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ColumnistsDave BoyleMelting potPolitical football: how MUST changed the landscape to make Westminster listen

Political football: how MUST changed the landscape to make Westminster listen


DAVE BOYLE is the chief executive of Supporters Direct, the organisation that works with supporters trusts at football clubs to help them buy shares and increase influence at their clubs. A former long-serving National Council Member of The Football Supporters’ Federation, he supports AFC Wimbledon. Rather marvelously, he was also the advisor on ‘football matters’ to series Three, Four and Five of the TV soap opera ‘Footballers’ Wives’




By Dave Boyle

13 April 2010

With the publication yesterday of Labour’s election manifesto, football fans have before them the first serious attempt by a UK political party to target them as a potential electoral demographic.

When first floated a few weeks ago in The Guardian, the initial response – a quite literally ridiculous Martin Samuel piece aside – was broadly positive about content if suspicious of the motives.

The notion that this was all a cynical election stunt was added to by the accusation dogging much of Labour’s manifesto: if these were truly genuine proposals, then why had they waited 13 years to make them?

A link to the manifesto is above, but the key pledges surrounding fan ownership are:

  • in chapter seven, on page two, under the heading ‘The next stage of national renewal’, there is the bullet point that states: Registered Supporters Trusts enabled to buy stakes in their club bringing mutualism to the heart of football.
  • in chapter seven, on page three, there is the passage: “Sports governing bodies will be empowered to scrutinise takeovers of clubs, ensuring they are in the long-term interests of the club and the sport. We will develop proposals to enable registered Supporters Trusts to buy stakes in their club.”

So how serious, and genuine, are Labour’s plans, and what do they tell us about football and politics?

First things first: clearly Labour are influenced by the tightness of the race. Everyone is searching for an advantage that hasn’t been found in the phony campaign going on since Christmas 2009. Whilst waiting to land an Audley Harrison-esque last-ditch belter to send their rivals to the canvas, all the parties are searching for other ways to appeal to voters.

So what better place to look than sport? Sport moves people in ways politicians can only dream of. If anyone can find a better expression of European identity than the final day of a Ryder Cup this side of the Atlantic, I’m Ruud Lubbers. Every paper is full of election news and spin, and yet somehow, the eight or so pages at the back of the paper have been seen as off limits until now.

Football fans are overwhelmingly urban and suburban, because those are the heartlands of the game.  They’re also the battleground for elections. Mondeo Man in his marginal seat likes football (to a much greater extent than Worcester Woman is a Soccer Mom).
The crucial issue is whether he can be persuaded to vote football by Labour, or should that be vote Labour through football? Labour clearly believe he can.

A big part of the reason for that is because of the Manchester United Supporters Trust. The astonishing and unprecedented growth of MUST has been impossible to miss, and takes the issues to an audience well beyond the usual suspects (like myself) who have been banging on about this stuff for years with seemingly minimal impact.

It’s a thankless task being a lobbyist when all you have is good ideas. Those with money can make their influence count, as can those with lots of angry voters on their side. Football fans groups have traditionally had neither, and have thus been pressure groups with little pressure to apply. That all changed with Manchester United’s bond prospectus.

MUST has profited from the anger of fans who have seen how little productive use their increasingly hard-earned, inflationary ticket money is being put to, and how much of United’s income is tied up in the payback for the Glazer takeover in 2005. The organisation has grown from 30,000 in January to more than 150,000 today as a result.

The thousands who’ve worn green and gold scarves as the club has played a series of important televised matches means that for the first time, TV has not been unable to ignore the protests. Commentators were discussing the ins and outs of leveraged buyouts, and with David Beckham’s clever intervention, the next day’s papers were talking about it too, on the front and back pages.

Most of those members – for all the jokes about Cockney Reds aside – live in the north-west, as do disaffected Liverpool fans similarly aggrieved by the inability of both the state and the FA to protect clubs from being brought low by completely unnecessary debts incurred solely to fund a change of ownership brought about to secure a fat profit and repatriate it offshore. In Newcastle 30,000 fans have joined their Supporters Trust, whilst Pompey’s Trust grows as quickly as the estimation of the debts by the administrator.

All have made the headlines for weeks, and the areas in which their members live are packed with lovely, juicy marginal seats. Fans have proven that ownership is something they care about, and a close election means such constituencies don’t stay unbidden for long.

