Saying ‘YES’ to Political Football!

A football groundLiverpool FC’s famous former manager, Bill Shankly, once quipped that football was more important than life itself. To those with little interest in the game, the thrall that 22 men chasing a ball can have upon millions of people must be baffling. But whether it be in the media, the High Street, the school playground or business boardrooms, there can be no question that football is one of the most important social, cultural and commercial forces in Britain today.

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. .

Despite football’s grip on the nation and the challenges it faces, it has received surprisingly little political attention over the years. The Tories under Thatcher viewed the game with suspicion and hostility – the nadir of which was their ridiculous plan to introduce Football ID cards. Despite its working class routes, Labour was little better. Tony Blair cynically claimed to be a Newcastle United supporter as shorthand for his ‘man of the people’ act, whilst Gordon Brown is Raith Rovers most high profile ‘fan’. Yet their party waited until literally days before the 2010 election before coming up with radical proposals to improve the administration of the game in Britain – which were rightly dismissed as pre-election gimmicks. Football fans have long been weary of their sport being cynically used by politicians with little genuine attachment to it.

Unfortunately the Liberal Democrats have also had little to say about football over the years, with the exception of isolated campaigns like Safe Standing. With the game riddled by cultural, administrative and financial issues that are crying out for genuine leadership, the stage is therefore ready for well-intentioned (and crucially, well-informed) politicians to take a genuine interest in addressing them.  And that is what a new group within the Liberal Democrats is being established to do

‘Liberal Democrat Friends of Football’ has serious aims which belie its rather cuddly title. The organisation aims to unite the many genuine football supporters within our Party in the pursuit of administrative and cultural change in how the game is run in Britain. It will seek to highlight key areas in which Liberal Democrats can campaign to improve football, with a particular emphasis upon liberal values such as greater supporter democracy. And it will work to keep football fans aware that there is a party with solid footballing credentials which is actively working to address their needs and interests.

The first kick-off meeting for this new organisation is being held this coming Monday (13th May) at 7pm at Portcullis House, Westminster. The Liberal Democrat Culture, Media and Sport Spokesperson, John Leech MP, will be in attendance and all interested Party members are welcome to come along. To find out more about Lib Dem Friends of Football and/or to confirm your attendance, please contact Steve Bradley on [email protected] .


* Steve Bradley is councillor for Vassal ward, Lambeth.

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  • Joseph Donnelly 7th May '13 - 1:05pm

    Safe standing, the way police treat ordinary fans like high risk terrorists using anti-terrorism legislation, recent racism on the pitch, poor club structures….theres certainly a lot for Liberals to get on with.

    Also really positive because its liberalism for the ordinary person, a way to show how liberal values can be helpful for the average Joe.

  • Joseph Donnelly 7th May '13 - 1:07pm

    Of course despite the biggest concentration of football league clubs being in the North…the meeting is in London so theres no chance for many football fans to attend.

  • Steve Bradley 7th May '13 - 1:53pm

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks for your positive comments re the idea. The meeting has to be held somewhere unfortunately, and I’m afraid that London worked best for both myself (as the organiser) and John Leech (as the key party spokesperson).

    It is only a very first meeting to discuss pbjectives etc however, and there will no doubt be others moving forwards – not all in London.

    But as mentioned, it had to be held somewhere and that somewhere was always going to inconvenience someone. Email me your contact details and I’ll ensure we keep in touch with you about future meetings.



  • Sorry Steve, would have loved to been able to attend but will be at the Brighton/Crystal Palace play off game which clashes with the meeting! Hope it goes well…

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th May '13 - 2:16pm

    there can be no question that football is one of the most important social, cultural and commercial forces in Britain today.

    Indeed. So why, when there is a huge hoo-hah about threats to “UK independence”, does this seem to focus solely on the European Union, and there is no mention of the way this thing which is fundamental to our culture is getting bought up by foreign owners?

    To me, this above all is a clear sign that UKIP is a party based on a lie. They are not about UK independence at all. They don’t really care tuppence for threats to the UK way of life. All they say about that is just to fool the gullible into voting for them. They raise the supposed threat to UK independence and UK traditions coming from the EU, but ignore much greater threats coming from other sources. What UKIP is REALLY about is protecting the super-wealthy, selling the UK out to the international billionaires, turning our country into a craven colony of the global elite. They oppose the EU because they don’t like the idea of countries getting together and making a stand for democracy against the power of global billionaires. Their whipping up of anti-EU hysteria is just a distraction from what they are really about. Look at who is paying for them, and who runs the newspapers that have become propaganda sheets for them to see that.

