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