The Independent View: Why reforming football is a liberal agenda

Football is moving up the political agenda. In 2010 DCMS announced an inquiry into football governance which culminated in a report in 2011, criticising the football authorities for levels of debt and supporter engagement among other things. Meanwhile, Supporters Direct, the body responsible for promoting the values of supporter engagement in the UK, has been busy lobbying parliament for a new rule in club licensing (which allows clubs to compete in the leagues) that guarantees a structured relationship between supporters and their clubs; and secondly the establishment of a Government Expert Group to explore removing barriers to increase collective supporter share ownership in clubs.

At a fundamental level, liberals should care about this because supporters are still disregarded in the football-governance decision-making process. They are not considered key stakeholders by those who hold power (FA, Premier League and Football League) and the result is a mostly autocratic and self-interested governance structure. Consequences are well documented: high ticket prices, selling of grounds against supporters’ will for monetary gain, changing kit colour (e.g. Cardiff), or even removing a club’s league place and handing it to another town (e.g. Wimbledon). In all these situations, supporter communities are voiceless.

In order to address this, DCMS has suggested that the football authorities have a limited period in which to enact the recommendations the government suggested in its response to the initial DCMS report. A few weeks ago, it published another report asserting that the football authorities had not progressed far enough on this agenda.

This approach fits entirely with liberal values: the state uses its power to empower communities and then steps back. Speaking with leading football analyst Dave Boyle recently, I was reminded that this agenda was articulated well by a great thinker of liberalism, Jo Grimond, who saw the state and corporation as equal threats.

In the past, Boyle has also cited liberal thinker Alexis de Tocqueville in this debate, who argued that democracy is strengthened when it is ‘normalised’. Supporters Trusts (which most clubs have) are also great ‘normalisers’ of democracy. Through voting in elections and participating in debates, supporters learn the values of democracy on a frequent basis and not just when political institutions invite them to.

Lord Ashdown lamented a ‘crisis of democracy’ at Liberal Democrat party conference 2012, showing how people do not care about democracy and even if they did, they are unfamiliar with how it is meant to work. Making things people care about (like football clubs) democratic (as opposed to autocratic) seems a more sensible way to address this issue than telling them they need to care about democracy

Finally, this is an agenda the Liberal Democrats should be strongly encouraged to champion because the other parties have not delivered. This is a whole policy area, which needs taking by the scruff of the neck as it has not been given the political impetus it needs. The reform agenda is at a critical stage and it is vital that liberals are involved, promoting the values of community ownership and democracy.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Sam Tomlin is a researcher at CentreForum think tank and is the co-author of the 2011 publication, ‘Football and the Big Society’

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9 Comments

  • I could be wrong, but I thought any political interference in the running of football clubs would affect their status, potentially invalidating their participation in, European competition.

  • Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. Technically there is a law which says this, but ultimately it’s up to UEFA/FIFA as to whether they’d enact this or not. It’s well known UEFA/FIFA don’t really like English football due to arrogance, debt, lack of supporter engagement etc, so any time-limited govt intervention would almost certainly be accepted if it challenged those tendencies.

  • Stephen Donnelly 23rd Feb '13 - 12:25pm

    There is a structured relationship between fans and clubs in the lower league. If the fans do not like the management, they stop attending, or do not renew their season tickets, or refuse to buy replica shirts. It is very effective, and is partly the reason why football management is such a precarious business. The market works a lot more effectively than any form of government intervention every could

    In the higher leagues, fans do have have such control. The huge sums of money paid by TV companies mean that the local fans base has less power. Many premier league clubs have owners who are so rich they are beyond the influence of the ordinary man in the street. Changing the relationship that those clubs have with their owners would just force the money to move elsewhere. The shopkeepers of King street, Manchester, and their staff, would not welcome such a change. Nor would the hoteliers, airline companies, bar owners or textile companies. The precedent set would undermine other sections of our economy.

