Football for the Many

Across the country, football supporters are growing alienated from the modern game - soulless, expensive and dominated by oligarchs. Labour wants to give power back to the fans.

At a time when radical Labour policy announcements have become an everyday occurrence, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of the latest iteration of Corbynism. As Ferris Bueller observed, life moves pretty fast. But in the wake of arguably the most remarkable party conference since the 1970s — during which a 32-hour week, a Green New Deal and the break-up of the private school system all became tenets of Labour’s programme — a subtler, but perhaps equally radical announcement was made this week. And this one may just end up changing the game entirely.

As Jeremy Corbyn received a rousing reception at a rally in Newcastle last Saturday, he launched a spirited attack on the billionaires who control modern football. With emotive force, he argued that the beautiful game “shouldn’t be just a business: football is our lives, our community. It’s the place where people go to socialise and enjoy each other’s company.” 

Lest there be any doubt about the target of this invective, the following day Corbyn visited grassroots Newcastle United fan groups, to show solidarity with their struggle to “take back control of their club” from Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley — a hate figure on Tyneside for his ludicrous mismanagement and exploitation of Newcastle and its supporters over the last decade.

At first sight football might not seem like a very worthwhile focus for socialist energies. But in fact, there is a sense in which Corbyn’s statements in Newcastle — which provide the basis for a radical Labour campaign against the cowboy neoliberalism of the Premier League — might just provide the key to the success of the Corbyn project. Running with this idea would not only be immensely valuable for its own sake: taking the fight to billionaire club owners, and empowering fans to seize control of their sporting institutions could also mark the point at which Corbynism breaks through once and for all into genuinely popular and populist territory.

A determined, organised left response to the rampant financialisation of modern football has in fact been several years in the making. Indeed, the campaign to empower football supporters is a rare instance in which all walks of the Labour movement, from the Blairite centre to the radical left, have consistently sung from the same hymn sheet. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the narrative begins with Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997. One of a handful of radical moves made by the incoming New Labour government was the foundation of the Football Taskforce. Spearheaded by a young Andy Burnham, the Taskforce won a major victory when it ensured that 5% of the vast revenue showered on the Premier League and the FA by TV companies like Sky was ring-fenced for grassroots and community initiatives.

But far more significant was the Taskforce’s creation of an organisation called Supporters Direct. This national body provided the larger infrastructure and political impetus for the spread of the supporters’ trust movement, which saw fan-led groups emerging at hundreds of clubs at all levels of the Anglo-Welsh and Scottish leagues. The initiative even received support from left-wing film director (and Bath City fan) Ken Loach.

Supporters’ trusts provided a basis for union-style activity in opposition to the high prices, commercialisation and downright corruption of modern British football. Long predating the more far-reaching revival of grassroots politics in the 2010s, this combination of governmental framework and community-led populism amounted to a rare instance of legislated, popular, anti-capitalist activism, in an era when such tendencies were otherwise hard to come by.

However, while supporters’ trusts were a crucial first step towards redressing the exploitation of football fans by an ownership caste increasingly comprised of the global super-rich, they have thus far been unable to make any serious progress in changing the substance of the game. And while Labour under Ed Miliband and latterly Corbyn have made occasional, if meaningful, forays into football culture — for example, by supporting the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, and reiterating the commitment to channel 5% of TV revenue into grassroots initiatives — for the most part the movement towards commercialism and plutocracy in the Premier League in particular has continued apace. 

Outside the mega-rich ‘top 6’ clubs of English football (and even sometimes within them), large numbers of supporters feel a mixture of anger and apathy at the way their community heritage has been hollowed out, leaving behind an expensive, soulless game dominated by multi-million deals and players with little emotional attachment to their clubs or fans.

This is why the renewal of the Labour campaign for supporter empowerment heralded this week is so timely. In addition to the 5% TV revenue commitment, and a proposal to guarantee that the Women’s World Cup is free-to-air, Labour is now promising to provide legislation that will go way beyond the mere maintenance of supporters’ trusts, and actually give them the legal means to exert power over their clubs.

Labour’s new proposals would ensure that trusts have the right to appoint and sack at least two members of their club’s directorship, and buy shares in a club when it changes owners. These might only herald the beginning in the move towards a more collective ownership of the beautiful game – but, in an age where the power in football is increasingly concentrated among a super-wealthy elite, they are momentous. Their symbolism shouldn’t be underestimated.

The renewal of the supporters’ trust model shows how Labour can make good on a long-running, pragmatic and organic campaign to counter corporate elites and empower communities. A notable detail of Corbyn’s meeting with supporters’ groups in Newcastle this week was the fact that he was accompanied by MP for Newcastle Central, Chi Onwurah, as well as Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery.

Both Onwurah and Lavery have been outspoken in their opposition to Mike Ashley’s regime at Newcastle, and their shared support for the new proposals, despite representing differing strands of party opinion, suggests one way in which MPs might come together on the ground of radical policies emerging from the margins of its history post-Blair.

Secondly, and most importantly, the renewed focus on football has enormous potential because it shows how Labour can develop a populist cultural offer to the electorate, without retreating into Blue Labour-style social conservatism. For all that this year’s radical conference proposals will — if implemented — dramatically improve the lives of millions of working-class people, it remains the case that Labour has not yet won over the hearts and minds of large portions of the electorate. 

Rather than talking tough on immigration and glorifying the armed forces, a far better route to mass popularity would be the radicalisation of everyday popular culture. At the heart of this cultural populism, we would do well to put emphasis on our proletarian modernist heritage, and its redeemable living legacy in the beautiful game.