But still, ownership is a contentious issue, one all parties have shied away from because it was off-limits for 15 years to talk about the nature of power and influence in modern capitalist economies – until those economies went south. That’s the second factor here: the thrust of Labour’s proposals is regulatory, in a way that simply wouldn’t have got off the starting blocks in 2005.

The recession has dealt a serious blow to the centre-left’s 15-year love affair with deregulated and supposedly efficient markets and while football is suffering from the direct and indirect effects of that romance as much as other sectors of society, football is as good as place as any to begin a move towards a different path.

The clearest direction for this path is mutuality, bubbling under the surface within New Labour for 13 years before exploding in the manifesto.

Supporters Direct was a creation of the mutual sector and the idea that fans should have a right to buy clubs was really taken forward by the Co-operative movement, having been a policy in the first instance of the Green Party, who included it in their policy submission to all three parties.

To be sure, for some keepers of the New Labour flame, there is much more doubt over the wisdom of wading into such areas, but one senses a younger generation in the ascendant, less scarred by the 1992 Election defeat and less afraid to incur the wrath of the Daily Mail and the CBI.

Those more progressive heads have realised that the takeovers of Manchester United and Liverpool probably touch more nerves than the takeover of Cadbury did; indeed, the so-called ‘Cadbury Law’, proposed to give government the power to block takeover not in the national interest, might be much better named after the Glazers.

The final piece of the jigsaw is that much of what is proposed is part of a broader pattern of engagement on these issues by forces within the Government and isn’t in fact really that new. What is new is the prominence they have been given and the stridency of their tone. Whilst a tight election race has clearly emboldened some within the senior ranks of Government, in truth they’re best seen as the latest incarnation of policies that have been floated at various times the last 12 years.

Labour had their Charter for Football in 1996 which morphed into the Football Task Force. The Task Force’s recommendations were beaten back by the powers-that-be in the game, but not without bruising battles, including with the then Task Force administrator Andy Burnham.

He became Special Advisor to Chris Smith, and was instrumental in creating Supporters Direct, which he later chaired after leaving Whitehall for Westminster as MP for Leigh in 2001. As Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he was the only one since 1997 who saw sport as important as media and culture, as befits a genuine sports fan who is as ardent a follower of Lancashire Cricket Club as he is a fan of Everton.

Whilst at DCMS he launched a plan to bring reform to the game’s governance stalled after he was reshuffled to Health following the resignation of James Purnell (the second time that the forces of conservatism in football had cause to thank Purnell following his role in helping fight the Task Force back when he was an advisor on sport in Downing Street). It seemed Labour’s football policy had run into the sand, but the sense of unease and concern about the state of the game, symbolised by Portsmouth’s astonishing turmoil has given a new impetus to that agenda. A changing ideological climate has given these ideas a new currency, whilst the tight election race has swung the less committed behind the notion that such ideas could have traction and so are worth pushing.

But the crucial $64m question, or rather 64,000-votes-in-key-marginals question, is simple: Will it work? Will Labour’s promise of change actually change anything? A crucial factor is the attitude of the other parties in the campaign.

The Conservatives were saying a few weeks’ ago that the FA was ‘drinking in the last chance saloon’ some weeks back, as they too recognised that with Ian Watmore’s resignation, the serious issues of governance and control in the FA could no longer be accepted with a resigned shrug as if it were the sporting equivalent of the enduring crap-ness of a British Rail sandwich.

The Tories sidestepped the issue of the FA’s own structure in their manifesto, published on Tuesday, but have promised to ‘reform the governance arrangements in football to enable co-operative ownership models to be established by supporters’. (Page 85 in the section on changing politics, rather than in the section on sport). Like Labour’s text, there’s enough meat to grab hold of to suggest a radical departure should you be so minded, but enough fudge to allow a lot of wriggle room.

Both hinge on the meaning to which a government would place on the word ‘enable’, and with battle now joined, we’ve got the rest of the campaign to tease out what each party might be thinking.

Regardless of the result though, football fans are already big winners, as we now have commitments from the next government to go further than any British government has gone. The job of organisations like Supporters Direct will be to urge that our politicians move as boldly in power as they have in the seeking of it.


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