    Frustratingly even football fans need to live in the real world. If you don’t like the premier league, go and support a lower league team, you have the choice.

  • Football is a business and if it wants to run itself in a ridiculous and unsustainable manner then we should leave them to it. The state does not need to “empower individuals” by interfering in football. People can empower themselves by refusing to buy tickets and shirts etc, the fact that they won’t do this as football is treated as some kind of religion is their problem.

  • As a supporter of both a Championship (not democratically run) and a non-league (democratically) run football club, I find this proposal very interesting. Not least the most interesting thing about it is why the committee thinks that the proposal should only apply to football clubs. To be honest, I am smart enought not to buy expensive tickets and expensive replica shirts. If more fans did the same then clubs would drop their costs. The corporations from which I buy food, electric, gas, water, diesel and clothes extract far more of my money than my favourite football clubs ever will. None of those corporations is run in a democratic way in which I have a say. Many of them operate in cery uncompetitive markets in which I have very little choice. Will the next proposal be that such corporations should operate democratically? That might be a good idea. But hasnt this been suggested way back in the past? Something about “the means of production distribution and exchange”, I seem to recall? Is this a “reverse Clause 4 moment”?

  • An excellent article and I agree with the authors concluding sentence that ” The reform agenda is at a critical stage and it is vital that liberals are involved, promoting the values of community ownership and democracy.”

    Football clubs outside of the top tier are neither businesses nor charities. Most rely on a single wealthy chairman for financial support and on the loyalty of their fanbase to pay inflated prices for tickets and mechandise. Competition for talent continues to drive players wage well beyond what most clubs can meet from their own revenue streams and keeps many in a permanent state of financial instability.

    When League Chairman are unwilling to cooperate in developing and abiding by salary caps and the normal financial disciplines of business, it more often than not falls to the clubs supporters to come to the rescue when a club faces insolvency, as so many have done in the lower leagues since the formation of the premier league.

  • I don’t get it.
    Why are we not in favour of democratising dressage, sailing and cricket, Could it be perhaps that football is a bit common so needs bossing about.

  • As a season-ticket holder at a club with recent disappointing performances, I have been facing exactly this issue. If any other expensive hobby had caused me such grief and disappointment I would have given up several years ago! The “market” does not work because it is fundamentally distorted by loyalty to club, to family (as club allegiances are often handed down through the generations), to friends (especially those I sit next to in the ground) and to community (my club draws its support from where I live). Those things don’t apply to my choice of gas provider, supermarket or fashion outlet, where of course I have preferences, but not emotional attachment. So because there is market failure, the case could be made for some sort of intervention. However, such a case would depend on the prospect of success , and Sam’s article is a good list of interventions that seem to have failed! All power to Supporters Direct, but I fear that unless their campaign includes cognitive behavioural therapy for those of us whose loyalty and optimism blinds us to the fact we are being exploited by unscrupulous club owners, the search for effective market interventions will continue….

  • Simon Banks 27th Feb '13 - 4:12pm

    Lucas: that’s a very limited empowerment you see in the market. The fan can affect the income of the club minimally and fans collectively may have some impact – but the fact is that football is not a normal business because the identification of fans with clubs is much stronger than in any normal business transaction. Even pub regulars can and do switch to other pubs if they don’t like the manager’s policy or welcome.

    Liberals have considered “interfering” in businesses before to ensure workers have some rights. Where there is an imbalance between consumer and provider power, intervention by the state is not illiberal. Let’s say some fans want their club to be run with structures that ensure fans have a voice. Not buying shirts won’t achieve that, and if they want to switch their custom to another club, in the Premiership, they’d all have to go to Swansea.

    Stephen – the economic impact on cities of a proposal like Sam’s would in no way be devastating. Those vast funds don’t go into the pockets of the residents of Manchester and West London unless they’re professional footballers or senior club executives. Germany’s top clubs are nearly all run with structures that would please Sam. They get big crowds and their home cities are happy.

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