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Have football fans been recognised as a political force?

Football fans represent a significant demographic in Britain, yet they have rarely been pandered to at election time. Has that changed in 2015?
May 5, 2015, 12:00pm
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Tribalism is the essence of both football and politics. They may pretend otherwise, but there are more commonalities between the two than is widely acknowledged. Fundamentally, there are teams, with team colours, and narcissistic leaders at the top. In politics, as in football, there are weekly fixtures where opposing sides meet at a neutral venue - the House of Commons - to contest who can gobshite the loudest. There's even a referee, although the Speaker of the House is refused a whistle to call foul.

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And yet in a more technical, less trivial, sense there is scant crossover between football and politics. While the sport has been used as a way for politicians to engage with voters, football has never truly featured in election campaigns or manifestos. However, that has changed - at least to some degree - during the 2015 general election. Politicians and the parties they run for have been unusually keen to put across what they would do for the game if elected.

Of course, politicians have always sought to align themselves with the pastime of ordinary working people; pretty much every member of parliament claims to support one team or another. More often than not, it is merely a front - as David Cameron exposed just last week, by forgetting exactly which team in claret and blue it is he follows.

But when it comes to actual policies and campaign manifestos there has been something of an ambivalent relationship between football fans and politicians in recent times, although that impasse is as much a product of the former as it is the latter.

Football supporters are naturally sceptical of any government intervention in the sport or its fan culture. Perhaps such misgivings have their root in Margaret Thatcher's proposed ID scheme - ditched in the aftermath of the Hillborough disaster - which was designed to undermine the civil liberties of supporters, or New Labour's so-called 'Football Task Force', which was shamelessly championed alongside the 1990s rise of the Premier League and the lingering legacy of Euro 96.

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In fact, the mid '90s proved a watershed moment for football's implication in government legislation and policy. Tony Blair used the sport to underline his populist credentials, connecting with the common electorate and providing stark contrast to the incumbent Conservative government, who had focussed their sole sporting attention on regulating hooliganism, more often than not with heavy-handed measures.

And yet what became the lasting endowment of New Labour's fleeting foray into football? Very little indeed. The 'Football Task Force' produced many commendable recommendations and concepts, but only the Supporters Direct initiative - designed to give fans a lobbying presence in government - remains of those recommendations, with the grand proposal of an Independent Football Commission ultimately disregarded.

With so much promised and so little delivered by New Labour, parties have since grown wary of appealing to football fans, knowing how hard a sell any government intervention would be. Politics has attempted to reach out into football before, but all too rarely - and with very little bearing on the sport. Yet with supporter activism on the rise in football politics is finally listening.

Given the national interest in the sport, football fans are a sizeable electorate demographic. It's something of a wonder that they aren't pandered to more frequently - particularly considering the inherent loyalty that comes with such a fanbase. Politicians and political parties appeal to pretty much every other division of society, whether it's parents, students, home owners, land owners, fans of the arts and even fans of Top Gear - but very rarely football supporters.

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This is in stark contrast to many other countries, where football and government are intertwined, significantly influencing the political landscape. Take Italy, for example, where former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi essentially founded his entire nine-year tenure (served over three terms) on footballing association, even naming his party 'Forza Italia' after a terrace chant.

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In France there has been increased dialogue between government and football clubs after socialist president Francois Hollande's implementation of a 75 percent super tax (which has now been scrapped), with the Professional Clubs' Union leading a nationwide players strike in protest in 2013.

And of course, footballers have been known to run for government positions, with George Weah once a presidential candidate in Libya and Andriy Shevchenko a very public critic of the now-deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Even Pele has run for a ministerial role in Brazil.

But such political engagement in football is rare in Britain. Not only do football fans feel they have been ignored by political parties, but actively repressed - and none more so than in Scotland. North of the border, supporters have challenged the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications act, which was introduced by the SNP in 2012.

Passed to combat sectarianism in Scottish football, Celtic supporters in particular believe the act effectively criminalises fans, demonstrating a lack of understanding for the cultural and societal complexities of the club's historic background, as they see it.

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However with this election too close to call, parties scrambling for votes have reached out to a demographic that has been all too readily ignored over the past two decades or so. Look hard enough and you'll find several football-related policies buried deep in almost every manifesto.

The Tories for instance have committed to raising the number of women on national sports governing bodies by 25 percent by 2017, while pledging to work with the English FA and the Premier League to install artificial, community pitches in 30 cities across England.

Taking a different tact, Ed Miliband's Labour Party have majored on fan ownership and engagement, vowing to introduce legislation to enable an accredited supporters trust to appoint at least two of the directors at a football club, and to purchase shares when clubs change hands. As they put it, such a handover of power would enable fans to "hold the owners of their club to account on all issues… including ticket prices, shirt sponsorship, ground naming rights and changing the colour of the strip or name." Their manifesto also features a promise to ensure the Premier League delivers on its vow to invest five per cent of its domestic and international rights income into grassroots development.

Homophobic chanting, like racist chanting, would become a criminal offence under the Liberal Democrats, who also make the rather vague vow to ensure the Sports Ground Safety Authority provide guidance from which football clubs can introduce safe standing sections.

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Beyond the big three, the Green Party back the proposal to allow employees the legal right to buy-out their clubs and turn them into workers' cooperatives. Meanwhile UKIP have straight up pledged to scrap the Departure for Culture, Media and Sport; after all, they have a reputation as British politics' most pig-headed party to keep up.

Football's pertinence in this general election goes beyond anything that can be downloaded in PDF form, though. The sport has also become an on-the-ground vote-winner, with Labour revisiting what worked for New Labour in 1997 by appealing to supporters of the game. After all, what commoner doesn't like talking about football?

In an attempt to revive the party's standing in Scotland, Labour leader Jim Murphy led calls for the alcohol ban to be lifted in football stadiums north of the border, meeting with supporters groups and various government and police figures. Murphy - a Celtic season-ticket holder himself - recognised football fans as an untapped source of votes, even if his campaign seemed somewhat contrived.

Elsewhere the Scottish Greens pre-empted the election by bringing forward amendments to Holyrood's Community Empowerment Bill, helping football fans to buy their own clubs, before the party's 2015 manifesto had even been launched.

Of course, much more could be done to address the concerns of the modern-day football fan. Not one party proposes to tackle the rising cost of ticket prices, particularly at the top-level of English football, where a match-day ticket can cost as much as £97. Nor is there any pledge to distribute broadcast revenue - which will reach £5.136 billion domestically from the 2016/17 season - more fairly.

In a wider sense, trust has been at the heart of this general election campaign, with each party claiming that they should be believed over everyone else. Given the manner in which they have been let down by previous governments, football fans have more reason than most to be sceptical of what has been promised.

But nonetheless, the sport's prominence in this election campaign should be taken as a shift in the way fans are regarded in Westminster circles. Have football fans finally been recognised as a political force? Perhaps only once the placards and megaphones have been dropped, and a new government formed, will we truly know.