With Millwall supporters mobilising their own political campaign against Lewisham council ahead of June's general election, football fans in south-east London may well feel a sense of déjà vu. This is not the first time that, confronted with a Labour-dominated local authority that they feel is treating their club unfairly, a fanbase in the area has sought to make themselves heard by coming together as a political force. While the Millwall Community movement have put forward a local resident named Willow Winston to contest the Labour stronghold of Lewisham East – this after the local council agreed to sell the land around The Den to an offshore property developer via a compulsory purchase order, a decision on which they have since been forced to back down – the original football candidacy south of the river was launched by fans of local rivals Charlton Athletic. Rather than battling against developers threatening their home ground and the land around it, Charlton fans fought for something akin to the opposite, going toe to toe with the Labour Party in an effort to see The Valley redeveloped and once again made fit for use.
While we have to rewind to 1990 to get to the heart of Charlton's political awakening, the roots of their campaign go back to the seventies and eighties. Opened in 1919, The Valley had once been one of the biggest and best attended stadiums in the country, but by the early seventies the club was in a state of decline and decay. Having been a First Division side throughout the forties and fifties, the Addicks flitted between the second and third tier while the rest of Britain went from the three-day week to a Thatcher government, the club's waning fortunes and unsteady finances reflecting those of the country as a whole. Having secured the shock signing of Barcelona striker Allan Simonsen in 1982, the Charlton hierarchy found that they had massively overstretched themselves in funding his transfer fee and wages. It was thought that signing Simonsen would boost their dwindling attendances to the point that the transfer might become financially viable, but this desperate gamble failed to pay dividends. Unable to pay Simonsen's salary, they had no choice but to let him leave and, come 1984, the club went into administration and faced the very real possibility of ceasing to be.
With their finances in such disarray, it became less and less tenable for Charlton to reside at The Valley. The ground was now in a parlous state and in need of major renovation, having had its capacity reduced to 20,000 in 1975 owing to the Safety at Sports Grounds Act, and further cut to 13,000 because of general disrepair in 1981. With its terraces crumbling and some of the stands essentially dilapidated at this point, the onset of the Bradford City stadium fire and the Heysel disaster in quick succession saw the authorities heavily criticise the ground's safety record. The Greater London Council were soon demanding that repairs be carried out but, unable to afford the cost of such an endeavour, it was decided at the start of the 1985-86 season that Charlton would have to leave the area and groundshare with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
Though the initial announcement of the groundshare was met with considerable anger, including a mass pitch invasion in protest at the decision to relocate to Selhurst, Charlton fans were not yet at the stage of making their resistance overtly political. Club officials found themselves operating out of portacabins and there was a profound sense of the Addicks being lost in the wilderness, with their low attendances helped slightly by the fact that Charlton were somehow promoted to the First Division in the first season of their unwelcome cohabitation with Palace. In 1988, after a reshuffle on the board of directors, the club managed to reacquire The Valley with the help of Laing Homes, a major property developer, and began to make plans for refurbishing the ground. This came after petitions, protests and much criticism in local papers and Charlton fanzines, which laid the groundwork for the political activism which came later. Now it was up to Greenwich Borough Council to approve the plans, though fans were optimistic of a return to their spiritual home.
When The Valley was first built in the years following World War I, Charlton had relied on a small army of volunteers to excavate the abandoned chalk pit on which it was founded as well as put together its makeshift stands and terraces. In a symbolic effort, echoing their history, thousands of Charlton fans banded together to clean up the stadium before making an enormous bonfire of the resultant refuse on the middle of the overgrown pitch. Unfortunately, Greenwich Borough Council would not be won over by symbolism alone. According to Joseph Maguire in his book Power and Global Sport: Zones of Prestige, Emulation and Resistance, the council favoured the club relocating to a new site on the Blackwell Peninsula so that the site of The Valley could be used for housing, an option which certain elements within the club hierarchy seemed to favour. This was deeply unpopular with supporters, who had no intention of abandoning their heartlands and moving closer to Millwall territory. The Blackwell Peninsula, as well as being two and a half miles away from The Valley, was also considerably closer to The Old Den, and even had Charlton fans been willing to relocate this would arguably have hampered the club's future growth.
