British politics in the last 25 years is symbolised by the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. The police cover-ups and the Sun’s coverage blaming Liverpool fans reveal an establishment empowered by the draining of the North’s power – it was never ‘just’ about the deaths of 96 Liverpool FC fans. The establishment forces aligned against Liverpool ensured it took 23 years for an independent inquest to remove the vilification of the dead. However, there is a danger the disaster is being conflated with football violence in the 1980’s to lock out working-class supporters and entrench the corporatisation of football.
The context of Hillsborough is incomplete without talking about 50% unemployment rates and the mass criminalisation of black youth in Toxteth which led to riots in 1981. Margaret Thatcher’s government subsequently toyed with ‘cutting off’ Liverpool. This was in effect done with increased police powers, the smashing of manufacturing industry, and restricting Liverpool council’s spending – Liverpool was not worth protecting economically or politically and its people not even worth protecting in football stadiums. Apart from any Protestant attachment to British unionism the city is everything the UK right fears: it’s a city where even the cabbies are left-wing; it has Britain’s oldest black community and Europe’s oldest Chinese community; it’s an Irish city, a Jewish city; its LGBT population is as large as San Francisco’s (both being port cities after all). But mostly it symbolises working-class cultural power not just in football and music. Even with the decline of unions, Liverpool’s ability to mobilise threatens the UK right, whether in the mass boycott of the Sun, its key role in the Poll Tax non-payment movement which led to the collapse of Mrs. Thatcher’s government, or the struggle to secure Justice for the 96.
While the Thatcher government didn’t cause the disaster, it is inseparable from the cover-ups and vilification of Liverpool that followed; protecting the police and their powers from any challenges was the greatest priority. 41 fans died as a result of police failure to coordinate the emergency response. But the police response was to find anything that could be used to vilify Liverpool fans including testing dead children for blood alcohol levels. Mrs. Thatcher’s press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham is just one of many over the last quarter century who propagated the myth of “tanked-up yobs” as strongly as he told Liverpudlians to “shut up”. But it is only Liverpool’s mobilisation which has allowed inquests to get as far as they have – the disaster is symbolic of a working-class fight against police unaccountability and the ‘cutting off’ of Liverpool. With at least 238 officer statements known to have been altered there is no indication the police will do anything but cover up as done with Stephen Lawrence, Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes, or Mark Duggan.
Contempt for Liverpool ran throughout the establishment. Media vilification was not limited to the Sun: in the Sunday Times just days after the disaster, Edward Pearce said of Liverpool “a good and sufficient minority of you behave like animals”; the judge of the 1998 inquest said to one Hillsborough family, “Have you got a few of your people or are they like the Liverpool fans, turn up at the last minute?” The charge that fans caused the disaster amount to a “quasi blood libel” as Matthew Norman has argued, saying “The greatest tragedy of Hillsborough is that so many needlessly died. The second greatest, and also worth remembering over the days ahead, is that so many of us sacrificed a part of our humanity by failing for so long to recognise theirs.”
Hillsborough underlined that cramming working-class fans into stadiums as ‘terrace fodder’ was no longer sustainable – instead they were turned into consumers. Previously the Football Association (FA) had ignored fans’ concerns for years. The Hillsborough ground did not have sufficient safety certificates despite previous crushes. The Taylor report reforms following the disaster exchanged one set of Thatcherite proposals – ID cards for spectators to enter grounds – for Thatcherite corporatisation of the game; the FA rehabilitated football as a middle-class sport.
The reforms transformed the game for the better in many ways. Increased safety for spectators, even if only because middle-class fans are seen as worthy of protection, is a definite improvement. But there is a danger Hillsborough is used as a cover for FA failures in maintaining working-class access to football. When Hillsborough is equated with hooligan violence it not only reiterates the myth of Liverpool fans being to blame, but also sees violence as inherent to working-class spectators. The debate over allowing standing sections in the top two divisions often uses the spectre of 1980’s violence and Hillsborough in the same sentence. While Liverpool would avoid a ‘safe standing’ option for obvious reasons, the ban must stop being used to shame working-class spectators as a block to respectability and diversity in the game. The problem with the terraces was how working-class spectators were exploited and seen as criminal by police. While necessary in revolutionising stadiums then, 90% of fans supporting the option should not be ignored now.
All-seater stadiums and the middle-class rehabilitation of football should not be equated with access for self-identified women, people of colour, and LGBTQ people – the diversity of crowds has improved in all-seater and safe standing stadiums. The equation by authorities of all-seater stadiums with increased diversity absolves the FA of their failures in expanding access. Banning safe standing does not deal with how women’s football is marginalised and denied sufficient funding or how entrenched racism limits grassroots player development. ‘Safe standing’ is merely one element of asserting working-class fans’ power and autonomy. Though neither safe standing nor 50%+1 ownership of clubs as in Germany is a panacea to the corporatisation of football (particularly in terms of how TV rights distort funding distribution to clubs), fan ownership is key in allowing the cheapest Bundesliga tickets to sell for £10. As an FA commission debates how to reinvigorate grassroots football, more fairly distributing resources within the game is essential, for example top slicing 7.5% of TV distribution rights profits towards grassroots football.
The imagery of Hillsborough should not be used to protect corporatisation amidst the continued struggle for Justice for the 96 and to hold the South Yorkshire police to account. The resilience and working-class power of Liverpool has enabled both improvements in spectator safety and broader struggles for justice. It disservices the campaign for justice to use Hillsborough to excuse FA failures, namely the ongoing restriction of access to working-class people and the failures in expanding diversity, and shifts the blame away from police.
Oh, and Don’t Buy The Sun.