A leaked document on a football scandal shows how the elites see the people

Football's latest example of an out-of-touch establishment.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Show Hide image

It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.