The Tories have never really ‘got’ football. From David Cameron forgetting which team he supported to Boris Johnson thundering into former Germany midfielder Maurizio Gaudino with a rugby tackle during a charity match – a depressing premonition of his party’s future policies on Europe – the Conservative Party invariably struggles with the beautiful game. Go back to the 80s, and Margaret Thatcher was attempting to force ID cards on football fans in tandem with ruthless policing in her high-handed response to hooliganism. The former policy was scrapped after the Hillsborough disaster, while the latter has a disastrous legacy which resonates to this day.
At the last general election, there was not a single mention of football in the Conservatives’ manifesto. That makes their Labour-lite offering this time around seem cynical. Under Johnson the would-be statesman as opposed to Johnson the Eton rugby goon, the Tories have three football-specific pledges: to set up a £150m Community Ownership Fund for institutions such as pubs, post offices and local football clubs “that are under threat,” to set up a fan-led review of football governance “which will include consideration of the Owners and Directors test” and to work towards introducing safe standing at football stadia.
The Lib Dems, meanwhile, have one mention of football in their 2019 manifesto, matching the Tories and Labour with a safe standing pledge. (It should be said that this is a huge success for those who have campaigned to get safe standing on the agenda, with the argument all but won even if the pace of change could still be glacial.) While the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish parties are unlikely to make a song and dance about football at this general election, sport and culture are devolved issues and they can be forgiven for not exercising themselves over the sorry state of the game in England. Then there are the Greens, who have no specific football-related pledges.
That leaves the Labour Party as the only party which is offering radical empowerment to football fans. It is the only party offering Supporters’ Trusts the ability to appoint and remove directors. It is the only party offering supporters a chance to buy shares in their clubs, a proposal with radical implications for fan ownership and the future custodianship of the game.
It is the only party willing to redistribute wealth from the richest clubs to the poorest via a levy on Premier League television money, a proposal which should strengthen the game nationally at a time when many grassroots clubs and community institutions are struggling for survival. It is also the only party which has shown a structural understanding of what has gone wrong with English football, which is ultimately why it should be the one to reform it.
Where the Conservatives are offering a Community Ownership Fund for football clubs “under threat” – a guilty nod to the vulture capitalism which has devastated Bury Football Club, almost brought down Bolton Wanderers and which still threatens many others – that is the closest their manifesto comes to recognising that there is a problem with the national game. Fundamentally, that problem is a philosophical one. Who has moral ownership of our football clubs, and who are they intended to benefit? Are they mere businesses and profit vehicles, private entities with which wealthy individuals can do what they wish, or are they community institutions which are there to serve those who have supported them, both financially and materially, since the start of their history?
Under ‘Sport’, the Labour manifesto reads: “In football, the professional game has become divided between the extremes of the very rich and the very poor with clubs in Bury and Bolton facing collapse. A Labour government will examine the state of the game, its governance and regulation, its ownership rules and the support and funding of the clubs that are vital to local communities.”
In proposing to redistribute money from the Premier League to the grassroots, Labour has rightly identified vast financial inequalities as one of the main destabilising factors in the game. Not only has the reckless spending of the Premier League saddled everyone else with hyperinflated transfers, wages and agents fees – nowhere near mitigated by solidarity payments to Football League clubs – the enormous wealth on offer in the top flight, combined with a hopelessly inadequate Owners and Directors test, has incentivised unprincipled owners to run up huge debts in a desperate scramble to reach the summit.
All of that has a knock-on effect right down to the grassroots, where many clubs struggle to pay heating and electric bills let alone wages. Redistributing a proportion of broadcasting revenues to improve grassroots facilities is a good start in the quest to fix football’s broken economy, not least because, as the base of the pyramid – the mud-spattered clubhouses and churned-up pitches where so many kids first fall in love with football – they hold up the rest of the game.
More than anything, though, Labour’s plans to put fans in positions of power represent a radical change which should transform football for the better. As supporters of Exeter City, AFC Wimbledon and Wycombe Wanderers have shown in recent years, fan-owned clubs are capable of overachieving while remaining financially responsible. Where wealthy benefactors are so often blinded by greed and unrealistic ambition, fans are motivated by their clubs’ wellbeing as much as their success. Empowering fans can only benefit the health of the game, where exploitative owners like those at Bury and Bolton have done it so much harm.
While giving supporters a chance to buy shares when their clubs change hands is not an immediate gateway to majority fan ownership, it is an incremental step in the right direction. Allowing accredited Supporters’ Trusts to appoint and remove directors should help to democratise opaque boardrooms right up to the Premier League, giving fans a direct say in how their clubs are run. Where the Conservatives are prepared to set aside money for clubs “under threat”, Labour see that it doesn’t need to get to that point and that we should be addressing the sickness and not just the symptoms. Community ownership should be encouraged anyway, before some disaster necessitates it.
Supporters have already shown that they are the most responsible custodians of football clubs and that they, unlike the plutocrats, can be trusted to preserve their community institutions for future generations. In that sense, football is a window into our society. Only Labour really gets it.