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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.