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From fans on boards to a redistribution of TV income to help the grassroots, Labour are determined to revolutionise how football is run if they win the 2019 General Election

11 December ~ It’s the second day of official campaigning for the 2019 General Election and, in a cavernous warehouse-turned-creative-space among Liverpool’s docklands, an expectant crowd watch a video of John McDonnell walking his hometown and telling stories of playing football games against other streets to lift their homemade trophy – an egg cup. It’s not the only reference to football in the Liverpool-supporting potential chancellor’s first major speech of the campaign, with references to local rivalries and penalty shootouts, the latter a jibe at Labour leader – and Arsenal fan – Jeremy Corbyn, who watches from the front row having introduced his colleague and long-time friend.

Football’s place in Labour’s campaign goes well beyond light-hearted patter, though. Much like the 2017 election, they are pushing a raft of policies that they say will increase fan representation in clubs across the UK, including supporters’ trusts having the ability to appoint and deselect two board members and having the legal right to purchase shares during any takeover. They’ve also pledged to redistribute five per cent of the Premier League’s broadcasting revenue to grassroots football. After the speeches WSC deputy editor Tom Hocking spoke exclusively to Corbyn and, later, McDonnell about Labour’s football policies.

WSC Why have Labour decided to push football-related policies so prominently in the build-up to this election?

Jeremy Corbyn Well, I am a football fan. I love the spirit of it and two of my three sons are football obsessives. My eldest runs a soccer school and I sometimes go along to watch and listen to what he says to them, the training he gives to them – any youngster can benefit from it. Football is a good in the community and something that brings people together.

WSC Your wider election theme is “the people v the ultra rich”. Are you intentionally using football as a parallel to that throughout the election because it resonates with so many people?

John McDonnell Absolutely. There’s been a lot of change in football, in the way clubs have been taken over. They are used as investments by wealthy individuals or companies and it’s squeezing out the ordinary supporter. That’s due to a combination of ticket prices, but also I think deterring supporters from getting involved in the management of their clubs.

Corbyn I get very frustrated about the cost of going to matches and the way in which working-class communities are almost priced out, particularly in the Premier League. I understand the issues of players’ wages and the costs involved. But we want five per cent of Premier League income to be spent on lower-division football, so not Championship, League One and League Two but lower than that – grassroots football. Too many clubs rely on volunteers and the largesse of someone allowing them somewhere to play. We need a better structure, otherwise where are the players of tomorrow coming from? But we also need the voices of fans on the football club boards, so we will make provision for registered fans’ organisations to elect two directors for every club. And that would mean those voices are there. Germany has a much better, more democratic football model and it’s very successful.

WSC Is the German model of ownership something you’d like to work towards?

Corbyn I’m very interested in the model of Bayern Munich and others. The involvement of fans in football in Germany is so much better. Some of them are very skilled, knowledgeable people who could bring a lot of good to their club.

McDonnell It’s an incredibly attractive proposal but we need to consult before we move in that direction because we must take people with us on all of this. However, all the messages we get back are that clubs should not be the playthings of rich owners. They should involve democratic supporters’ organisations and, where possible, be democratically run. That way, clubs will be more reflective of the communities that support them.

WSC How would your policy of fans’ trusts having the ability to appoint and remove two board members change the way clubs are run in this country?

Corbyn The rest of the directors would have to listen to what the fans are saying. So when they are discussing ticket pricing, community activities, the general attitude of the club and the promotion of women’s football within the club then that voice would be there. And I would hope that the fans elected would be both women and men.

McDonnell That policy has arisen from discussions we’ve been having for quite a while with supporters’ clubs, who have been saying they don’t have a voice any more in their clubs. So this gives the opportunity for supporters to elect representatives to be their voice on those boards and exert influence over a whole range of issues. I would expect clubs to welcome that. We’re trying to restore an element of democracy to football in this country. Clubs would not exist if it wasn’t for the supporters. And it’s not just financial support that these people offer, it’s a devotion for many, it’s part of their lives. That commitment should be respected with a greater role in the clubs. This is all about our prime objective in our politics, which is equality through democracy.

WSC Your mantra for this election is “real change”. How would that policy have changed the recent situations at Bury, Bolton and countless others?

McDonnell It would have enabled much more openness and transparency about the clubs’ affairs. Those representatives could have reported back to the supporters, who can then act at an early stage to develop a proper strategy. It’s not just about having the voice on those boards but also enabling supporters to be fully informed of what’s happening.

