Liberal Democrats: The party of football?

There are ninety-two football clubs playing in the English Professional Football League structure and forty-two in the Scottish equivalent. With AFC Wimbledon’s return to Plough Lane taking them out of the Kingston and Surbiton constituency boundaries, none of these are currently represented by a Liberal Democrat MP. For those of you interested, the highest ranked football team currently represented by a Liberal Democrat is St Albans City who are sat 5th in the sixth division at the time of writing.

This may simply be the nature of football geography in this country, with top professional football teams mainly representing the big cities that have become Labour heartlands over the years, the old working class, industrial clubs falling under the so-called red wall and our typically rural heartlands tending to be Rugby/Cricket country, nevertheless, it does beg the question should we be consider reaching out to the countless football fans up and down this country that have votes and are seemingly an untouched market of voters?

Naturally, there are far bigger issues in the country at the moment than football, but there are literally millions of people in this country whose lives, like mine, are in some way impacted by eleven men kicking a ball about on a weekend. Whether that be fans who attended matches weekly pre-Covid, young people going through the gruelling process of breaking through professional academies or simply the local clubs that provide multiple services to their communities. Football touches the lives of so many people in this country, surely it can’t hurt to at least discuss some policies related to the nations pastime, so that Liberal Democrats can make it clear that we are a party on the side of football. Here are just a few to consider:

There has long been a culture in both our politics and media to broadly criminalise football fans and tar all football fans with the brush of the hooliganism that was epidemic in football in the 1980s. At its simplest form, this means drinking alcohol in view of the field of play is banned at football, uniquely to all other sports in the country, while at its ugliest, the powers that be get away with laying the blame of the ninety-six tragic deaths at the Hillsborough disaster at the feet of the very Liverpool fans in attendance at that FA Cup semi-final. We as Liberals should loudly and proudly reject this easy generalisation of football fans by looking at how to liberalise the policing of football and support the Football Supporters Federations call for safe rail standing at football grounds, calls that were recently supported by ex-Manchester Withington MP and leader of the Lib Dem group on Manchester City Council, John Leech.

Similarly, it is my view that it is a moral imperative that Liberal Democrats lead calls for a boycott of the Qatar World Cup, which has been marred by numerous deaths of migrant construction workers who are used by the Qatari regime as slave labour in the construction of the tournament venues. As Co-Chair of Gay Gooners, the LGBT+ supporters’ group of Arsenal, I am naturally keen to avoid hosting the World Cup in a country where being LGBT+ carries the death penalty.

I wrote this article simply as food for thought and would love to hear more ideas on what we can do to make Liberal Democrats the natural party of football.

* George Rice was the Lib Dem PPC for Ashton-under-Lyne at the last General Election

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19 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th Apr '21 - 11:13am

    The story of the tree at Clarence Park is a great amateur football story.

    I love watching football at that charming ground.

  • Ethicsgradient 12th Apr '21 - 11:20am

    As a dedicated fan of my football cub, regularly attending both home & away matches, I urge you not to involve politics into football. While I welcome a discussion on treating football fans as normal and diverse humans rather than pre-conceived stereotypes & making the game more inclusive, involving normal party politics would be dreadful for the following reasons.

    1. Football is escapism. A football Saturday is there to get away from all the serious issues of life. To enjoy for a few hours the most important non-important national activity. The last thing I want to do is to think about serious stuff while I am singing away or going nuts as Josh Koroma puts one in the back of the net.

    2. Football is extremely tribalistic and you play with fire if you start trying to recruit in febrile atmosphere that is football fans on game day. It is not a coincidence far right groups tried to recruit members from the football casual/hooligan scene in the late 80’s or that Northern Irish sectarian hatred has become cornerstones of the Celtic-Rangers rivalry. Football fandom is not rational, it is an unquestioning belief & dedication to a single organisation; the club. There are aspects of cultism to following a football team around the country.

    It is a place general politics should not go, would probably cause antagonism and a angry backlash ‘We’re here to watch the footy, not talk politics lad!’

