people watching football game during nighttime
Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

We in the Co-operative Party and movement have been campaigning for fan ownership in football for over 20 years, and in that time we have had some wins and a fair few away defeats. As a long-term advocate for fan ownership, I’m glad that the backlash against the European Super League has seen some new converts to the cause – but some of those conversions are more believable than others.

We’ve heard strong words from Boris Johnson and Oliver Dowden over the past few days promising action against the Super League, including talk of fan ownership changes. But of course that’s all they are – words. When it’s time for action, this Government has never been willing to truly take on the vested interests in football – too scared of the Premier League and too cosy with the FA. This is the same government that failed to act after Bury, after Blackpool, after Bolton. As football clubs and the communities that support them have suffered, they stood by and did nothing.

Instead of genuine support for fan-owned football, the spectre of introducing a 50+1 fan ownership model like that used in Germany is being wielded by Boris Johnson as a threat, rather than a real solution to longstanding issues in the game. Forced by the sheer strength of public feeling about the Super League, this latest scandal has finally pushed the Government to begin their promised fan-led review. But we’ve had reviews before and they haven’t been acted on. Without pressure from the fan community, this will be no different.

The contrast with a Labour & Co-operative Government couldn’t be starker. Together with our sister party, in 2007 we helped found the fan ownership organisation Supporters Direct and campaigned for funding and resource so supporters could start fan-owned trusts and ultimately take ownership of clubs. We fought for supporters to have a place on Club boards, so that fans could have a real say in the direction of their clubs.

Even out of Government, the Co-operative Party has continued to deliver for football fans. It was our constant campaigning and pressure on this issue that ensured fan voice and ownership was included in every recent Labour manifesto. We developed and campaigned for the Community Shares model, which is often used in Supporter Trusts, and we have argued for strengthened Community Asset legislation to more easily stop Ground sales. From an ability for Trusts to buy shares when clubs change hands, to a fit and proper persons test, to FA governance overhaul – the list goes on and on and on. When it wasn’t fashionable, when we were told it “wasn’t a priority”, when we were told it simply couldn’t be done – we continued to bang the drum for supporters and fans to have the say and stake they deserve.

It is hard for fans to organise, raise the capital and work within the current system to achieve real voice and control – but it can and has been done. One of the things fans need most is a strong development organisation with access to real expertise and capital. Of course, football had one in Supporters Direct, and the Premier League did its best to suffocate it – while the Conservatives stood back and watched. I used to go gatherings of supporters trusts from all round the country, working together and sharing best practice about how to excerpt control back into their clubs and their sport. But without direction, this momentum has been lost.

The Premier League and even the FA are not any more on the side of fans than the proposed Super League will be. To be taken seriously, it all comes back to ownership. Unless we can deliver influence on or actually have ownership of clubs or assets, we will be second class spectators in the game as it now is. Governance changes would be welcome of course, but without serious action on ownership, we will not bring lasting change.

The backlash against the Super League has brought fans from all clubs together, and we must seize this moment to push for real change. Over the past decade, both the Government and the FA have failed to take action as greed paralysed the sport we all love. It’s that inaction that allowed the owners of the Big Six to believe they’d get away with an idea as audacious as the Super League. But together, fans can prove them wrong.

Here at the Co-operative Party, we’ll be putting our decades of experience on this issue to use to make this moment into a movement for fan ownership. We are and always will be the Party of fan-owned football, because we know it’s fans who make a Club great – and it’s time they had a say and a stake in that greatness.