WSC You’ve talked about allowing fans’ trusts to buy shares in their club during a takeover. It’s rumoured there’s a Saudi consortium wanting to take over Manchester United. Would fans’ trusts really have the structure in place to get involved in such an enormous transaction?

Corbyn In some cases they would, in some cases not so much. But we encourage a strong fan structure, and that is something that the FA and the League can get behind. There are strong fans’ organisations, certainly for example Arsenal supporters are very well organised, as are Newcastle and others. I think they’d be perfectly capable of handling that.

McDonnell By giving them the legal right to be involved you are saying that purchasers and sellers cannot ignore it. When you’ve got that right, then people will be able to, in places such as Bolton, in large groups, raise the funds to enable them to get involved in some form of shareholding. Sometimes it’s not even about having a large amount, it’s about having sufficient to give
you representation and have a say, and a requirement to be consulted by their clubs on the policies that they are pursuing – for example, how they are going to develop the club’s long-term future. I think that will give confidence to supporters that their clubs will be secure for the future.

WSC As mentioned earlier, you want to redistribute Premier League TV revenue to grassroots clubs. Why is this so important?

McDonnell We’re talking about five per cent of Premier League broadcasting revenue going to grassroots football. If you talk about what’s happening on the ground, particularly because of the cutbacks that the government have introduced into local government, people are losing their playing fields. We need to make sure that we’ve got the facilities and the access, so you nourish your football at the grassroots and that will filter upwards. Firstly, getting people active can take the pressure off the NHS by preventing ill health – so you don’t have to spend so much to treat people. But it also means a huge improvement to every level of the game, including international football as well. We need a renaissance in football in this country from the grassroots upwards, and this would stand us in good stead for the long term.

WSC You’ve talked a lot about redistribution of money, about rich owners treating clubs as playthings. In the past you’ve used Mike Ashley as an example of these kinds of owners. But people like Ashley are also the ones you need to take on this journey, because they control the Premier League. How will you get them to accept these policies?

McDonnell There’s a big conversation to be had now about the nature of football in the long term, recognising that it is more than just a business, and football teams aren’t just playthings of rich people or corporations, they are more than that. And I think we’ve now got to change the culture in football overall.

Corbyn I would hope the owners would understand and accept that they have a role to play in promoting football. Because they do benefit from the skills of footballers who start out in lower leagues. And it’s their responsibility also to make sure we have a thriving football community in this country. If we go on developing this massive imbalance between the Premier League and the rest of football then that’s not a promising future. Of course we will have those conversations with them – but we’re very determined that this is the direction in which we want to go.

WSC There are some policies missing that campaigners have been asking for, such as capping ticket prices. Is that something that Labour would have in their sights?

McDonnell We’ve been talking about it because it’s all about accessibility to football for a whole range of society and not just a certain number who can afford it. And there’s a lot of people now paying out large amounts of money, and many others being barred from attending football because of price hikes that have taken place. I’m a Liverpool fan and the Spirit of Shankly group have been negotiating with the club over ticket prices for a long time. What we want to do is to transfer best practice from some clubs into all clubs.

WSC John, do you think growing up among that football culture, as a Liverpool fan but also playing in the road as a kid against other local streets for an egg cup, has informed your political views?

McDonnell Oh yes, of course. My generation is the Shankly generation, where we work for one another and we share the rewards together. Shankly said that’s his form of socialism and that’s the football I was brought up on. That street football gave you a bond of solidarity with each other. That’s the way we want our communities to act as well, working together and sharing the rewards. Our critique of society at the moment is that the sharing of rewards doesn’t happen because there are extremes of wealth and poverty. So yes, that “street football” ethos really does bring you together and allows you to bond as a society. I’m so proud of what’s been happening when individual clubs have come together to launch food banks and assist people. When there’s someone in need, you’ll often find it’s football clubs working together to support that individual or community group. It makes you proud of football supporters across the country.

WSC Finally, are there many rivalries within the Labour shadow cabinet when it comes to football?

Corbyn Oh yeah, it comes up all the time. Women’s football comes up a lot too and I do think that broadcasting media should be made to ensure that free-to-air is for those cup finals as well – which is another one of our policies.

McDonnell Too right there are. Sometimes Jeremy and I decide not to have the conversation, especially with the recent penalty shootouts. I’m still smarting from when Arsenal won the League on Merseyside, and they still sing about it.

To find out how Labour's plans for football compare to those of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, click here.

Listen to Jeremy Corbyn speak exclusively to us in episode one of the WSC Podcast, here.

This article first appeared in WSC 394, January 2020. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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