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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.