Labour will change football in England forever, and for the better. Too many football clubs have become distant from the supporters that are the reason for their existence.
More than that, football fans genuinely love their clubs. The damage caused by careless owners causes real pain to them and their communities.
That is why Labour is proposing that supporters’ trust have representation on club boards and the opportunity to buy some shares if club ownership changes hands.
Despite the commercial success of the Premier League, football is in bad shape. Since 1992 thirty-six of the Football League’s clubs, exactly half of the League’s seventy-two members, have been insolvent at one time or another. Apart from financial problems there are regular complaints about issues such as ticket prices, the cost of replica jerseys, attempts to change the names of clubs or their traditional colours. The problems are not limited to this but the thread that unites them all is that they are caused by people with the money to buy clubs and without the input of fans.
So far attempts to address the problems facing supporters haven’t worked. Supporter Liaison Officers (SLOs) are responsible for building bridges between a club and its fans. Every club that wishes to take part in a UEFA competition needs to have an SLO and the vast majority of professional clubs have one. Unfortunately there are serious limitations to what they can achieve. SLOs are club employees meaning they are not independent and have no automatic right to information of interest to supporters. They are incapable of bringing about real change.
Another approach to bringing clubs and supporters together has been through Supporters Direct. Supporters Direct was set up in 2000 by the government and has a remit to develop supporters’ trusts. It defines supporters’ trusts as ‘democratic cooperatives to gain influence in the running and ownership of their clubs’. Since Supporters Direct has come into existence ownership of clubs has been limited for the most part to supporters’ trust buying bankrupt clubs. It has been clear for some time that without assistance from legislation supporters’ trusts will not be able to break through to gain real influence.
The German model is often cited as the best example of how supporter involvement should work. The German league has some of the lowest ticket prices in Europe, the highest attendances, is performing very well in European club competition and it’s international squad has just won the World Cup and this week even managed to get a point in a game against the fantastic Republic of Ireland. In Germany majority control of a club by a single person or company is not permitted by the league or German law. Members of the club (i.e. supporters) need to own 51% of the club. However, EU law means that we can’t transfer this model to the UK. The same is true of the fairly ropey ‘co-operative model’ in Spain which is reliant on fleecing local government for cash.
This is why Labour’s proposal is so powerful. Supporters’ trusts can be expected to make sensible decisions. Ultimately, they want their teams to be successful and sustainable.
It is a local solution to a local problem.
It strikes a balance between fan involvement and maintaining commercial investment flowing into the game.
It gives fans power and makes the clubs they love accountable.
Above all, it’s a clear demonstration that Labour is prepared to take power away from a self-interested elite and give power to the people.