Matthew Brown reports on the importance of the football vote to the main parties at Westminster
When Terry Venables was interviewed by Radio Five Live recently the interviewer, only half jokingly, suggested that if Venables had stood for election as Prime Minister during the height of euphoria back in June he may well have been elected. At the beginning of October the man hoping to take the top job in the land ended his rally rousing call to the troops by proclaiming, “Labour’s Coming Home”.
Putting aside the fact that England did not even come second in Euro 96, Tony Blair’s explicit reference to that football song confirmed the game’s new status as the favourite plaything of publicity-seeking politicians.
The Labour Party is leading the way. The highly-publicized £1 million donation in September from the late Matthew Harding was a considerable coup, while the penalty kicks Blair persuaded Alex Ferguson to subject himself to at a Labour Conference photo opportunity confirmed stories about the political sympathies of the country’s most successful manager. In 1961, Ferguson, a shop steward at the time led an apprentices’ strike at the engineering firm where he worked while he was a part-time player with St Johnstone. His trade union and Labour roots clearly run deep: “I was steeped in it,” he said in an interview in the Labour Party’s magazine recently; “I was born a Labour man and I will always be a Labour man.”
Once, back in the days of muddy pitches and crumbling concrete, football’s only public attachment to the world of politics was through the unwanted infiltration of hard-core fans by the far right. The game was untouchable as far as party politics were concerned. The only time football was discussed in Parliament was when those who followed it were derided for hitting each other or foreign policemen.
But as the game’s become more and more respectable, as it’s polished and preened its media image, politicians have been falling over themselves to proclaim their lifelong attachments to some team or other.
As a sign of how times have changed, Tory Chairman Brian Ma-whinney attempted to make political capital out of a visit to Bournemouth FC during his party’s conference last month, when he met the club’s Chairman and Conservative supporter, Ken Gardner. The Liberal Democrats, rather wisely, passed up the opportunity to do the same with the former Liberal MP for Eastbourne, David Belotti, during their bash at Brighton.
To be fair, though, the Liberal Democrats do seem to be taking the game seriously. Their Business Forum recently held a meeting entitled “The Future of British Football”, with guest speaker Freddie Fletcher, Chief Executive of Newcastle United and a long-time Lib Dem supporter. “Football’s becoming more and more of a business,” explained the forum’s organizer Adrian Slade with acute insight, “It’s very important economically and very topical.”
The Conservatives, of course, are keen to take the credit for football’s growth as a business: “The Government has overseen changes that have been to the betterment of football,” says their press office. Inevitably, the Labour Party’s more concrete proposals (or “outpourings on football”, as the Tories put it) were described by the same person as “more or less just PR”.
But the Labour Party has produced the first-ever specific statement of policy on the game. Its “Charter For Football”, launched in January, was discussed in WSC No 108. And it does contain some explicit promises on a range of issues, including the “rights of supporters”, and it makes suggestions about fan representation on a “Football Taskforce”. It echoes comments made by Blair himself in an Independent on Sunday interview in January 1995, headlined My Manifesto For Football. In it he said “[ticket] pricing should always relate not just to the needs of the club. The fan’s interests should also be taken into account;” and, “Clearly, authorities would be well advised to listen to what fans’ representatives say”. Someone at Walworth Road seems to have been listening.
Of course, it remains to be seen how much of this stuff is actually put into practice by a Labour government. Yet the new-found notion that football matters was reinforced by Labour MP (and one-time Arsenal employee) Kate Hoey in her January 1995 pleas to the government to initiate a public enquiry into bungs and sleaze scandals in the sport. She argued that “its future is too important to be seen as the private preserve of the few”, and pointed out that it receives £23 million of public money via the Football Trust, as well as Department for the Environment approved loans for clubs from local authorities. Unwilling to ‘interfere’ in football affairs, the Government showed Hoey’s proposal “the yellow card”, as she put it.
Alongside the credibility from football-related publicity stunts, and the media’s personality-focused coverage of politics these days, political engagement in football also results from its new role as an industry of some importance to the economy. Manchester United’s record turnovers and stockmarket prices are continually quoted to illustrate the health of the football business, while Euro 96 reportedly gave the economy a boost all by itself, prompting a surge in the sales of clothing, food and drink. Alongside the extra 250,000 visitors to the country, and all that incoming currency, supermarket lager sales soared by 55% and pizza delivery firms enjoyed extra large orders . . .
But let’s not kid ourselves. Once the real bun fight begins, club colours will be swapped for Party rosettes and the the Manifesto for Football will be lucky to get any air time. Come the election, politicians may even be on TV more often than Gary Lineker.
Some football-politics connections
Alex Ferguson – And, by implication, Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs, whose 1996 Cup Final shirts were donated to a Labour Party fund raising auction, raising £17,500 and £5,000 respectively for the party’s election campaign.
Brian Clough – Almost stood as a Parliamentary candidate in Manchester and Loughborough.
Steve Gibson – The current Middlesbrough Chairman is a former Labour councillor.
Geoffrey Robinson – Millionaire Labour MP for Coventry North West and one of Coventry City’s main financial backers.
Joe Ashton – Labour MP who sits on the board of Sheffield Wednesday (colleague Roy Hattersley has made do with a seat in the stand).
Sir John Hall – The company owned by Newcastle’s Chairman, Cameron Developments, has given the Tories over £100,000 since 1989.
Sir Philip Carter – Chair of Arsenal and director of Hambros Bank, which gives over £100,000 a year to the Conservative Party.
Sir Roger Gibbs – Arsenal director and director of Howard de Walden Estates, which gave £5,000 to the Tories in 1994, and of merchant bank Gerrard & National, which gave £15,000 in the same year.
George and William Warburton – Bolton Wanderers directors, who are past and present directors, respectively, of family bread and meat firm, Warburton’s, which has given £6,313 to the Tories since 1987.
Andrew Thomas – Manchester City director and chair of north-west brewers Greenall, which donated £15,000 to the Conservatives between 1992 and ’95.
Jimmy Greaves – Has declared his interest in becoming a Tory candidate for any constituency that is “dying on its feet”. No offers yet.
Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven – Honorary President of Blackburn Rovers.
Alistair Burt – Minister of State for Social Security who wears his Bury shorts in the annual Conservative Party v Parliamentary Press football match (score in 1996: Tories 4, Press 2).
Hon. Alfred Lyttleton – scored for England against Scotland in 1877, elected Liberal Unionist MP in 1895.
Freddie Fletcher – Chief Executive of Newcastle United and good friend of Lib Dem Sir Ian Wrigglesworth, chair of the Lib Dems business forum.
Alan MacGivan – The FA’s Euro 96 Director of Communications is a Lib Dem supporter.
David Belotti – Chair of troubled Brighton and once Eastbourne’s MP, said to be responsible for Thatcher’s downfall after winning a by-election which prompted the leadership challenge.
Vic Halom – The Sunderland forward became Sunderland North’s Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in 1992.
Kevin Keegan – Had a public meeting with Margaret Thatcher in her heyday, and is of course very friendly with the famously Thatcherite Sir John Hall. Nonetheless, played head tennis with Blair on Brighton beach at the Labour Party conference in 1995, and is reputed to have supported the miners during the strike of 1984-85. He described Blair as a “breath of fresh air”, but won’t say he votes Labour, “and we wouldn’t ask him”, says a Labour Party spokesperson.
From WSC 118 December 1996. What was happening this month