By David Webber
Given its undisputed place as ‘the national game’, one of the strange quirks of British politics has always been its reticence to take football seriously as a political issue. Few politicians have been prepared to talk about the cultural politics of the game, let alone what any government might or indeed, even should do for football. For a long while, this suited many politicians and fans down to the ground. Any notion of government intervention has been viewed with deep suspicion – and often with good reason. From the publication of the Chester Report in 1968, which sought to ascertain the state of the game in Britain, to New Labour’s much-vaunted but ultimately short-lived ‘Football Taskforce’ thirty years later, successive pledges to shake-up the sport have had, in reality very little bearing on the running of British football.
There is a growing sense however that the forthcoming General Election represents a watershed moment in this previously ambivalent relationship. From a local candidate, Andy Higgins, campaigning in Blackpool on a platform to ‘put football first’, to national groups such as the Football Supporters Federation, Supporters Direct, and the newly formed Football Action Network, the game is finding its political voice, focusing upon what unites rather than divides fans, and lobbying for change.
Crucially, it would appear too that all three political parties have started to sit up and take notice. The previous unwillingness to interfere in an otherwise hugely successful industry has been replaced with a feeling amongst politicians from all sides that football is more than a business, and has a cultural value in people’s lives and communities that should be safeguarded and cherished as such. It may, of course, be tempting to dismiss these concerns as shameless populism; however, the political will to act appears to be stronger than ever before.
In 2013, the then Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson used the findings of the Culture, Media and Sport committee to demand that the FA promote “a more inclusive, sustainable and grassroots-driven game”. This was followed up with the Football Governance Bill, tabled by the Conservative MP, Damien Collins, during the last Parliament. If enacted, it will regulate more closely the ownership of clubs; tightening up the frequently criticised ‘Fit and Proper test’ that prospective owners presently face, and abolishing the ‘first creditors’ rule when a club enters into administration.
Collins’ bill also provides statutory backing to member-owned and community interest clubs, and in so doing, squares with the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition agreement in 2010 to “encourage the reform of football governance rules to support the cooperative ownership of football clubs by supporters”. For their part, the Liberal Democrats have gone on to reaffirm their pledge to improve democracy and representation within the game. As well as institutionalising formal supporter trusts at each club, the Liberal Democrats would reform the football licensing laws, again, tightening the aforementioned ‘Fit and Proper’ regulations.
The Labour Party too has made a similar commitment towards creating formal supporter trusts, and has joined the Coalition in backing fan ownership. What makes Labour’s policy distinctive however, is its promise to give each of these supporter trusts the legal right to representation on the main board of its club. For Labour, this handover of power would enable fans to proactively “hold the owners of their club to account on all issues…including ticket prices, shirt sponsorship, ground naming rights, and changing the colour of the strip or the name”.
Extensive dialogue between political parties and supporter groups means that this policy narrative of increased fan ownership and ‘good governance’ fits neatly with the explicit demands laid out in the Manifesto to Reform Football recently published by Supporters Direct. It provides a welcome consensus, not simply between each of the three parties but also with a growing group of politicised fans, that has the potential at least to finally address the years of mismanagement and malpractice that have blighted English football. Crucially, there is the very real possibility that reform of the game’s ailing governance might finally be delivered.
However, good governance alone will not be enough to challenge the widening inequality within the sport. Although all three parties now accept that football is ‘more than a business’, these proposed reforms nevertheless accept that the game is a business. Serious questions therefore remain over the extent to which these measures will sustain rather than challenge the self-same avaricious business model pursued by the Premier League. Despite bracing the country for a further round of austerity and belt-tightening, none of the political parties have been bold enough to press the Premier League to redistribute more of its gilded wealth across Britain’s football community.
It remains to be seen whether the new government will urge England’s top-flight clubs to give away more than the £50m per year announced last month. Laudably, this amount represents a 40 per cent increase on what if currently distributes across the football community. However, given that the new £5.14bn deal represents a 70 per cent increase on what the Premier League clubs currently receive, there is certainly room for further munificence. Nowhere would this generosity and political support be more welcomed than at the grassroots level, where a combination of government spending cuts and a chronic lack of FA and Premier League investment has led to years of neglect. Disappointingly however, there is little on offer from any of the three main political parties that might address what David Goldblatt, in borrowing from J. K. Galbraith, has recently described as the “public squalor and private opulence” of the British game.
The ambitious plans to reform the game’s poor governance are clearly a step in the right direction. Yet in the context of the ever-widening levels of economic inequality that threaten to pull English football apart, these proposals only go so far. Of critical importance will be the implementation of these measures by whoever is elected in May. Promises to simply confer power to supporters without the appropriate legislative means and redistributive mechanisms will not be enough either to deliver real change or satisfy the demands of an increasingly politicised set of fans. Irrespective of its stripe, the next government must work with these supporters and campaigners to reclaim Britain’s rich footballing culture and reassert its place in the country’s common heritage. The future of the national game depends upon it.
Dr David Webber is a lecturer in British politics at the University of Warwick, and researches the cultural political economy of English football. He will be delivering the keynote speech at the inaugural ‘Pathways to Plan B’ event that the Politics and International Studies Department will be hosting with the Liverpool Football Club Academy in April.