  • The Labour Party have working class “routes”? What does that mean?

  • Steve,

    glad to see the party getting involved with these important issues. I spent several years working with the Brentford Supporters Trust, as Treasurer of Supporters Direct when it was chaired by Andy Burnham and as as a director of Brentford Football Club under the chairmanship of Gregg Dyke. We are back at Wembley again on Sunday week for the League one play-off final against Yeovil. It will be Gregg Dyke’s last game before taking over the Chair of the Football Association.

    The culture, media and sport select committee warned earlier this year that unless there was “clear progress” in 12 months on the issues identified in its report published in July 2011, which followed a wide-ranging inquiry into the governance of the game., the government should legislate “as soon as practicable”, English football ‘has a year to change’ say MPs preparing to urge legislation.

    Libdems need to be right in there with the MP’s on the All Party Parliamentary Football Group. Adrian Sanders, Mike Hancock and John Leech leading the charge.

  • Stuart Mitchell 7th May '13 - 5:53pm

    “there can be no question that football is one of the most important social, cultural and commercial forces in Britain today.”

    You could say the same about, say, the Internet, but I don’t hear Liberals using that as a reason for government interference there. Quite the opposite.

  • Steve Bradley 7th May '13 - 5:56pm

    Stuart Mitchell : Perhaps, unlike football, that’s because no-one genuinely thinks the internet operates under a broken model and is slowly destroying itself.

    Comparing apples and oranges.

  • Simon McGrath 7th May '13 - 9:27pm

    Apart from Health and Safety there is no reason for the state to interfere in football clubs. None at all,

  • Joseph Donnelly 7th May '13 - 9:30pm

    @Stuart Mitchell & @Simon McGrath have both missed the point somewhat

    The point is that football actually already has an extraordinary amount of government intervention. Whether that be the treatment of ordinary football fans as if they are terrorists (many cases of whole coaches being turned around and sent outside a town because of one unruly fan, complete arbitrary rule), or the ban on standing at football grounds, or even the bizarre alcohol ban.

    Either we stay quiet on this issue and let govt. regulate football heavily as it already does or we introduce a liberal perspective on the legal framework football should operate within.

  • Steve Bradley 8th May '13 - 2:03am

    Andy Hinton – you’re undermining your own argument through exageration.

    Football may not be important to you, and no-one is forcing you to take an interest in it.

    Meanwhile – there are millions of people in Britain for whom it is very important – many of whom have real concerns about what is happening within the sport. Politicians have a duty to find out what people want and to help deliver it. Football is no different in that than transport, education or community safety.

    As for the comment that “we” don’t think plitical intervention in any other sport isn’t necessary – the Olympics wouldn’t exist without it politics intervening an underpinning it. The same for the national stadia of most sports across the country. Politics has been involved with sport directly and indirectly for years.

  • Simon McGrath 8th May '13 - 8:08am

    @Tony Greaves “The rest of us can work together to campaign to make the structure of the greatest team game more democratic, fairer, more egalitarian and more liberal”

    Its a game. people kick balls about. It really doesnt matter that much.
    @Joe Donnelly – fair point about civil liberties

  • Peter Chapman 8th May '13 - 9:36am

    This is an excellent Idea. If we believe in community politics we understand the importance of football clubs to local communities. Many have been ‘stolen’ or ruined by people who have no concern for the local communities they should represent and provide a focus for. We should be campaigning for more fan owned clubs, a return to safe standing and affordable ticket prices as in Germany and more transparency in club ownership.

    we should be campaigning for better treatment of law abiding fans by the police etc .This is one of the areas where we should show we are in contact with real working people not just interested in elite issues of little direct relevance to millions

  • Really pleased to see this getting off the ground. Whether it’s looking at increasing supporter involvement in the running of clubs or fighting back against some of the draconian policing methods used against fans, there’s plenty for the Lib Dems to get involved with.

  • This is fantastic news! It’s about time the Lib Dems stepped up and got involved. Thank you Steve for getting this off the ground. It’s long overdue!

  • Steve Comer 8th May '13 - 5:21pm

    Non sports fans amongst Liberal Democrats need to be clear that football has a major impact on the economy, and most clubs are rooted in their communities. (Only a handful of top Premier League sides are ‘supported ‘ by glory hunters from miles away!)
    It is an important issue, and I welcome this initiative. Its been a while since we’ve had a football fringe at Conference (2004 or 2005) I think, but it was a good one with people from Supporters Direct etc,

  • Steve Bradley 8th May '13 - 5:37pm

    Dave Page – thanks for your comments. I wouldn’t entirely agree with the spirit of your last paragraph though.

