Labour's suggestion for the governance of football reflect changes in political momentum, a failed financial model and thoughts about the future of the game. Tom Davies explains

Time was when politicians would stand on what they would do to football supporters, not what they’d do for them. However, the Labour party proposals to give fans a stake in their clubs – first option to buy them when put up for sale as well as to compel supporter-friendly reforms to the game’s governance – indicate how far we’ve come since the days of ID cards and away fan bans.

We’ve long known football has left those days behind. But these latest plans also demonstrate substantial progress from the glitzy early days of New Labour, when Tony Blair’s professed enthusiasm for the game was deployed more from a desire to show his “regular guy” credentials and to revel in the stardust of a newly reglamourised post-Euro 96 domestic game (that famous photo-op with Blair and Kevin Keegan playing head-tennis offers a revealing snapshot of the giddy delusions of the period). Now though, and at last, political parties aren’t just worshipping at football’s glittering altar but are being forced to seriously address how it manages itself.

To dismiss these proposals, as opposition parties did, as an electioneering gimmick would be to ignore both the momentum that has been growing since the current Labour government, in its first term, set up a Football Task Force whose more progressive suggestions were neutered by vested interests. There’s also the fact that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have ideas of their own about reform. Add to this the adverse publicity generated for the Premier League model of club stewardship by recent shenanigans and fan revolts at Manchester United and Portsmouth and, suddenly, the ground is wide open for what we might call the fans’ movement. Symbolically, this is an important moment, if not yet a decisive practical advance.

The bulk of the publicity for the plans has centred on the idea of compelling clubs to hand recognised supporters’ trusts a stake of up to 25 per cent. Also mooted is the introduction of a “change of control” clause giving supporter groups a window to assemble a takeover of their club if it was up for sale or in administration. This might give fans breathing space in the mad scramble for salvation that often accompanies a collapse.

The up-to-25 per cent stake idea will indeed give supporters of clubs that are plcs an effective block on excesses elsewhere in the organisation – if they can attain that kind of shareholding (the words “up to” need to be borne in mind here). However, it would not necessarily stop supporters of normal listed companies being comprehensively outvoted by chairmen or majority shareholders elsewhere.

And the implementation of the policies would take the domestic game into largely uncharted waters. At only three League clubs do fans currently have effective operating stakes of around 25 per cent or more – at Exeter (where the trust has overall control), Lincoln (around 28 per cent) and Swansea (hovering around 25 per cent), all of which are enjoying a period of stability having stared at the abyss in the past decade. Outright fan ownership elsewhere has often floundered in the face of insurmountable or inherited problems, but the existing models it’s competing against have hardly thrived recently either.

Is it workable? The Tories have pointed out that there are company and insolvency law implications for changing the basic business model of clubs. While displaying a characteristic opposition to direct government involvement, they too argue for a beefed up fit and proper person test, rules on debt to turnover ratio and a greater role in governance for independent representatives.

The shadow sports minister, Hugh Robertson, told WSC they would demand pro­gress from the game’s authorities on these by the end of the summer “or we would intervene directly”. The Tories are more dismissive of enforcing supporter stake-ownership, arguing that it could block other forms of beneficial takeover and would be extremely costly. The Liberal Democrats were similarly dismissive of what they called “pipedream” proposals and have focused more on issues such as safe standing, ticket prices and ground facilities.

The bigger prize for government, though, is reform of the game’s ruling structures. Change at local level has to be matched by an overhaul at the top and of a game still addicted to debt, marred by massive wealth inequality and hobbled by ineffective and dysfunctional administration. Fan ownership of the local lower-division club can only go so far if the game’s overall structure is left untouched. As Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct, the umbrella organisation for fans trusts, says: “It’s easy to think supporter ownership is the solution yet there’s massive problems that can only be resolved by the reform of its overall governance.”

Fan involvement in Spain, where clubs are set up as distinctive sporting organisations rather than ordinary businesses, has not stopped the Spanish game being disfigured both by high debts and vast wealth discrepancies. “Germany, on the other hand, has both governance and democracy,” Rye adds, “and limits on spending.”

This brings us to the most likely area of resistance to any party’s proposals – vested interests inside the game. The Premier League issued a waspish “no comment” to Labour’s proposals and, while PR-savvy enough not to rubbish fan-democracy outright, the top flight and its clubs clearly have the potential to block reform. But Richard Scudamore and co are not quite the masters of the universe they once saw themselves as.

The Premier League likes to present itself as a thrusting British success story, a triumph for low-regulation free-market economics, although it has never been averse to squealing for government help when needed. Because government is a stakeholder in football it has given financial and political support, from grassroots funding to backing World Cup bids. Former sports minister Andy Burnham’s public questions to the game on its governance, originally posed in October 2008, remain unsatisfactorily answered.

Scudamore’s boasts about his “product” look a little flimsier now than they did five or ten years ago. A model is creaking. A Co-op/YouGov poll earlier this year found 56 per cent of fans backed some form of co-operative/mutual model for club ownership. A moral argument is being won, even if politicians cannot back vote-grabbing promises with political will. A foot is at least in the door.

All of which thrusts football into the heart of a very prescient political debate. Far from being a “gimmick” issue, football has found itself at the centre of much wider debates about business models, financial regulation and social value. The mainstream political parties, in acknowledging the need for reform in football, have shown a willingness to take on discredited free-market orthodoxy that they have mostly ducked elsewhere. Perhaps there is now more serious politics in football than there is in politics itself, and the game’s quest for total dominance is now complete.

From WSC 279 May 2010

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