  • Brad Barrows 12th Apr '21 - 11:30am

    Cheer up! Brora Rangers were declared champions of the Highland League for this season and hope to earn a place in the Scottish professional leagues in time for the start of next season. That said, the Liberal Democrats only have a majority of 204 over the SNP in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross so May struggle to hold it next election.

  • How about injecting momentum on clubs (as cultural leaders) and their fans to be supported to enjoy taking the climate actions needed? One existing example of accountability on this.. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/55790760

  • George,

    re: the Football Supporters Federations call for safe rail standing at football grounds. This is LibDem policy and formed part of the 2015 manifesto https://www.markpack.org.uk/56930/freestanding-football-grounds/
    As to the question, whether we should we consider reaching out to the countless football fans up and down this country that have votes and are seemingly an untouched market of voters? This is not a homogenous group. Football fans everywhere are attracted to the winners in their communities. That is why the big clubs retain their larger fanbases and revenue streams and why smaller clubs struggle to break through. That also applies to smaller political parties.
    As a party we can support an amendment to the Football Spectators Act 1989 to allow safe standing and supporter representation on football club board. But this is because it is the right thing to do. We should not expect a rush of voters to the LibDems as a result.

  • George Thomas 12th Apr '21 - 12:15pm

    “As a dedicated fan of my football cub, regularly attending both home & away matches, I urge you not to involve politics into football.”

    World of football is diverse and while there will be those who don’t want politics to have anything to do with football there will also be sides like FC Pauli where lines between political viewpoints and football crossover. I would suggest that political parties aren’t yet directly involved (beyond embarrassing West Ham/Aston Villa confusion) in UK football but politics has always been there and you can usually tell who the fan next to you has voted for on the basis of their half-time/message board chat.

    A conversation about how to highlight LGBTQ+ and workers rights before Qatar World Cup would be something that gets my support. Most teams have rainbow bands/laces so can the national teams (England obviously going and fingers crossed for rest) be encouraged as grass roots campaign? Every player to be wearing their number as 6,500? Donation of portion of takings to campaigns within Qatar that support LGBTQ+ people?

  • Peter Martin 12th Apr '21 - 12:19pm

    ” Football is extremely tribalistic…… It is not a coincidence far right groups tried to recruit members ”

    There is still a lot of camaraderie in Football. When my club was close to going extinct recently a neighbouring rival chipped in to help out with some essential expenses. When one of our players, incidentally from the Congo and very black, nearly died on the pitch there was widespread support from both our opponents on the day and the wider football community.

    This won’t stop either of us from trying to put the ball in each others’ net the next time we play each other and that is as it should be.

    There is political scope to look at the finances of the game. There is widespread agreement there is far too much money involved. Much of which comes from questionable sources. We don’t need the super wealthy to organise a game of football. The structure of the game is distorted by the inequalities of club ownership. If a club has a ultra wealthy owner, as most of the leading Premier division clubs do, this enables them to afford to pay far higher wages than the rest.

    Consequently everyone is on the look out for a super wealthy owner! If they don’t find one they risk falling down the divisions and going out of business.

  • Ethicsgradient 12th Apr '21 - 12:44pm

    @Peter Martin.

    I have done similar and given money to a local rival that was in financial strife. Football fans can and do come together on larger footballing issues (again another example of the tribalism inherent in football).

    I have no problems with politics discussing issues around the regulation and the structuring of the game. As there are technical issues. Football needs some serious thinking about how we deal with community assets that are privately owned. This are not party political issues though.

    It is a dangerous game to go down the route of trying to recruit for one political side or party viewpoint. Do that and you will release seriously dangerous elements to who fanaticism and tribalism are more closely alligned.

    FIFA has always been correct not to allow political symbols onto football uniforms. The poppy might be seen as harmless, peace sign, but it sets a precedent for another to equally claim putting Hamas on the front of a shirt.

