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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses