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Opinion: “Tory trickle-down trickery and free market fundamentalism will hurt football”

“There’ll always be winners and losers in politics, economics, and football. But the rules of the game are being weighted ever more in favour of the financial elite.”

Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

As the most challenging of winters the British people have faced in the last fifty years looms, the government has made its choice: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. All pretence at “Levelling Up” has been dropped, turbo-charged capitalism will be unleashed on the British people, and football will suffer along with the rest of the economy.

Is this what Tory voters in the north of England actually voted for in 2019?

As I have argued many times here before, football does not operate in a vacuum. You cannot separate our beautiful game from the wider political and economic forces that shape our society and impact our communities.

The new government’s preference, as reported by The Times last week, for football to sort out its own house rather than face legally binding regulation, provides a case in point. And when combined with the subsequent “mini-budget”, demonstrates very clearly the direction in which this country is headed.

The new Prime Minister would, it appears, like the Football Association and the owners of football clubs to come up with their own solutions to the massive and unresolved issues in how the money in football is distributed and the way in which our clubs are bought, sold, and governed.

St George’s Park Sheffield Graves Launch
Former Tory Minister, Tracey Crouch MP, was the face of the Fan Led Review
Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

The government will, it seems, set the industry a deadline to come up with alternative proposals - no doubt they’ll ensure that the Premier League billionaires and FA suits have ample time to come up with something that nods towards the widespread calls for change whilst not materially affecting the structures of power and money that runs our game.

This would save Truss, the new Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan and her new Sport Minister, Stuart Andrew, the cognitive dissonance involved in actually doing something that would go against their purist belief in free markets and unchained capitalist “wealth generation”, as set out by the Chancellor last week.

The last time the football industry itself proposed fundamental changes to the way our game is governed, it was in the form of Project Big Picture - a barely disguised power grab by the Premier League “Big Six”, cooked up by the haves to take advantage of covid-19 with a bung to the have-nots in the EFL to sweeten the deal.

When this was rejected, the scab clubs then tried to break away and form a European Super League and only fan anger made them walk back on the idea.

The Football Supporters Association (FSA), the representative fan body that includes our own Red & White Army Supporters Trust, has put its faith in the Fan Led Review and the resulting report produced by former Tory Sports Minster, Tracey Crouch.

The hope was that having a political “insider” with her name at the top of the recommendations would mean that, finally, proper fundamental reform and regulation of the finances and governance of the national game would be implemented. Kevin Miles, chief executive of the FSA, which took part in the review, told The Times:

We are not aware of any change in government policy. The previous prime minister and culture secretary have given support for an independent regulator. We look forward to the publication of the white paper and we hope that it happens soon.

Croatia v England - UEFA Nations League - Group A4 - Stadion HNK Rijeka
Kevin Miles, Chairman of the Football Supporters Federation, is still holding out hope that the government will implement the Crouch Report.
Photo by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

They may not be aware of any publicly announced changes in policy, but if the FSA raise their eyes to the horizon, the erstwhile representatives of fan power might see storm clouds gathering in the near distance.

The review was a 2019 Tory manifesto commitment and had cross-party support, but was only kicked off after the Super League debacle (an idea to which Boris Johnson reportedly gave his tacit approval). The review was thorough and comprehensive, but not quite speedy enough to prevent the sale of Newcastle United to a murderous tyrant (another idea to which Boris Johnson reportedly gave his tacit approval).

After months of delay, the resulting process for regulation of football was finally announced in the Queen’s Speech as part of this year’s legislative programme.

For all their lies, deceit and glaring incompetence in so many aspects of politics, economics, and indeed the business of football, Johnson’s administration and the DCMS led by Nadine Dorries at least recognised the root causes of the problems in our game. They set them out clearly enough in their response to Crouch’s recommendations:

  • The structure and dynamics of the market create incentives for financial overreach.
  • Inadequate corporate governance often affords unchecked decision-making power.
  • Existing regulation is ineffective at addressing the problems.

The proposed solution - the creation of an Independent Regulator for English Football (iRef) - was meant to level the playing field, and regulate a self-governing market that had gotten out of control. It was meant to protect the most vulnerable clubs and supporters, and curb the worst excesses of those at the top.

It was meant to recognise that, in football as in life, there are some things that are more valuable than money, in particular, the cultural history and future of our communities, and our people. It was meant to be a legal bulwark against the short term interests of global capital and the whims of club owners. It was meant to formally include fans in the running of individual clubs and the game overall.

