional return to the Valley on 5th December 1992. After that the Club gained strength, and in 1998 was promoted to the Premier League. It became a national example of a football club as a community icon; it allowed the election of an ordinary fan as a member of the Board of Directors, and was a national leader in the fight against racist behaviour. in football and the wider community. The Valley is now a top-class stadium with a capacity of 27,000.

The story of the Valley Party spread far and wide. Unknown to us at the time, it had been picked up by America’s CBS News; and much later in 2006, the influential French football magazine SoFoot featured it in a review of the relationship between football and politics.

They said:

I don’t believe the issue of the Valley and Charlton returning there, is relevant.” - Councillor Simon Oelman, chairman of planning committeee, February 1990. He lost his seat in the election.

When the Council does not listen, when the decision has already been made behind closed doors, and when everybody knows it is a pretence, then democracy has been ridiculed in Greenwich.” - Leader in London newspaper.

...they now seem to be indignant that we are intruding in some private game called party politics, and that we as ordinary people have no right to particpate in this game." Richard Hunt, on Thames Reports” TV news programme.

At the end of the day we didn’t sit in the pub on our asses moaning - we did something.”  Steve Dixon, Valley Party candidate, in the Guardian newspaper, 4.5.90, - the day after the election.

People who argue that they support the team and not the stadium miss the point. The two cannot be separated without compromising the club’s identity. Now, in the nick of time, the soul of Charlton Athletic will be recovered.” Rick Everitt, publisher Voice of the Valley” fanzine, in the Guardian newspaper, 5.12.92, - the day of the Valley re-opening.

Well, win or lose, I wouldn’t have missed the battle for anything. But the thing is, we did win.” Richard Hunt, in the Guardian newspaper, 5.12.92, - the day of the Valley re-opening.

I was nowhere near Latvia or Warsaw when the yoke of Soviet repression was finally removed. But I watched the news coverage. I saw the tears, the joy, the tears, the smiles...and the tears. On Saturday at The Valley, I swear I saw scenes to rival those.” Michael Grade, Director of Channel 4 TV, and later Director General of the BBC, in the Guardian newspaper, 7.12.92.

ROT takes inspiration from those Charlton fans who came together in 1990, and fought so hard to help get the club back to the Valley. We embrace their spirit and strive to emulate their famous success.