Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/576/7199
Hillsborough - 20 years on
In April 1989, 96 people died at the Hillsborough football ground. The majority were under 30 years of age, and more than a third were under 20 years. The youngest to die was a boy of ten years. The cause of death was attributed to crush asphyxia. But, as this article from Peter Glover and the editorial from the Militant newspaper explain, the real cause of the disaster was a combination of police failings and capitalist greed.
On the twentieth anniversary the families and friends of the victims are still waiting for justice. As Paul Routledge wrote in the Mirror: "If this disaster had happened at Wimbledon, or Ascot, or a Royal polo match, there would have been the most searching public inquiry you could ever imagine. The grim fact that there has been no such public inquiry is the clearest possible evidence that this is a class issue."
Twenty Aprils ago, on the morning of the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest, I waited, along with other Liverpool fans, at the New Strand bus station for our coach. The venue was Sheffield Wednesday's ground - Hillsborough.
Liverpool fans had been allocated to the smaller Leppings Lane (LL) 'away' fans' end of the Hillsborough ground. Given the huge demand for tickets, there was talk about its unsuitability even before the match.
A friend had told me that the LL end was terrible, having visited Hillsborough before. He told me not to go down the main tunnel but instead to try to find the other entrances onto the terrace. Once he explained that the two central pens would be overcrowded, I made sure I got to the ground just before 2.30pm in the hope of avoiding the pens.
The LL end was a series of pens that filled up quickly and which, with fences that prevented fans from getting onto the pitch in an emergency, could become a death trap.
The police officer in charge that day, chief superintendent David Duckenfield, appeared to have no idea of crowd supervision. He eventually opened the main gate at the Liverpool end before kick off. But a series of criminally incompetent decisions, such as failing to limit the numbers entering the pens, made the situation worse, eventually causing a surge and the deaths of 96 fans. The CCTV in the police control room had a clear view of the overcrowding and the horror of the two central pens but police officers did nothing.
Much later on I was interviewed at home by two police officers. I told them that I had seen police in front of the two pens stopping fans from escaping.
Police cover up
The sequence of events is well-documented. But the anger of the Liverpool fans is directed at the whole legal system and the way that nobody has been brought to justice - not only for the gross failure to look after people on the day, but the way in which a huge cover-up swung into action to protect senior police officers.
The West Midlands police were given responsibility for investigating the Hillsborough disaster, but their behaviour makes them appear to be part of the cover-up. The coroner said that all deaths occurred by 3.15pm.
But there were statements from police officers indicating that a 15 year-old boy, Kevin Williams, was alive until nearly 4pm. A female police officer who was with Kevin was allegedly told to hand her original police notebook back to the police. Her statement was changed along with many other police accounts on that day.
The inquiry into the disaster, the Taylor Report, was published in two parts. The interim report levelled major criticisms at the police. But the final report was a much weaker document, focusing on the need for all-seated stadia. Evidence at this enquiry was not given under oath, greatly lessening the effectiveness of the report.
The inquests into the Hillsborough deaths were another example of the judicial cover-up. According to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) website: "As one family left by one door, another would enter by another. Details of the deceased would be read out together with the blood alcohol reading. This happened even in the case of a ten year old boy."
This emphasis on alcohol was clearly intended to give the impression that drinking was a major cause of death. West Midlands police controlled the procedure and the impression was given, using highly selective evidence, that the fans were 'drunken yobs out of control', 'overwhelming' the 'brave' police on the day. Verdicts of accidental death were recorded. So nobody was to blame.
After New Labour's election a judicial review followed, along with the Stuart-Smith 'scrutiny' in 1997. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith was to listen to any new evidence from the victims' families. But, the HJC says: "Any idea that Stuart-Smith was approaching this scrutiny with objectivity was an illusion."
For example, Dave and Maureen Church outlined the issues relating specifically to their dead son, Gary. They pointed out that there was evidence that one of the investigating officers, a former head of the notorious (now disbanded) serious crime squad, had fabricated evidence and altered statements prior to Hillsborough. In a miscarriage of justice case his lies were exposed. But the judge commented that just because an officer had lied in one instance did not mean that he would lie in another case and therefore this fact was not relevant!
