It may not have made the news over on the west side of the Atlantic, but there's a general election looming in the land of the Premier League. On May 7, the people of the United Kingdom will troop to the ballot box, furrow their brows, pick up their political pencil of destiny and make their democratic cross of decision. Then there'll be some counting and everybody will stay up late watching television in the hope of seeing some posh men in suits weep salty tears of defeat.
For those of you who have never bothered to familiarise yourself with the mechanics of British elections, a quick primer. The nation is divided into 650 constituencies, each of which will elect a Member of Parliament, or MP. Most of those MPs will come from either the Conservative Party, who are currently in government, or the Labour Party, who are currently Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Yes, really. Whichever party has a majority of those 650 MPs will form a government, and the leader of that party will be Prime Minister.
Well, sort of. Current projections suggest that neither of the main parties will win enough MPs to get an absolute majority, and so whichever ends up in charge will only do so thanks to an alliance with one or more of the minor parties. Among those parties winking and smiling at the two big beasts will be the Liberal Democrats (currently the minority partner in the governmental coalition) and the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose poll numbers have exploded in the last few months and who might well end up holding the balance of power in the next Parliament. There are a few others, including the United Kingdom Independence Party — who are, remarkably, even more ridiculous than their name suggests — and the Greens, but they won't be winning much and so have been omitted for the sake of brevity.
By way of a quick ideological sketch, the Conservatives (or Tories) are on the right of the traditional political spectrum. Labour used to be on the left but have spent the last 20 years awkwardly lunging toward the centre ground and the right, the Liberal Democrats were nailed to the fence at birth, and while the SNP have ended up with arguably the most leftwing collection of policies of the lot, they are also defined by their stated aim of Scottish independence.
As an issue, football isn't going to be crucial to the coming election: most polls suggest that the electorate are more exercised by such trifling matters as the health service and the state of the economy. But as the election gets closer, the game in England is in an interesting place. The shape of the modern game has been defined by powerful private interests, most notably the Premier League and Sky, but as David Goldblatt puts it in The Game of Our Lives:
The glibness of a more commercial culture has been balanced by a rash of new fan organisations and acts of collective resistance, a wave of football NGOs tied to social, health and educational work, new forms of collective ownership and, within the great gurning maw of football media — mainstream and social — more diverse and reflective voices.
Recent years have seen prominent campaigns against high ticket prices, while bodies like Kick It Out have become part of the national conversation. Supporters Direct, a government-founded body with cross-party support, have helped multiple clubs move from private ownership into the hands of their fans; the two most famous examples, AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, have been rising through the divisions without having had to compromise their ownership principles. The newly founded Football Action Network recently visited the headquarters of each of the main parties to present the This Game is Our Game manifesto, also written by Goldblatt, calling for the remaking of the FA and a Football Reform Bill to address the transparency of club ownership, safe standing, ticket prices and the redistribution of Premier League cash.
There has also been a surge in direct action. Protest banners have become commonplace in Premier League crowds. Boycotts, or at least the threat of boycotts, are starting to rumble through top-flight fan bases: several thousand Newcastle United fans stayed away from their home game against Tottenham, and around half of Liverpool's away crowd stayed away from their team's visit to Hull City. And the Championship's final weekend saw Blackpool supporters occupy the pitch in protest at the profound, almost aggressive negligence of their owners.
So, with all that going on, and with football fans making up a considerable chunk of the electorate, what do the main parties have to say in their manifestos, published last week? What, exactly, are they promising the football fans of the nation?
Let's start with the Conservatives, since they're currently in charge of the country. Football appears exactly twice in their manifesto, and one of those is a reference to the "U.S. National Football League," which will be encouraged to continue their cross-Atlantic adventures. As for actual, proper, football-with-your-feet football, the Tories are undertaking to:
improve the quality of Community Sports facilities, working with local authorities, the Football Association and the Premier League to fund investment in artificial football pitches in more than 30 cities across England.
Which is a policy with its eyes on public health and the amateur end of the sport, and is unlikely to have much impact on the super soaraway Premier League experience.
However, there's one other relevant snippet in there. A few years ago, the government introduced the concept of an Asset of Community Value. We've written about that at greater length here, but in short, it enables local groups to nominate "vital community assets" — including football stadiums — and then, should the owner plan to sell, gives them an opportunity to bid for the property. Enthusiastically promoted by Supporters Direct, and having been supported by fans of clubs of all sizes, from little Dulwich Hamlet in the Isthmian Premier League to the mighty Manchester United, the Conservatives:
will strengthen the Community Right to Bid that we created. We will extend the length of time communities have to purchase these assets, and require owners to set a clear ‘reserve' price for the community to aim for when bidding.
The manifesto of the Labour Party has football more front and centre; while neither English football nor Labour are as uncomplicatedly working class as they once were, you're still far more likely to find a football fan on the red side of the argument. A table went round Twitter this week showing that 55 of the 92 league clubs, and 18 of the Premier League's 20, are in Labour constituencies. Here's what they have to say on the national game:
Football clubs are an important part of many people's identity and sense of belonging. They are more than just businesses. But despite their importance in the lives of their members and supporters, too often there are no effective means for fans to have a say in how their clubs are run. Labour will provide the means for supporters to be a genuine part of their clubs. We will introduce legislation to enable accredited supporters trusts to appoint and remove at least two of the directors of a football club and to purchase shares when the club changes hands.
