The statue of Bill Shankly outside Anfield stadium. Photo: Getty
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How the Liverpool Supporters’ Union proved it’s possible to change football for the better

The work of the Liverpool Supporters’ Union, known as Spirit of Shankly, is a much-needed good news story in modern football.

A lot has been written in this space about what is wrong in modern football. So here’s an upbeat story. It’s about how the worst of times can become better times if people work together. And it is a rebuttal to those who argue that it is impossible to change things, especially when you’re up against the rich and well-connected.

Late last month, Liverpool FC supporters’ union Spirit of Shankly (SOS) was named Cooperative of the Year at the Social Enterprise North West Awards. SOS was formed just five years ago. It beat 20 other organisations, with the judges saying they were “particularly impressed with the work the coop undertakes for its members and supporters. We hope other clubs follow in the footsteps of SOS”.

SOS organises low-cost travel for supporters, works with credit unions to offer saving and loan products for season tickets as alternatives to affinity credit cards, campaigns for regeneration around the club’s Anfield ground that will benefit local residents as well as millionaire players and owners, has succeeded in designating the club’s ground an asset of community value under the terms of the Localism Act and has been a leading force in the nationwide fans’ campaign against high ticket prices.

Roy Bentham, an SOS committee member, said the award mattered because it “sees us as a credible body campaigning for all things for the betterment of football in general”. All in all, not bad for a body once described by the hierarchy at Liverpool FC as “a very small, yet highly-motivated group of agitators” who were “the sporting equivalent of the Khmer Rouge”.

The group was formed in January 2008 when the club was beginning to drift under the ownership of American tycoons Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Liverpool were trailing non-league Havant and Waterlooville 2-1 at home in the FA Cup, and sections of the famous Kop stand began to sing “Liverpool Football Club is in the wrong hands”. The chanting was met with loud disapproval and booing by other fans in the stand – criticising your team during a game is a step too far for many – but just five days later some 350 fans, including reps from fanzines and fan websites, packed into The Sandon pub to discuss the club’s ownership crisis and a host of other issues affecting fans.

The call went up to form a supporters’ union (it was noted that a city as militant as Liverpool didn’t have a union for supporters) that could bring all Liverpool fans together. It was suggested it take the name of Bill Shankly and, after a second, larger, meeting at the city’s Olympia Theatre, SOS was established, with a set of aims, an open, paying membership and an organising committee. Early activities focussed on exposing the hollow words of Hicks and Gillett, who had promised much when they took over – as monied new owners in football are wont to do – but who were slowly loading the club with debt and diminishing its once great reputation as they did so.

There were, in those early days, direct actions such as the bolting of the gates to Anfield and the digging of Stanley Park to highlight undelivered promises on the building of a new stadium, but there was also a conscious effort to build something more lasting and holistic than a single-issue protest group. Mass marches were frequent, along with stay behind protests. SOS also managed to get Tom Hicks locked into the ground and both owners locked out on another occasion

On 4 July 2010, SOS held an Independence Day rally in Liverpool in which it declared supporter independence from the club’s owners. It was an important step, heading off the usual tactic of under-fire owners who seek to make their own interests synonymous with those of the club they have temporary custody of. By October 2010 Hicks and Gillett were gone, forced out after an ugly High Court battle involving RBS and a £237m debt. The court ruled the pair were guilty of “the clearest possible breach” of a corporate governance agreement they had signed with the bank.

The club was eventually taken over by another American tycoon, John Henry, whose Fenway Sports Group also owns the Boston Red Sox baseball team. Henry met representatives of SOS and said: “ If it wasn't for yourselves and supporters doing what you have, we wouldn't be here now.”

SOS now boasts 20,000 paid-up members, and its voice is heard regularly on the wider issues of the game’s governance as well as on those specifically affecting Liverpool fans. It has formed strong bonds with supporters groups at other clubs, been recognised as a Trust by Supporters Direct, the fan governance umbrella organisation that a committee of MPs recently recommended should be given greater independence and support from government.

There are those who doubt that the US tycoon currently in charge at Liverpool is doing more than whispering honeyed words in the ears of SOS members while it suits him to do so, and others who point out that the organisation’s robust approach means its relationship with the club on a day-to-day level is not as close at it could be. But there are others still, experienced in the traps that can befall an opposition that begins to achieve its aims, who will argue that SOS’s influence is very real.

SOS has, astutely, set out its aims in stages, beginning with holding the club’s owners to account, but clearly stating the ultimate aim of “supporter ownership of Liverpool Football Club”. It’s a neat way of combining pragmatism with ambition, and of ensuring that the core purpose is never compromised. As SOS’s James McKenna said after the High Court victory: “You get a new manager, you get a new chief executive and you get a new chairman, and still the same issues exist. Ideally, we’d like the supporters to be in charge.”

I asked McKenna if he thought that was a realistic objective. He told me: “I’ve often been asked if I really believe we will one day own the club. I’m not sure many believe me when I say we will. It might not be in my lifetime, but one day supporters will take the keys to Anfield, they’ll sit in the boardroom and the days of leveraged buyouts, failed promises and the soap opera that supporters up and down the country endure through the football authorities “ownership neutral” stance will be a thing of the past. The years of hard work and campaigning – many forget we are all volunteers at SOS, doing this in our own time – will be worth it.”

Mention supporters being in charge and, very quickly, someone will say it’s not possible, certainly not at a big club in the world’s richest league. But SOS is there, working away, growing, being recognised, achieving successes. The club’s current owner, says some insiders, is one who “gets it”. He recognises the fact that supporters are the lifeblood of a club, and not just as a PR phrase. Of course, the fact that the team is doing well on the pitch and playing some thrilling football always makes things look better, but manager Brendan Rodgers has made much of reconnecting with “the Liverpool family” and the club’s traditions as he has fashioned a remarkable renaissance.

In doing so, he has done something that too few people in football understand. He has reconnected with the thing that makes any club special – its unique spirit. That spirit is, more than anything, a product of former manager Bill Shankly’s approach. There’s an interesting examination of the culture at Liverpool that Shankly helped to forge by Simon Steers on the Tomkins Times fan site, but it’s Shankly’s own words that do the job best. It’s a famous quote, but one which explains why the Liverpool Supporters’ Union took the name it did, and which provides inspiration for those everywhere who believe a better world is possible.

“The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”

 

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

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.