While negotiations between the club and the council were dragging on, another major event in the world of football changed the landscape at The Valley once more. In 1989, the English game was shaken to its core by the Hillsborough disaster, and the Taylor Report which followed in January 1990 became the basis for a radical overhaul of football grounds. The adoption of the all-seater model meant that the original plans for renovating The Valley needed to be redrafted, and rather than a terraced stadium as before the new ground would need modern facilities and comprehensive remodelling. This raised the cost of renovating the stadium by quite some margin, and the council baulked at both the scale of the plans and the considerable risk involved.
This, combined with mutual suspicion between Charlton directors and councillors as well as a wrangle over whether The Valley would be allowed to host non-footballing events, led the council to refuse the club planning permission for rebuilding and renovation works. It looked as if Charlton's return to The Valley might be dead in the water, and that the famous old ground might be demolished for good and turned into another block of red-brick homes. Invigorated by their struggle to secure a pledge to return to the area in the first place, however, Charlton fans were not about to accept this decision without protest, and mobilised themselves for more community activism and local demonstrations. They also found a platform for their cause which would provide them with exposure and visibility: the 1990 local elections.
Remembered nationally as a strong showing for Labour – filling left-wingers with false hope ahead of the 1992 general election, when Neil Kinnock was lampooned by The Sun and failed to oust the Conservative Party from power – the 1990 local elections are memorable in Greenwich for very different reasons. In fact, Greenwich was one of the few places where Labour did worse than expected, this because of a one-issue party which unseated several of their councillors. The Valley Party, formed by Charlton fans on a ticket of ensuring the club's return to their home stadium, campaigned feverishly in a borough which was split between Labour, the SDP and the Conservatives, but controlled largely by the former. So it was the councillors with red rosettes who Charlton fans targeted at the ballot box, and with no small success.
In an article from 2010 reproduced on the website of the Charlton Supporters' Trust, Rick Everitt – a prominent figure in the campaign and editor of the Voice of the Valley fanzine – reminisced that their one-issue party had "no personal ambition and very little substance… the 60 local election candidates and army of supporting activists that made up the Valley Party were a motley crew, with limited campaigning experience and very modest funding." Nonetheless, they knocked on doors, postered walls, leafleted residents and won over the local press. Largely ignored by their Labour counterparts, the Valley Party were given the opportunity to state their case with the conviction of football fans as opposed to the tepid officialdom of prospective councillors. Still, when the vote count was announced, even Charlton diehards were surprised.
In the end, the Valley Party won 10.9% of the vote in Greenwich, which although not enough to gain them a councillor did at least serve as a resounding endorsement of their platform. They ate into the Labour vote and hampered the reelection bids of several prominent councillors, stunning their opponents in the process. One of the councillors who lost his seat was the Chair of the London Borough of Greenwich Planning Committee, the body which had rejected the redevelopment plans for The Valley, Simon Oelman. In an interview on the Charlton Life forum from 2010, he was candid about Labour's position, saying: "It's fair to say that we didn't see the value of having a football club in the area." He also admitted to underestimating the Valley Party. "It was a brilliantly run campaign and more professional than any of the established parties managed," he said. "It was a surprise to me and all the Labour Party, and we didn't really take it seriously at first. But when we started to knock on doors and more and more people said they were voting Valley we thought: 'Ah, there's something going on here'... we didn't really know what to do and by then it was too late."
Though the Valley Party may not have beaten the Labour Party in open battle – while they stopped several candidates from being elected, they failed to exceed Labour's vote share, and it was the Tories and the SDP who ultimately won seats owing to the leaking of Labour votes – Charlton fans nevertheless won the war. Chastened by the show of popular support for the club, the council went back to the negotiating table, and plans were finalised for the Addicks' return in 1991. After a brief spell groundsharing with West Ham at Upton Park – Wimbledon replaced Charlton as beleaguered tenants over at Selhurst – their first game back at The Valley came on 5 December 1992. To the backdrop of jubilant celebrations, midfield stalwart Colin Walsh scored the only goal in a match against Portsmouth, heralding the reopening of the ground with a win as those who campaigned for the Valley Party watched on. So Charlton were victorious, and politicians were reminded – as they need to be sporadically – that football fans make for formidable foes.