Cardiff City's owner, Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan. Photo: Getty
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Are football’s authorities finally going to have to concede on supporter-owned clubs?

A report from a cross-party group of MPs could provide the much-needed impetus to clear away the mess around club ownership structures.

Complacent. Mistaken. Damaging. Inherent weaknesses. A dysfunctional system. Capricious behaviour. An absence of understanding. Woefully inadequate. Lackadaisical attitude. The language is not normally associated with the careful formulations of the British establishment, but these terms are liberally sprinkled through a report issued by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Mutuals entitled “What is the vision for the future of supporter-owned football clubs?”

In short, MPs are sick and tired of the flim-flam from the football authorities, and so they are going to do something about it. Football has had ample opportunity to reform itself, and failed. So now it is going to get reformed. The all-party group of MPs has called for “urgent action to improve the way that football club owners behave towards supporter groups”. And it urges the Government to “direct” the Football Association, Premier League and Football League to protect the interests of supporters.

The report detonates the framework of obfuscation the game’s authorities have spent much effort constructing. Perhaps most important is the report’s focus on ownership structures. The MPs say that “the football authorities should immediately drop their mistaken neutrality to club ownership and actively encourage supporter ownership”. Late last year I explained about the phoney “neutrality” of the football authorities in an article that put forward the view that a significant turning point had been reached in discussions over the way the game is run in Britain. The APPG’s recommendations reinforce that view.

The report concludes – and these are its words, not mine – that

  • Contrary to the view of the football authorities, the type of ownership of football clubs makes a difference to how they behave and mutual ownership stakes by football supporters are a positive feature.
  • Supporters Direct should receive stable and predictable funding from the proceeds of football instead of suffering damaging delays.
  • Certain football assets with a value to the community should be protected by law, including club colours, club name and home ground ownership.
  • As a result of the lack of action from the football authorities, Government should now legislate for the changes it wishes to see in the ownership and Governance of the Football industry. A draft Bill should be prepared urgently.

The group’s chairman, the Conservative MP Jonathan Evans, said: “We are all aware that following the Select Committee report the Government was looking to the football authorities for some action within a period of about 12 months.

“Yet we encountered a complacent attitude to supporter ownership from the Football Association, Premier League and Football League, which each insist on maintaining their ‘neutrality’ on issues of ownership, regardless of the evidence.

“This cannot be allowed to continue. Supporters are the life-blood of the game and yet we see their interests second place to even the most transient of club owners.

“Action must now be taken and a draft Bill should be prepared urgently to take forward the measures promised by DCMS in 2013.  Each of the political parties should also prepare detailed plans for their election manifestos, aimed at addressing the inherent weaknesses in this dysfunctional system once and for all.”

Reading the report in full is instructive, including as it does a rather telling rap across the knuckles from Evans on Bill Bush, the Premier League’s Director of Policy. Bush is a seasoned operator, having served as one of Ken Livingstone’s closest aides between 1975 and 1986, as a polling analyst to Tony Blair and then as a special advisor to Tessa Jowell at the DCMS before being poached by the Premier League in 2005. Bush is supposed to keep the politicians away by spinning honeyed words about football’s deep, deep commitment to its fans, communities and cuddly animals everywhere – but it seems even his redoubtable abilities are not enough to stop MPs from smelling the coffee. The game may not quite be up for football’s authorities, but it’s certainly last orders at the bar.

There will, of course, be many twists and turns along the path as the game tries to minimise the damage to the model in which powerful people are left to do pretty much as they like while maxing out the abuse of the deep-seated commitment fans have to their clubs. And that’s why the recommendation to make supporter groups such as Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation more financially and intellectually independent of the game’s authorities is so important. These organisations should not have to depend upon the favour of the bodies they seek to reform for their very existence.

As Supporters Direct’s Kevin Rye told the BBC: “The case for reform is made by just what’s happened in the last year at Cardiff City, Hull City, Coventry City, Leeds United, Hereford United. It’s now about what it looks like and when it happens.”

And there’s a wider picture too. What football, with its deep roots in ideas of community, place and identity, has done is to put criticisms of “financial dependency on rentier owners” and “a system of ownership based on what people can put back… rather than on what a wealthy elite can take out” at the centre of a set of recommendations agreed by MPs from all three major parties. Which makes you think, doesn’t it?

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.