There was a time when members of parliament would only really queue up outside Westminster to discuss how to brow beat our game. They considered us animals that needed to be caged and carry ID cards at all times during the 1980s, it took a lot of work to undo the damage done to the reputation of the rest of us for the actions of what was always a very small minority. Times, however, have moved on. From Tony Blair playing keepy-ups with Kevin Keegan to Gordon Brown’s professed love of Raith Rovers, football’s use as a political football has almost now come full circle, and it has reached its logical conclusion with a story leaked to The Guardian this evening – possibly accidentally, more likely tactically – about Labour Party proposals for their forthcoming general election manifesto which, were it would happen, would go some way to changing the landscape of the game in this country. Amongst the plans would be the following:
• Requiring clubs to hand a stake of up to 25% to fans in recognition of their links with their local community.
• Implementing a change-of-control clause that would allow fans a window to put together a takeover of their club if it was up for sale or went into administration.
• Giving the football authorities a deadline to reform the FA and remove “vested interests” from the board, and streamline decision making.
• Introducing a unified system of governance that co-ordinates issues such as club ownership and youth development.
• Allowing professional leagues and the FA additional oversight of club takeovers.
The temptation to be cynical about such policies is almost impossible. With no more than a couple of months until the general election, the Conservatives still lead Labour in the opinion polls and the football supporting demographic is a massive one. It is also one that is broadly angry with the current status quo but feels completely disenfranchised from being able to do anything about it. Their votes would come in very handy if we are heading, as many political analysts believe we are – towards a hung parliament after the next general election. How long would such proposals stay in the forefront of any government’s minds after a general election? What issues of legality would there be over forcing clubs to hand over a quarter of their shareholding to supporters groups? What might any plans look like after they have been shuffled through the House of Commons and the House of Lords a dozen or so times being amended?
More concerning than this is the danger of outwardly party politicising the supporters trust movement. If there is anything behind the story, what will the Conservative Party’s reaction to it be? One of the strongest cards in the hand of supporters trusts is that they are not party political – you do not have to be from the political “left” to be in favour of trust ownership or greater supporter representation in the way that football clubs are run in this country. Supporters Direct was introduced with cross-party political support, and the concerns of those that criticise supporters trusts do not – at least openly – often stray into the matter of people being ideologically opposed to them. It would be electoral suicide at this point in time for the Conservative Party to stand up and say that they were against supporters trusts, but it would be likely that any proposals on the same subject that they would come up with be at best watered down from those suggested above and, at worst, could be detrimental to the interests of football supporters.
The matter of whether the government could get involved with the “streamlining” of the Football Association looks like a particularly sore area into which to get involved. This is a sobering look at what FIFA’s reaction often is when politicians try to get involved with who gets to sit on the the game’s national bodies, and they’re not afraid of the size of the country when they issue their threats. The question of who runs the FA is not one that perhaps vexes many football supporters on a regular basis (but that’s not to say that it shouldn’t do – the Premier League is already exerting a vice-like grip over the FA and this may deteriorate further if one of their men gets the currently-vacant Chief Executive’s role) and, ironically, FIFA would probably welcome much of the above if it were to be forced through by the FA itself. The game’s governing body, however, can be an unpredictable beast and any moves to implement changes of this sort through law should be a path carefully trodden.
There is little, however, to argue with the rest of the proposals. Allowing a window for supporters groups to look to buy clubs that are up for sale would be an enormously positive move for the game in this country to take, and “allowing professional leagues and the FA additional oversight of club takeovers” would also have a similar affect on the game. Some will argue over the legality of forcing clubs to give up twenty-five per cent of their shareholdings to supporters groups, but this is something that lawyers would have to fight out – the fifty plus one law seems to work pretty well in Germany, after all. As a moral argument, it is difficult to fault to the logic of supporters trusts having a say in the running of their clubs in return for (re)building links with their communities. It is not unreasonable to assume that the hearts of those that came up with the proposals are in the right place and, while cynicism is easy (both when viewing the politics of government and the politics of football from the outside), it is only fair to state clearly that it is potentially beneficial to all football supporters that at least one of the major political parties recognises that there is a clear problem with the governance and management of British football.
So, in principle these proposals get the thumbs up but, after years of being knocked from pillar to post, football supporters are right to ask questions of anything like this rather than blindly saying, “Right, where do I sign up?”. The issue of it being vote-mongering has to be countered against the fact that there is a groundswell against the current administration of the game in this country and that the only alternative to these proposals would be for them to not be made, and for everything to carry on down the route that it has been following for the last few years. However, there are real concerns to be voiced over party politicising this issue. No-one wants to alienate people from joining or being involved with supporters trusts, and the idea of Labour & The FA lining up against the Conservatives, Sky and the Premier League is not an appealing one.
However, we stated on this site several weeks ago that you have to decide whether you are going to be a part of the problem or whether you are going to be a part of the solution, and we will now have to wait and see whether the Conservative Party is prepared to make any such bold suggestions itself. To that extent, this particular political football is on the centre spot, and the whistle is about to blow to signal the kick-off. This warning, however, needs to be issued to any politician, no matter what colour rosette they wear, who thinks that they can simply buy our votes with cheap promises that they have no intention of seeing through – we’re not as stupid as you probably think we are, and anything you say about our game will be thoroughly scrutinised before you get our vote.