David Cameron recognised the importance of football, although he famously didn’t think it important enough to remember which team he was supposed to support, confusing Aston Villa with West Ham. The Labour Party, by contrast, has historically recognised its importance in the public psyche, going back to Harold Wilson reminding people that England only win the World Cup under a Labour government. This summer marked a renaissance of optimism in the England national team, with fans united in adulation for manager Gareth Southgate and his progressive team.
Football has always been a sport inextricably tied to many of the traditional bases of the labour movement. Top clubs, such as Manchester City, find their origins in churches. Arsenal formed from the manufacturing industry and Manchester United from a railway company. Similarly, women started playing organised football during the First World War, forming teams from the munitions factories.
Over many decades, football clubs have been rooted in communities. There is also a rich irony that arguably the most factional sport of all has the capacity to bring people together from across political lines.
Liverpool, which will next month host “The World Transformed” – a political, arts and music festival – to coincide with the Labour Party conference, is at the heart of a convergence between politics and football. The city’s battles against Thatcherism, the fight for justice over Hillsborough, and the tradition of left-wing activism are well-documented. However, Liverpool supporters’ recent agitations over ticket prices and their vocal support for the introduction of safe standing in football grounds illustrate how supporter groups have the capacity to rapidly turn into social movements.
As Labour seeks to democratise the party to give members more of a say over policy and organisation, football clubs have triangulated away from their fans in favour of profit-seeking. Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona have shown how supporter-run clubs are not just a viable model of ownership, but are more conducive to success on the pitch – as profits are used to cut ticket prices or re-invest in the team. Both clubs are owned by members, known as “socios”, who elect a president to run the club. In Germany, the rules of the top league require more than 50 per cent of shares to be owned by members, to safeguard their influence and “prevent distortion of competition”.
Football teams have a sentimental value to supporters, and ensuring fans have a voice within the structure of the club would prevent the kind of situation currently unfolding at Arsenal, where owner Stan Kroenke – a US billionaire – is set to purchase the entire holding company, meaning it will no longer be publicly-listed.
Unaccountable custodianship must be resisted by supporters, but a viable route to addressing this has not yet been properly mapped out. Labour has committed to giving fans a place on the boards of football clubs, but there is potential to go much further by following examples from Spain and Germany.
In 2016, a select committee investigation into Mike Ashley’s employment practices at Sports Direct dominated the headlines. However, preliminary examinations into Ashley’s business management capability had already been conducted by Newcastle United supporters, who for almost a decade showed palpable frustration at Ashley’s ownership of their club.
Deepening democracy and scrutinising unaccountable owners who are members of the “billionaire class” should be natural territory for the left, but the far right is gearing up to exploit the discontent of football fans. Former EDL leader Tommy Robinson has been joined by other far-right figures, such as former Ukip leadership candidate Anne Marie Waters, in addressing the recently formed Football Lads Alliance (FLA).
While the title suggests football, the group’s focus on “Islamist Extremism” makes its political agenda clear. Interviewed before its third protest, the FLA’s original founder, John Meigan said the group could mobilise“into a political group or look at political options ourselves”.
The left has to provide solutions to football fans who feel alienated from their clubs – solutions that can also be applied to a feeling of alienation in the workplace, the squeeze in living standards, and growing anger at an unaccountable economic elite.
This starts at Labour conference. The World Transformed will host a five-a-side tournament on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd September at the sports centre in the Baltic Triangle. Anyone can sign a team up, provided at least two women per team are on the pitch at any one time. All abilities are welcome, and a special guest will be reffing the final. Let’s make this the start of a movement to democratise the beautiful game.