    I’m sure everyone accepts that violence of any sort shouldn’t be tolerated, but it’s not a problem specific to football. Football holds a mirror up to society like no other sport does. There is lawless behaviour on our streets, on our transport networks and in our town centres every day of the week, with or without a football game. That doesn’t absolve football of any responsibility btw, and it’s true that there will be some who use football as an excuse or a cover for loutish behaviour. But those people would most probably have a propensity to act in such an anti-social way anyway. I don’t believe a game of football would in-itself convert many otherwise peaceful citizens into trouble makers for 90+mins.

    Alcohol is no doubt a greater catalyst for lawlessness than football is, and on a much more frequent basis. But that’s a whole different debate… :o)

    The problem with football policing is that it sometimes makes no attempt to differentiate between the vast, vast majority of peacable fans and the tiny fraction who would look to cause trouble (in any context no doubt). Football fans are both metaphorically and physically lumped together and often treated like criminals merely for the act of going to watch a game (particularly away fans). That arguably helps trouble makers by not isolating them.

    So there does need to be better and more intelligent policing around football to stop problems. But you could say that about the policing for any facet of life.

    P.S. My reference to the Olympics was merely to show that the claim that “we” don’t accept political intervention in any other sport is simply not true.

  • Max Wilkinson 8th May '13 - 6:32pm

    A fine idea.

    We should start by making it party policy to reintroduce safe standing (illiberal legislation barred it), outlaw matchday bubble transport (illiberal policing) and restrict the use of blanket video recording operations against fans by police.

    Watching football is not a crime.

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th May '13 - 7:52pm

    The last time (just a few weeks ago) someone wrote an article on LDV complaining about illiberal policing of football fans, this was followed within days by scenes of appalling violence at Wembley stadium, and a football-related riot in Newcastle city centre.

    I don’t claim that the police are perfect, and where they do things wrong we should of course call them on it. But recent events have shown that the potential for violent disturbance where football fans gather has never gone away; and the fact that incidents such as this have been so mercifully rare in recent years, while the inconveniences suffered by fans have been pretty trivial, suggests to me that by and large the police have done a good job of striking a very difficult balance.

  • Steve Bradley 8th May '13 - 10:43pm

    Interesting to see the number one item on the various news programmes throughout today wasn’t the Queen’s Speech, but the retirement of a football manager.

    Speaks volumes on the role of football within Britain (though no doubt some will say also about the calibre of the Queens’ speech as well ! :o)

  • @ Stuart Mitchell I assume you’re talking about my article on the “bubble” restriction imposed on Hull fans – similar tactics wouldn’t have prevented the trouble at Wembley and if you read any accounts from Millwall fans at the game (the vast majority who watched the game peacefully) the issue was poor policing and stewarding inside the stadium. Small scale trouble was allowed to fester for some time before becoming more widespread and when the police did get involved their response was indiscriminate – targeting anyone rather than those causing the trouble. The late kick off time (for the benefit of tv) was also a factor as it allowed for all day drinking.

    The idea that these instances justify some of draconian policing tactics being used of late – bubble matches, or the requirement to carry ID, is ridiculous and as liberals we should oppose them vigorously. The actions of the few (check the statistics if you think it’s anything other than a tiny minority) should not be used to curtail the civil liberties of the many, peaceful fans who attend football matches in this country.

  • Steve Bradley 8th May '13 - 10:56pm

    Dave Page – it’s a serious over-exaggeration to say that town centres become a no-go zone on matchdays. It’s simply not true. If that was the case there would have been uproar from city centre businesses before now about the effect on their trade – especially in the key run up to Christmas. The converse is true – city centre businesses tend to do well out of football (there is academic research to show the positive economic impact of football upon towns). That wouldn’t be the case if they were the no-go zones you suggest. I’m from a part of the world where disruption in city centres is not uncommon (Northern Ireland e.g. due to marches) and I can assure you that businesses are never slow at speaking out over any impact it has on their trade.

    I’ve been in city centres in most major UK cities on a matchday and they’ve been far from a no-go zone. Some have had a real positive buzz about them (e.g. Newcastle on matchday).

    Conversely I’ve been in various city centres at night where I’ve felt on edge – and I’m a 6ft 1 inch 15 stone bloke ! I suspect you’d find a lot more people would avoid town centres on a weekend night than on a matchday. Because it’s idiots plus drink that causes problems – whether or not football is involved. I bet police statistics would assert that crime is higher on an average weekend evening in city centres than on an average matchday daytime there.

    Again – football just reflects the nature of the societies in which it is hosted, perhaps better than any other phenomena.