The mainstream media's reaction was shameful. Kelvin MacKenzie and the Sun newspaper 'reported' that Liverpool fans had rushed the gate, picked the pockets of the dead, urinated on people trying to help the dying and beaten up the police.
The Daily Mail, Radio 2 and Radio 4 along with other newspapers including the so-called 'quality' press and football's governing body, UEFA, reported police lies unashamedly.
Wave of anger
There has still been no justice. Culture secretary Andy Burnham MP was made to feel the fury in Merseyside. When he tried to deliver the usual platitudes at the Anfield 20-years memorial service he was greeted with a wave of anger from thousands of fans.
Ordinary people, including myself, don't believe the claims of the Labour Party that, after 12 years in office, they want a full disclosure of all available evidence.
See the HJC website: http://www.contrast.org/hillsborough/home.shtm
No cover-up of the Hillsborough disaster
Editorial from the Militant newspaper April 1989
Below is the editorial from the 21 April 1989 issue of the Militant, the forerunner of The Socialist. In 1989 the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher was in power, eight years before the New Labour government led by Tony Blair. Since coming to power, New Labour have acted in the interests of the big business owners of the football clubs and have done nothing to improve the safety and accessibility of the sport.
Until it became obvious there was a major tragedy at Hillsborough, the police and TV commentators assumed there was a law-and-order problem.
All these people echo the Tories' contemptuous attitude and their obsession with the threat of 'hooliganism'.
The perimeter fence on which so many were crushed is a symbol of this obsession. All fans are seen as potential trouble-makers, to be herded and penned, outside and inside the grounds, like cattle being sold for slaughter.
To the bosses, working-class youth represent a potential threat. Offered no future in cities like Liverpool which have been devastated by Tory policies, they channel their aspirations for the future into support for their football team.
So businessmen finance football to exploit the fans, provide a safety valve for them to let off steam and divert them from 'dangerous' political activity.
Working-class fans are treated with the same contempt at matches as at work. While millions are spent on players' transfer fees, only £70 million has been spent on safety improvements since the Safety at Sports Grounds Act became law in 1975.
£42 million of this has come from the pools promoters, compelled to provide money via the Football Ground Improvement Trust. But this has come from the millions who bet on the pools, not people like Sir John Moores, Littlewoods boss and former chairman of Everton Football Club, who is the fifth richest person in Britain.
'Order' or safety?
While many fans pay to shiver on uncovered terraces, money has been lavished on 'improvements' like executive boxes for businessmen to entertain their clients in luxury. Hillsborough proved that cash has certainly not been spent on adequate first aid and emergency provisions, proper stewarding or an effective public address system.
Rather than spending more money on safety, clubs have spent it on measures to maintain order, like the perimeter fences and barriers to segregate rival fans, which Hillsborough proved make the grounds more dangerous.
Now the Tories want to press ahead with ID cards to police fans still more rigorously. Even the plan for all-seater stadia is being put forward to make fans behave better rather than to improve their comfort.
Roy Hattersley accepts the argument that all-seating will price football beyond the means of working people. But why should the fans bear the burden of the cost of the improvements?
The root cause of football's problems is that it is run by unaccountable businessmen, only interested in the balance sheet. Control and management must be transferred to elected representatives of the fans, workers in the game, local councils and the wider labour movement. Grounds must be publicly owned and made available for the whole community seven days a week.
We must have a labour movement inquiry to find out who was to blame for the disaster. There must be no cover-up of the role of the police and the football authorities or the contribution of crowd-control measures.
There must be a massive campaign to force the Tories to abandon ID cards and implement a crash programme of spending to improve grounds and for the resignation of sports minister Moynihan.
Labour must be committed to the municipal ownership of the grounds and the democratic control of the clubs. If Hillsborough leads to the reform of the game of football from a plaything of businessmen to a means of recreation and enjoyment for those who play and watch, then some good will have come from this appalling tragedy.
In The Socialist 22 April 2009:
Environment and socialism
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party youth and students
Socialist Party campaigns
International socialist news and analysis
Marxist analysis: history
Socialist Party workplace news