Liverpool supporters protest about ticket prices during the English Premier League football match between Liverpool and Hull City at the Anfield stadium in Liverpool, northwest England, on October 25, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Premier League clubs are less and less able to ignore fan discontent over ticket prices

There are tentative signs that Premier League clubs are starting to take fan campaigns against high ticket prices more seriously.

At first they ignored it, then they tried to rubbish it, but now it seems that there are some faint indications that those with power in football are realising they have to do something about the price of tickets to the match. And make no mistake, that’s because of a sustained campaign by fan organisations.

That’s been most evident recently at Liverpool’s Anfield ground, where the usually impressive flag display on the Kop was replaced first by black flags, and then by no flags at all. The Spirit of Shankly supporters’ union and the Spion Kop 1906 group told the club they would stop flying flags until the club met them for proper discussions over pricing. “It’s because we support the team and this football club so much that we are protesting,” said SOS’s Jay McKenna.

Before Liverpool’s home game against Stoke, the last flags to be flown at the front of the Kop read: "1990 - £4; 2000 - £24; 2010 - £43; 2020 - ?" It’s a clever protest, because it affects something the people who run football value. The Premier League makes much of "the passion of the fans" when it markets itself as a global brand, and something that so visibly demonstrates a dampening of that passion has a direct impact on the brand profile. And it does not ask the fans to absent themselves in order to get noticed, something the call for mass boycotts of games does.

Those protests also come at a tricky time for Liverpool. Because this week the club announced that long-planned expansion of Anfield from 45,000 to 59,000 seats would go ahead. And in doing so raised some interesting issues.

In the aftermath of the announcement, press attention focused on the increase in hospitality eats and corporate boxes. It’s a narrative that seems to drop into the lap – honest football fans being priced out of the game while corporate hangers-on get more massively-priced tickets. But, like most narratives that appear to drop into the lap, it’s not quite as simple as that. And what’s more, the focus on the apparently easy appearance of heroes and villains glossed over a more important question.

Liverpool FC chief executive Ian Ayre was anxious to point out that the proportion of corporate seats in the expanded stadium would be roughly the same as they are today. He pointed out that corporate seats are not necessarily filled by the ‘tourists’ or ‘hangers-on’ that many fans are so disdainful of, and he has a valid point. But he also said this.

“Driving prices in those corporate areas helps… they make a huge contribution to the football club and keep ticket prices at the level they are. Without them, the revenues would be much smaller and if other costs were at the same level, everybody else would get hit in some form: sponsors, general admission prices, everyone. I don’t think there’s a football club in the country who could afford to spend money on a new stand without the assistance of corporate hospitality.”

Let’s think carefully about what Ayre is saying here. Corporate pricing is so linked into the rest of the pricing model that not only would tickets be more expensive without it, expansion to meet demand would not be possible without it. But corporate pricing is not, or rather should not, be a core earning area. By definition it is a luxury, a top-end experience. And so, for example, when there’s a recession, companies that may once have been happy to fork our for a bit of corporate will cut back on this first. For them, it’s a luxury, a nice bit of something of extra, but not a necessity.

What Ayre is saying is that the model of football club financing in the English Premier League is fundamentally broken. Because it is reliant not on core income, but on luxury income. And that should be of concern.

This is not, I should point out, an argument against the existence of corporate seats at the game. There are some who do argue that corporate hospitality has no place in sport, but I happen to think that argument is wrong. If a leisure business can persuade people to pay top dollar for a corporate experience, that’s absolutely fine. I’ve written before about why it is too simplistic to say business is ruining sport. It’s the level of reliance on the corporate income that is the issue. And it’s an argument the fan movement needs to get to grips with, along with a few others, if progress is to be made.

For example, another of those easy narratives is that “working class people are being priced out”. Leaving aside the usual arguments about what definition of class is being used, I don’t think that is true. Of course, there are people who have been priced out – you’ll often find them in the pubs near the fullest Premiership grounds on matchdays – but my own experience at Spurs is that the class make-up of the crowd is not that different to what it has been traditionally. What’s different is that more people are spending a greater proportion of their disposable income on football than they were. Which goes some way towards explaining why many fans are disaffected.

These may seem like minor details, but they are important. We need to present the case as it is, not as it is most easily presented, because it’s on the detail that these arguments are won and lost.

There are indications that a number of clubs have realised that they need to do something to properly address the issue of high ticket pricing. The steps are tentative, and it is very easy to be suspicious of moves intended to play to the gallery rather than take concrete action. The clubs have also proved themselves masters of presenting themselves individually as backing price reform, while at the same time arguing that they cannot do anything until everyone else acts.

But, very slowly, more clubs are coming round. Soon, perhaps, one or two major clubs will suggest an initiative and invite others to support it. Something that could keep commercial income high as pressure increases on that aspect of the business in the light of UEFA’s financial Fair Play rules, protect the brand passion that is so valuable, and result in genuinely easing the financial burden grass roots fans are asked to bear.

Achieving such a solution will require diplomacy, nous, hard-headed business sense, in-depth understanding of marketing and customer relations and a sprinkling of courage and imagination. Just the qualities that senior executives command high salaries to possess.

Martin Cloake’s book, Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars, is out now

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

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.