  • Well said Paul!

  • “The culture of football encourages the very worst behaviour in a way nothing else I know of does.”

    What exactly is the culture of football and how exactly does it encourage the very worst behaviour? I myself am a law abiding football fan. I come from four generations of law-abiding football fans. At least 99% of football fans are law-abiding men, women and children. How dare you characterise us as thugs with your prejudices. As for the idea that boxing and rugby fans are better behaved – really? Rugby is a game in which the behaviour and conduct of players on the pitch is far, far worse than football. When was the last time you saw a football player stamp on somebody’s head or try to gouge their eyes out? Why is that brawling rugby players and fans are just ‘high-spirited’. The fact that you compare a non-contact sport like football to sports with codified violence, i.e. rugby and boxing, speaks volumes about your twisted logic.

    Class prejudice led to Hillsborough, where innocent boys, girls and adults were treated like animals and herded into an unfit and unsafe area of a ground. They were then blamed for their own deaths by the incompetent police, by the incompetent government and by the right-wing press. The treatment of football supporters in this country is shameful in the extreme.

    Perhaps everybody that goes to a pub or restaurant should also be herded by the police on the basis that a small minority of customers cause criminal offences in the street after visiting the premises? I could see that going down well with the law-abiding middle-classes. So, why is it even considered acceptable for people to express an opinion that football supporters should be treated in the same way? Ah, that’s right, they’re not middle-class.

    Just to remind ourselves – here is Bernard Ingham’s repulsive letter about Hillsborough from 1996 (years after the Taylor report proved that the disaster was caused by bad policing and bad ground design and that ticketless fans were not a contributing factor):

    Why would any ‘liberal’ sign up to this form of fascism?

  • Steve Bradley 9th May '13 - 1:19pm

    As stated previously – ALL issues related to football need to be considered and addressed.

    That includes, but shouldn’t be dominated by, issues around football-related violence (or the fear of it).

    As any fan will attest, there is much much more to football than that.

  • Andrew Hickey

    I suggest you read the short post by Steve Bradley. Sums it up nicely

    As a non football fan you have n’t experienced the violence that comes from the boys in blue and the treating of people as criminals and cattle.

    I suggest you read the Hillsborough Report and the letter by Ingham above to see what people who shared your prejudices allowed to happen

    No all football fans are saints – that is clear to us all but your anecdotes may not tell the whole story

  • Steve Bradley 10th May '13 - 11:03am

    Andrew Hickey – the only times I have experienced racism against myself (anti-Irish racism) was a couple of times whilst I was at University, and once in a KFC. By your logic I should therefore be condemning students as racist, and higher education or fast food emporiums as a breeding ground for such intolerance.

    I have been to over 1,000 football matches in my life. I have never experienced violence at any of them. I have, however, seen violence on the streets of numerous towns and cities on a night out – and been the victim of it once myself as well. Again – by your logic, anyone who goes out at night should therefore all be lumped into one category as violent thugs. If you went into any town centre in this country picked at random of a weekend evening you are almost guaranteed to see thuggery and violence. If you went to any football game in this country picked at random you would be almost guaranteed to NOT see thuggery and violence. You don’t appear willing to accept that, but it’s true. And I have no doubt that police statistics would support that view.

    Hopefully this shows the absurdity and frankly illiberal nature of what you’re saying here.

    There is occasional thuggery, racism etc within society. As a result there is occasional thuggery, racism etc in football. As there is also occasional thuggery, racism etc to be found walking down any street in this country, in any pub etc etc.. To dismiss an entire group of people outright because of the existence of a societal problem within their ranks is illiberal. It’s up there with the kind of ‘all Irish/Muslims are terrorists’ nonesense.

    Can we please move on from this now. There is a lot to talk about re football beyond this issue.

  • Hickey
    The problem would soon be solved if zero tolerance was employed for bad behaviour but the LibDem leadership has little interest in this

  • Even before he was Brazilian Minister for Sport, Pele had a better quote than Shankly – he said, “football is not real life, it is a metaphor for life.”

    How you play the game, how the game is administered, the role of clubs within their host communities, it’s all massively political. Sir Alex Ferguson was a major donor to the Labour party, after all, and the chairman of my local club bailed out the Conservative Association because the richest MP in the country apparently can’t afford to run his constituency office.

    The fact that politicians even attempt to ‘interfere’ is a response to the failure of the footballing authorities. So this is a massively positive move which I wholeheartedly support, and one which is long overdue.

    Perhaps I can suggest rooting out the corruption in Fifa, football finances, policing and safety, infrastucture spending and health and education as initial agenda items.

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