    Keep politics out of football, you play with fire otherwise.

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th Apr '21 - 1:13pm

    There is a long history of clubs organically doing activity that could be described as small p political and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a sign of a functional civil society. Clapton, Dulwich, Romania, FCUM – loads more. Many had some link to a trade union historically.

    Rugby League clubs certainly did and do similar.

    That organic activity though is not the same thing as big, often well-funded national organizations (with a national media profile) muscling in on sport.

    If I want to talk about BLM or the Poppy Appeal or national issues of the day I almost certainly won’t want to mix it with sport. I always was more interested in the Clarence Park tree.

  • George Rice 12th Apr '21 - 1:25pm

    I’ve now had to Google Clarence Park tree and was not disappointed

  • Ethicsgradient 12th Apr '21 - 2:07pm

    @Little Jackie Paper

    I totally agree.

    My club has done so many things to help the local community. setting up and running over 30 odd breakfast clubs for school kids, big sleepouts to help fund the local homeless charity and many other things.

    As you say, keep national politics and the big issues of the day out of sport. Sport is escapism, it should be as apolitical as possible.

  • Kay Kirkham 12th Apr '21 - 3:49pm

    I am a member of the 92 Club and have been to several grounds where the local MP has bought a hoarding advertising their name and phone number.

  • John Marriott 12th Apr '21 - 4:16pm

    The Lib Dems “the party of football”? Now that’s what some might class as an own goal!😀

  • Michael Bukola 12th Apr '21 - 4:26pm

    @Ethicsgradient
    As a loyal fan myself, we cannot escape the fact that British football is plagued by a deeply dysfunctional side, however, which places its very essence and existence in some jeopardy. The game is riddled with financial maladministration at all levels, with over 50 senior clubs across the UK entering administration in the last decade (some more than once). Debt levels are alarmingly high throughout the game – not least at Manchester United and Liverpool, who have been saddled with combined debts of over £1billion thanks to leverage buyouts by their American owners. Football’s governing bodies in England and Scotland have lost control of the sport to their largest clubs, who continue to tilt the financial playfield in their favour. And huge numbers of supporters have been reduced to the role of passive cash cows in the eyes of many clubs.

  • Laurence Cox 12th Apr '21 - 4:39pm

    @LJP

    Football clubs regularly do good work in their local area that largely goes unnoticed beyond the club’s supporters and local people. For example, Aston Villa have supported Acorns Children’s Hospice since 2006 and had the word ‘acorns’ on their shirts from 2008-10. Like many other football teams their founders were churchmen, in Villa’s case from the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel in Handsworth.

    I agree with you and ethicsgradient about keeping politics out of football; I cannot see the point of putting poppies on shirts for the games leading up to Remembrance Sunday.

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th Apr '21 - 6:52pm

    Laurence Cox/Ethicsgradient

    Indeed. It is interesting and, I suspect, telling that lower levels of football away from large scale sky media coverage have generally fended off the politics (some might say the virtue signalling). So far at least.

    I’ve noticed how over the last 10-15 years that non league seems to have really grown in popularity. In part I suspect that is people wanting football to be football rather than an experience in ‘cultural leadership.’

    I’m currently on 107 non league grounds and I can’t wait for 108.

  • Ethicsgradient 12th Apr '21 - 8:33pm

    @Michael Bukola

    Hi I completely agree with all your points. I would welcome a cross-party/general coalition approach to how football is run and governed.

    My disagreement with the original article is the notion of recruiting for part political positions from the football community.

  • Dan Falchikov 13th Apr '21 - 12:01am

    Some interesting points. But liberals can do more. Cooperative fan ownership should be the way forward for football and it’s steeped in liberal tradition. Here’s a piece about the late, great liberal and Swansea Jack Richard Lillicrap that LDV featured 10 years ago: https://www.libdemvoice.org/forgotten-liberal-heroes-richard-lillicrap-24368.html

  • I hope the Liberal Democrats are not enslaved by conformity.

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