Pete Norton/Getty Images
In the Premier League at the moment, only Swansea City have any fan representation on their board; the Swans have been 20 percent owned by their Supporters' Trust since 2002. When announcing this policy, Labour made clear that "this would be underpinned by the right to obtain (under an obligation of confidentiality) financial and commercial information about the business and affairs of a football club," though the board members wouldn't be able to block takeovers or change corporate strategy.
The thought of, say, a couple of Newcastle United fans sitting on board meetings with Mike Ashley is not just an amusing one (though it absolutely is that). It also threatens to dispel, at least partly, that ever-present and often entirely justified suspicion that all football fans have that the suits are Up To No Good. Talking to the Guardian in 2012, Swansea's fan-elected board member Huw Cooze was effusive about his involvement, stating that he'd been involved in all major decisions and urging other clubs to take similar steps:
The government and football authorities should absolutely back supporter ownership. At this club, everybody realises the supporters are part of it, and that strengthens its soul and character. [...] We feel we can be successful, go a bit further, and we can do it ourselves, with hard work.
Though not as groundbreaking as the above, there is one further promise in the Labour manifesto: they undertake to "ensure the Premier League delivers on its promise to invest five per cent of its domestic and international television rights income into funding the grassroots." That "international television rights" is important; the Premier League have long argued that this 5 percent promise, which was originally made back in 1999, should only apply to the money that comes from domestic television sales.
However, this election isn't going to come down to just one of Conservative or Labour. British politics has shifted in the last few years and as noted above, this election, like the last one, is projected to end without either party gaining an outright majority. As such, they'll need to bring on board one of the other parties to reach that magic, majority number.
The traditional third party of British politics is the Liberal Democrats, who have spent the last five years as the Conservatives' junior partners in government and, in the process, have completely destroyed any wider popularity they might once have had. The polls have them losing about half their seats, which could well render them largely irrelevant when it comes to hammering out a governing coalition. But on they soldier, bright-eyed and hopeful in the face of the coming apocalypse.
They, too, promise to "Give football fans a greater say in how their clubs are run by encouraging the reform of football governance rules to promote engagement between clubs and supporters." There's a difference between "encouraging" and "legislating," and the Premier League have never seemed the most open-to-encouragement body in the world. The Lib Dems also undertake to place on homophobic chanting on an equal par with racist chanting in the eyes of the law, which makes sense.
Most interesting, perhaps, is that the Libs are the only party to mention safe standing. Since 1994, and in line with the recommendations of the Taylor Report that followed the Hillsborough disaster, football grounds in the top two divisions have had to be all-seater. Stewards vigorously police this rule, and season tickets can be removed for "persistent standing." This has remained the case despite standing being prevalent throughout other European leagues and the recent development of various "safe standing" solutions, all of which break up the traditional terrace ziggurat to prevent any crush.
Safe standing is one of those rare policies that finds popularity at both the corporate and supporter level: it should, in theory, mean a better atmosphere, with more tickets available for lower prices. A recent survey found near-unanimous support among fans for the introduction of safe standing, and 19 of the 20 Premier League clubs have indicated that they would be amenable to the idea, while the current government agreed in 2014 to look at the possibility of safe standing in the Championship.
But if doom is coming for the Lib Dems, then the SNP, and their leader Nicola Sturgeon, are riding a wave of popularity. Last year, the people of Scotland voted on whether they should secede from the Union and become an independent country. 55 percent of those who voted, voted "No," but since then, the SNP — who were on the losing side of that argument — have devoured Labour north of the border. If their poll numbers hold, then they could end up with about 50 MPs — up from 6 — and so hold the balance of power in any Parliament. This is doing very funny things to the English press, who have spent the last week or so running stories like:
As a child, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is said to have devilishly hacked the hair from her sister's beloved doll.
Scotland, of course, is a proud football nation, one half of the first ever international fixture, and birthplace of the radical, game-breaking idea that sometimes it might be a good idea to pass the ball from one player to another. And the SNP were the architects of the controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, brought in to address sectarian chanting at football games, which has been described by Labour as "a mess" and at least one sheriff as "mince."
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So it's rather disappointing to report that when it comes to their manifesto (pdf), the election's likely kingmakers do not have anything to say about football. At all. We could, perhaps, interpret this as evidence that the SNP tacitly endorse the long-running conspiracy against Celtic and/or Rangers, which has limited Scotland's most put-upon club/most put-upon club to a mere 45 titles/54 titles. Any tabloid editors reading, you can have that for free. Alternatively, perhaps the SNP have simply decided that if they have nothing popular to say, it might be best to say nothing.
It remains to be seen what happens to these policies when the post-election horse-trading starts, and football, however central it might be to people's lives, isn't what moves them to the ballot box. And many of the concerns outlined by football's various pressure groups pass unaddressed, particularly the twin issues of a moribund Football Association and a noxious FIFA.
But at the same time, the fact that two of the major parties are happy to talk openly about increasing supporter involvement at boardroom level is an encouraging admission that the state of the national game is part of the conversation. And the fact that one is happy to go further and promise legislation to ensure it suggests that, whatever the vulnerability of a political promise, at the very least the noise from the fans is starting to have an effect.
If you're in the U.K. and you want to contact your electoral candidates directly to ask about their stance on football reform, you can do so through votefootball.org.