UK Prime Minister And The Chancellor Make a Visit To Coincide With The Government’s Growth Plan
Customary yellow vest and hard hat picture from two authors of “Britain Unchained” which bemoaned the work ethic of working class British people
Dylan Martinez - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Kwasi Kwarteng’s un-costed “Fiscal Event” last week showed this government’s extremist free market ideology very clearly, and should be taken as the guidebook for how this government will operate. They are now governing, unambiguously and unashamedly, in the interests of their friends and donors in the city hedge funds, oil companies, and banks. The regulation of markets like football goes against everything they stand for.

A decade ago, the Eton oldboy and his new Thatcher-cosplaying boss were co-authors of the pamphlet Britannia Unchained, which set out their basic policy platform of attacking collective working class institutions like trade unions, forcing ordinary people to work harder, and re-jigging the tax system to “incentivise” the already rich.

As the pound and UK Government guilts (debt bonds) fall and national debt and the cost of borrowing for both households and the state rise, the massive sums needed for the bung to energy firms will be paid by ordinary people for many years to come. The energy companies will keep the windfall profits, which were generated via Putin’s war rather than their entrepreneurial spirit.

The idea that by boosting the incomes of the super-rich the wealth will somehow trickle down into the pockets of those with less to begin with, together with the idea that self-regulating markets will act in either the collective interest, is a right wing fantasy disproven by both economic theory and real-world experience.

And football is a case in point.

Keir Starmer Launches Security Prosperity Respect Tour In Sunderland Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

There will be a small number of winners in our game. The owners of almost all of England’s football clubs (assuming they actually pay tax in this country) will personally benefit from this budget through changes in corporation and personal tax.

Professional footballers and managers in the men’s Championship and Premier League and a few at the top of the WSL will also be getting a huge tax cut, along with the top paid executives at clubs, the broadcasters, the big corporate sponsors, and those running football authorities. The rich will get richer.

Meanwhile, ordinary working and middle class football fans and the low paid majority of women players, most of the coaches and admin staff, grounds staff, ticket office staff, stewards, caterers and cleaner, and all the other people who make football tick will undoubtedly lose out, in both relative and absolute terms. The poor will get poorer.

Fans are facing rising mortgage rates, rising energy bills, and rising food prices, with only a few hundred quid extra a year in our pay packets from reductions in income tax and NI. If you work in the NHS, education or social care, your pay is not likely to keep up with inflation. If you work or own a small business in the private sector, a painful recession is on its way.

The everyday public services that we and our families rely on will be further starved of funding, our mental and physical health will suffer. We will have reduced disposable incomes and therefore less to spend on the tickets, merchandise, travel, food and drink we buy on match days. Clubs like ours and our local businesses will suffer as a result.

The “Big Six” global sporting super brands, their coffers overflowing with international broadcast revenue and an endless stream of tourist-fans attracted by the weak pound to fill their grounds - will be fine, thank you very much. For it is their belief that they, the rich and powerful clubs, are the ones who create the value in our sport and we should be grateful for the scraps that fall from their table. Pure trickle down economics.

All the while, ever more people will be forced into poverty and the demand for the services they need - both state and charitable - will continue to increase despite the cuts. Working people will need to meet more stringent criteria to access Universal Credit but bankers bonuses will be uncapped. Children and adults in our city will go hungry.

Ever fewer people will have money spare to donate to causes like the Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen, those which supports those with the very least in our communities. Small community institutions - local charities, local football clubs - will be closed or be kept on life support by wonderful people run them - good people doing even more with even less.

Let’s be blunt. Trickle-down - in football and in the wider economy - has long been recognised as utter and complete bullshit.

It is a policy designed to dupe ordinary people into thinking handing someone on £1m a year an extra £55,000 - and paying for that with public debt - somehow benefits you. The Tory government are, in my opinion, only interested in abusing the public finances to line the pockets of their friends.

There’ll always be winners and losers in politics, in economics, and in football. But when the rules of the game are being weighted ever more in favour of the financial elite, it’s time everyone stood up and took notice.

Be in no doubt, the Tory government has declared a class war against working British people. I fear that, as they gamble the future of our country in the interests of their friends, they will gamble the future of our national game along the way.

The question now is, what will we do about it?


The author is a trade union organiser in public services, and a former tutor in the Department of Politics at the University of Hull.


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