Labour the point

Matt Stone heard the Labour Party explain why government intervention is the solution to football's problems

I used to be a member of the FSA. I am still a (disgruntled) Labour party member and a Spurs season-ticket holder. I’m also one of those idiots who would find it difficult to name a ticket price I wouldn’t pay. So I thought I’d probably be interested in Labour’s plans for football, which were unelashed on the world by Tom Pendry and Jack Cunningham at a press conference last month.

Rick Parry and the FA’s David Davies bagged front row seats, nodded sagely and later offered soundbites on the difference between help and interference. The supporters’ representatives, the National Federation and the FSA, sat on opposite sides of the room with yards of television cable between them, a physical manifestation of the divide that is said to exist between the two groups.
The charter, designed in shades of dingy grey, is prefaced by a few words from Tony Blair (“a football fan myself”), and divided into two parts. The first involves the setting up of a Football Taskforce, to be drawn from “bodies responsible for the national game including fans’ and players’ representatives with a government presence”. Labour “would expect the following problems to be addressed”: further restructuring of the FA, the links with television, the treatment of fans, the game’s finances and the future. Nothing much for fans to argue about there, though it was worrying to hear a question from the floor about fan representation in boardrooms being met with the assertion that supporters wouldn’t want to be involved at board level, which showed ground-level touch on a par with a park centre-back.
The question of how far they should interfere with football seems to have placed both the main political parties in an invidious position. Tom Pendry, the Shadow Minister for Sport, said: “A Labour Government would not create the taskforce itself. Rather it will encourage the football authorities to set one up.” What the hell does this mean? What happens if the football authorities don’t want one? Or one of the relevant groups refuses to join?
The Conservatives’ response was to say: “The Government has no plans to interfere in the general administration of football which is a matter for the relevant governing bodies who are best placed to understand what is in the interest of their sport.” This is a frankly laughable notion to anyone who follows the game. They go on to say: “With attendances increasing, violence down, the European championships to be staged here next year, and spectacular new stadiums being built it is clear that the Government and the football authorities are working together successfully.” All of which smacks of the usual political expediency: success – my credit, failure – your fault.
Even dyed-in-the-wool Monster Loonies would struggle to find a smidgeon of controversy in the second part of the document dealing with specific measures Labour will introduce: legislation to combat hooliganism particularly at international games; more equitable distribution of income between clubs; ground improvements to continue; the FA Cup Final to be protected from those nasty pay-per-view people.
And individual racist abuse will become an offence. (That’s right, it is not against the law at the moment.) On this issue, a government spokesman told me, “It would be a mistake to criminalize a single racist or indecent remark since this would set the threshold for criminal behaviour too low.” So where do you draw your line? More importantly, is the loudmouth challenged by the stewards? Where I sit the stewards have incorporated the words ‘Please don’t ask me to get involved’ into their facial expressions. Nonetheless, a government prepared to play an active role to benefit fans must be applauded wholeheartedly.
Labour has said that it wants to see supporters’ pressure groups unified in one body. Having talked to the National Federation and the FSA, it became clear that conncensus could be reached on a number of issues – not least an acceptance that only one voice would make it to the Taskforce.
Unfortunately, it was also impossible not to be concerned that they would spend a lot of time squaring up to each other, the national campaigning ethos, and broadly left-leaning outlook, of the FSA apparently at odds with the philosophy of the National Federation, which appears to reflect the views of older, more conservative fans (and not neccesarily conservative with a small ‘c’, either: Tory councillors feature among their leading lights).
It would seem that there are areas over which they are never going to agree, but hopefully the differences can be set aside because what I need, as a reasonably average supporter, are representatives that can get on with putting my case in a bloody loud voice.

From WSC 108 February 1996. What was happening this month