Are Everton FC silencing dissent?

How a free school objector got smeared.

Richard Knights used to have a season ticket at Everton FC. But the club took it away. The circumstances of the case raise concerns about the silencing of dissent.

Knights is described by those who know him as a “middle-aged, quietly-spoken, primary school teacher”. He’s passionate about the club he has supported for over 50 years. And he’s also passionate about education. So when Everton announced it was to open one of the free schools the current government is championing, he found two of his passions in opposition. Because Knights takes the view that educating children is best left to the professionals.

Knights has been very involved in organising opposition to the free school, and in efforts to cast light on the qualifications of the people being put forward as suitable to educate the children of the city he lives in. And this, it seems, has led to the withdrawal of his season ticket.

He complained to the Independent Football Ombudsman about the sanction imposed on him, and about the allegations made against him; allegations he strongly refutes. The IFO’s full report is available online, under the heading "The withdrawal of a season ticket at Everton". It makes worrying reading, for the report seems to confirm that Knights is being punished not for what he has done in specific instances, but for what people thought he might do.

In the IFO report, witnesses are quoted as being made to “feel uncomfortable” by Knights’s “body language”. His “aggressive” behaviour is defined as “leaning over the desk trying to see the receptionist’s computer” and he is also described as being “aggressive, angry and abrupt”. On another occasion his behaviour is said to have made the sales staff in the club shop “be fearful of what he would do next”. He is also said to have made “a stream of telephone calls to both the school and the club” and said things on social media sites that “caused concern”.

You may, after reading that last paragraph, detect a certain lack of substance. There is much about what worried people, or what they thought might happen. It is entirely possible that people were genuinely concerned or uncomfortable about what Knights did, or to be more accurate, about what they thought he might do. But being made to feel uncomfortable may also be considered part and parcel of participating in discussion with people with whom you don’t agree. It is certainly not a crime.

Knights says the allegations are “totally false and malicious”. In relation to the incident alleged to have taken place in the club’s megastore, he says he has “not been inside the megastore for well over 10 years”. He has a letter from Kitbag, the company that runs the store, confirming it has no record of the alleged incident. The statements given to the IFO say the alleged incident took place in June 2012 but, says Knights, “the first I heard of any problem was the police arriving on my doorstep to issue a recordable verbal warning in September 2012”.

Reading the whole report, I was struck by the flimsiness of the evidence selected to back up serious accusations against Knights. Not only has he had his season ticket revoked, he has received letters from solicitors threatening legal action, and been visited at his home by police. Knights denies the incidents these actions were based on took place. The burden of proving they did lies with those making the accusations but, on the evidence of what’s set out in the IFO report, that burden has not been shouldered. Nor is there any evidence that Knights would extend his campaign to matchday staff.

The report also reveals the club’s contorted attempts to explain why Knights’s season ticket was revoked. At one point it says the reference to refusing permission to enter the club’s Goodison Park ground “was intended to refer to non-match activities”. But Knights had been told by the club’s chief executive he was “permanently banned from buying tickets”, then told he could buy tickets if he could satisfy the club he would not use them “for malign purposes”.

The IFO report notes there was “some confusion” over what Knights was banned from doing and that the explanation that he was still free to attend matches “is hard to reconcile with the instructions” given. Everton’s previous director of communications was Paul Tyrell, who regular readers will be familiar with. He told the chairman of Everton’s Shareholders’ Association that no one had been banned from Goodison. And yet the letter Knights received from Tyrell, and reproduced on an Everton fan site, clearly states “the club intends to exercise its entitlement under our Ground Regulations to refuse you admission to Goodison Park”.

The IFO rejected Knights’s complaint on the ground that “his over forceful and aggressive behaviour gave rise to fears for the safety of club employees”. Knights is furious at the damage to his reputation.

I emailed Everton for comment, but have so far received no reply.

Knights is convinced he is being targeted because of his campaigning work against the free school, something he describes as “a Tory initiative to wrest schools away from local control and employ staff on the cheap”.

Knights is as worried about the “lack of any rights for fans” as he is about the reluctance of free schools to provide details of staff salaries and qualifications. The common denominator seems to be large organisations that do not like transparency, and certainly do not like being questioned.

His case is still being handled by the Football Supporters Federation, and he is pursuing a complaint through the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Whatever your views about free schools or football fans, the fact that someone can be sanctioned not for what they do, but for what people say they think they might do, should be of concern – especially when there is a suspicion that the assertion is motivated by a desire to silence dissent.

Everton's players on the pitch. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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