Editorial: Football and politics will always mix – and we won’t apologise for that

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Decisions of politicians at local and national levels have an impact on everything from safe standing and club ownership to youth teams and playing fields

10 December ~ We publish a regular survey in which readers are invited to identify the things they like and dislike about WSC. The latter section will sometimes include a comment or two that we find baffling. They come from those who say that WSC has “become too political” or that we should “leave out the politics and concentrate on the football”. We also received a few observations to this effect after last month’s launch of the WSC Supporters’ Club. No doubt these are genuinely held opinions but our bafflement is genuine too. Firstly we can’t work out how anyone would think that WSC has acquired a political stance recently when it’s been a frequently expressed part of the magazine’s identity since the first issue in 1986. Nor can we understand the implication that football ought to be separated entirely from politics. As the country’s most popular pastime, and an important part of the national culture for 150 years, football will always be subject to important decisions made by politicians, whether at a planning meeting of a town council or in the voting lobbies at Westminster.

The zine movement that WSC was part of developed during the second half of football’s worst ever decade, the 1980s, when hundreds of people died in stadium disasters caused by a combination of neglect and malpractice on the part of those responsible for spectator safety. As even our few avowedly politics-averse readers will know, the government of the time was intent on presenting football as a “law and order issue” that required punitive measures to be imposed on supporters, such as compulsory ID cards (a measure voted through in parliament then dropped after the Hillsborough disaster). Feeling that they were being targeted by the authorities, fans came to recognise that they were a powerful constituency and began to organise as such.

Thirty years on, football supporter pressure groups are as active as they have ever been. Both on issues concerning the matchday experience, such as ticket pricing and kick-off times, and over broader concerns that include the funding crisis in grassroots football and how supporters could best participate in the running of their clubs. Opinions vary on how these issues should be dealt with but it is commonly accepted that political support can make a crucial difference. So those in a position to pass laws relating to football and the culture surrounding it should always be made aware of the strength of feeling it generates.

Our politics is now rife with opportunists looking for any chance to identify an “other” from which ordinary people supposedly need to be protected. Many football fans will have had their political sensibilities shaped in a period when they were sometimes among those demonised groups. So they can recognise the construction of this type of story, not least when sections of the mainstream media are complicit in sustaining it. The long fight for justice conducted by the Hillsborough families showed how football fans were still subject to a certain sort of misrepresentation long after the Premier League supposedly changed the game’s image for good. We would sometimes see how this worked at first hand. In the mid 1990s we received a call from a regional TV reporter who said his network wanted to send two camera crews on a European away trip with fans of a local English club. The plan, delivered in a chummy, conspiratorial tone, was for one crew to travel with a group of “regular” fans and another with “the other type” and did we know any of the latter. The presence of a camera of course being more likely to create precisely the type of incident that they were looking to report on.

Unable to help with this request, we didn’t hear of the reporter again until a few years later when he stood as a Conservative candidate in a general election. Someone’s view on how football supporters could be plausibly presented might not reflect a broader political outlook. In this case we would be inclined to think that it did.

Issues relating directly to football may not feature prominently in many people’s choice of how they will vote in the 2019 general election. But whenever the various forms of injustice that continue to thrive within society are mirrored in football they deserve to be called out.

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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