In 1966, Harold Wilson spoke of “a tightly-knit group of politically-motivated men” at the heart of the seafarers' strike. The demands of the strikers appear modest now, higher wages in a notoriously poorly-paid and insecure industry, and a reduction of the working week from 56 to 40 hours. Even the most cursory examination of history will reveal that, as on this occasion, the establishment’s response to demands that go on to be seen as entirely reasonable is to seek to paint them as the demands of a radical "other", not just a threat to the established order, but to order itself. Let’s not forget, for example, how the suffragettes were labeled mentally unstable for demanding votes for women.
A document that has recently come to light on Merseyside shows that little has changed (PDF). And those familiar with the workings of modern football in Britain will not be surprised that it provides the latest example of an out-of-touch establishment attempting to demonise and marginalise opposition. In 2010, at the height of the bitter battle between supporters of Liverpool FC and then owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, an internal document was drawn up profiling the opposition under the heading "What do these people want?" It said that at the heart of opposition to the Hicks and Gillett regime were “a very small, yet highly-motivated group of agitators” who had “an underlying socio-political aspect to everything they do” and were “the sporting equivalent of the Khmer Rouge”.
The document named a number of senior football journalists, including The Times’ football editor Tony Evans, Hillsborough justice campaigner and former frontman of The Farm Peter Hooton, and a number of established Liverpool writers and fan site editors including Paul Tomkins of the highly-regarded Tomkins Times. The document focused on members of the Spirit of Shankly (SOS) Liverpool supporters union, alleging some were “very active within the Militant movement within Liverpool in the 1980s” and saying “they failed in the past to take on the establishment… when Liverpool almost tried to declare UDI on the rest of the country and form a Trotskyist independent people’s republic”.
It’s classic Red Scare stuff and, SOS’s James McKenna told the Liverpool Echo, it “confirms what we suspected, that there were briefings and dossiers and blacklists”. Liverpool FC say that “no one from the club’s current management was involved with or had any knowledge of this document”. The initials at the bottom of the leaked paper are PT, believed to stand for Paul Tyrrell, who was Liverpool’s head of press in 2010. Tyrrell has issued a firm “no comment” to the local press when questioned about whether he wrote the paper, but a comment in the paper about how SOS “regard people such as me (with my family political background) as traitors” is believed to be a reference to the fact that Tyrrell’s father was once a Labour mayor of Halton.
Tyrrell no longer works for Liverpool. He went on to be head of communications across Stanley Park at Everton FC, although it was announced on 6 June that he would be leaving after having given his notice early in May. The move is not thought to be linked with the controversy – instead it is being reported that Tyrrell is to focus on the PR consultancy he set up before taking the Anfield job. Everton likes to style itself as The People’s Club, but many of the people who make up the support don’t see it as such. Instead they see an organisation that maintains its distance from the people who support it, especially those who are independently-minded. The club’s decision to change its badge recently prompted widespread opposition. Everton has apologised for not consulting fans, but the new version will stay in place for the coming season.
Liverpool’s SOS and Everton’s Blue Union are two of the most organised and independent fan organisations in Britain. Which is probably why they are attracting the attention they do. The football establishment likes to say it works with the fans, but the fans it likes to work with are the ones it grants permission to organise to. More independent alternatives have to be marginalised.
But the aims of fan groups would not seem that radical to most people. SOS’s stated aims are to “represent the best interests of the supporters of Liverpool FC” and to “hold whoever owns the football club to account”. The Blue Union believes in “the integration of fans into a real People’s Club” and sets itself against a situation in which “the fans’ opinion, the fans’ voice, the fans’ ideas are increasingly deferred in favour of those of the club’s owners, the Premier League and the media organisations who inject billions into the game”. Most fan groups’ objectives do not even go that far, but the belief that fans should have more of a voice in the game’s structures is growing.
Even this is seen as a demand too far. In the leaked Liverpool document, one description of the views of a prominent critic is telling. The document’s author says the critic “confessed he would not be happy if the club was sold to a Sheikh Mansour figure! He said the best solution is for LFC to be owned: "by the supporters, for the supporters".” Outrageous stuff indeed.
Dave Boyle, the former chief executive of Supporters Direct and a leading advocate of mutuality, wrote a very illuminating blog post entitled 10 Things I Know About Football from a Decade at Supporters’ Direct. He makes a similar point to the one I opened with, going back as far as the debates on the 1832 Reform Act to find evidence of the establishment being “genuinely terrified that the masses might have a vote”.
Football is not that important in the grand scheme of things in a country where food banks cannot cope with demand and disabled people are killing themselves because their benefits are reduced or removed. But the story of how elites see the people, and how important it is for the people to develop strong and independent voices to challenge the elite view of what is reasonable, runs throughout.