Britain went to the polls yesterday for the most significant general election since 1997. However you vote on 6th May, football is currently as much of a political talking point as it was thirteen years ago – when the English game was still riding a wave of optimism after Euro 96. Labour, the Conservatives, and the Greens all mention football explicitly in their 2010 manifestos. The three parties are seeking to win votes from football fans on the subject of club ownership, an issue close to the hearts of so many fans at the moment. And, while the Liberal Democrats do not talk about football in their manifesto, they have directly discussed football in the past, producing a conference paper in 2008 that called for the introduction of safe-standing areas at grounds.
The Labour manifesto promises to back the creation of “Registered Supporters Trusts” that will allow fans to become stakeholders in their club. According to an article in May’s issue of When Saturday Comes magazine, under Labour the size of the fans’ stake will depend on demand but “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.”
The Conservative manifesto mentions the party’s willingness to support “co-operative ownership models to be established by supporters.” As a caveat, the Tories suggest that “governance arrangements” will need to be changed if the way in which football clubs are currently run (that is, their business model) is to be addressed. If successful, however, such changes to governance could see the fit and proper person test strengthened for prospective owners, and steps taken to forbid a club from taking on debts that its turnover cannot accommodate.
“Mutualism,” the left-leaning term coined in the Labour manifesto, is also referenced by the Greens. They wish to protect mutual organisations from being turned into companies and, where the idea meets with enough support, existing companies should be encouraged to revert to mutual status too. According to the Green manifesto, “a first application for this latter process would be football.” The Greens, like Labour and the Conservatives, have recognised that football clubs should be run for the benefit of their fans, not their owners, and that this will mean safeguarding the rights of fans to have a say in how their clubs are run.
Back in 1997, as the country ushered in Tony Blair’s Labour government, football and politics were on good terms. Before the election, Tony Blair challenged Kevin Keegan to a game of head tennis, with the cameras rolling, and acquitted himself rather well. At the time, for each taking on their respective fields’ dominant forces (Conservatism and Manchester United), Blair and Keegan were the most celebrated men in politics and football. Times have changed but football remains a key part of the popular mainstream in British culture and, as a result, politicians still see the sport as an opportunity to win votes. As reforming the way in which clubs are run will necessitate the alteration of wider economic models in this country, football has moved beyond the confines of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and into the realms of general political debate.