Supporter ownership faces Conservatives challenge
Labour’s pre-election commitment to mutualism in football is worth little with the Party now deposed. While the Liberal Democrats added a lukewarm policy response, the Conservatives initially dismissed supporter ownership as an election gimmick. So what now for supporters’ hopes for a legislative initiative?
Labour’s promise – a story initially broken by the Guardian’s Owen Gibson – included a commitment to enable supporters to buy 25 per cent of their clubs. Although the manifesto pledge was a little watered down, football finally moved out of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and onto the mainstream political agenda.
“We will work with governing authorities to ensure that professional clubs are accountable to their stakeholders, and run transparently on sound financial principles, with greater involvement of local communities and supporter representation,” promised Labour’s manifesto.
“Sports governing bodies will be empowered to scrutinise takeovers of clubs, ensuring they are in the long-term interests of the club and the sport. We will develop proposals to enable registered Supporters Trusts to buy stakes in their clubs.”
Labour’s commitment was necessary, with Manchester United, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Southend, Cardiff, Notts County and Leeds United suffering either financial problems or supporter unrest due to ownership issues this season.
Indeed, the business of football now garners almost as many column inches as the game on the pitch.
The proposal won strong support from fans’ groups, including the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST). At governance level, although the Premier League has steadfastly remained ‘ownership neutral’ – read weak – UEFA President Michel Platini offered a positive response
“Personally, I think it is a great idea… that the supporters invest in a club because they at the end of the day defend the club’s identity, they are always there,” said to the Frenchman, who is also driving through financial fair play rules much to major clubs’ chagrin.
Naturally MUST, which has worked tirelessly behind the scenes during the Glazers’ tenure at Old Trafford to create political pressure for change, welcomed the manifesto commitment.
However, nothing in politics, especially in a tight race for Number 10, is ever clear-cut and initially both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives criticised Labour’s proposals before offering tokenistic manifesto pledges.
Conservative Hugh Robertson, now Sports Minister in the new government, challenged the Labour proposal as unworkable.
“After 13 years of inactivity by the government on this issue this has all the hallmarks of a pre-election gimmick,” said Robertson, who will work under Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt in the coalition administration.
“There are massive, massive implications for company law and insolvency law.”
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat shadow culture, media and sport secretary Don Foster, marginalised in the post-election shake-up, dismissed the idea as a pipe dream.
Even with the understandable political rhetoric pre-election there are now other priorities for the new administration such as cutting the structural deficit and managing a coaltion of unlikely bedfellows.
It seems that supporter ownership will not head the legislative agenda anytime soon.
Groups pushing for governmental administration may also find little support from a party that has rarely ‘got’ football. Many match going fans remember a Thatcherite proposal to register all football fans in the 1980s – effectively an attempt to criminalise a generation.
MUST may also find little favour from Oxford graduate Hunt, whose background in public relations and directory publishing – including a personal wealth of more than £4 million – offers little in the way of mind share with ordinary football supporters.
Hunt’s agenda – aside from managing the 2012 Olympics in London – is also likely to include a pre-election promise on digital economy legislation, an initiative to scrap the BBC Trust and now potentially a 2018 World Cup bid on the rocks.
Football ownership, it seems, is no longer the political football is once was.