Month: January 2016

Blackpool FC: it’s time to make a choice

Thousands of Blackpool fans are boycotting their football club, because of the owners, the Oyston family. Many will not go back whilst the Oystons own the club. We don’t care if the team do well, it’s irrelevant.

The fans have been complaining about the Oystons for a long time. As Karl Oyston said after protests in 2008:

it’s been the case ever since I first arrived here when there were people marching around with coffins and banners slung from motorway bridges on the M55

In 2014 Blackpool fans recreated the coffin march from the 90s . Photo by Chris Vaughan/CameraSport

But the protests have escalated significantly over the last 5 years. Not because of the performances on the pitch, dreadful though they have been, but because of the owners’ increasingly grotesque actions. Actions that damage the club, the fans and the town of Blackpool.

The Oystons have loaned millions of pounds from the club to other companies, taken legal action against fans, taunted them and abused them by text. A fan has been jailed for 6 months for his actions following an abandoned game. A police officer alleged that Karl Oyston was ‘beckoning and enticing’ fans.

Some people are listening

A chart the local council should be looking at. The blue line is internet searches for “Blackpool” the town. The red line is internet searches for “Blackpool FC” the club. Data from GoogleTrends

Many football professionals and journalists have joined the fans in speaking out about the appalling behaviour and dreadful management of the club by the Oystons.

Millions of people have heard those views and heard of the actions of the Oystons. Actions that have damaged the town, the club and the fans.

Many fans who are boycotting their football club are choosing not to go back to the club until the Oystons go. They chose to set up a supporter’s trust and work to turn Blackpool into a fan-owned club.

Others are yet to choose

But there are other people who have not, yet, made a choice:

  • Fans: There are a number of fans who choose to still go to home games. They can choose whether to continue to fund a family that takes legal action against fellow fans or whether to sacrifice some football and stand with their fellow fans.
  • The team’s players and manager. They have not spoken out in support of the fans and against the acts of the owners. In fact the manager has criticised the fans. They can choose whether to continue to support the Oystons or whether to speak out like their fellow football professionals.

Newcastle’s Chronicle newspaper chose to take a firm stance against their club’s owner, Mike Ashley.

A full stand at Bloomfield Road in 2006. Picture by Matthew Wilkisnon, CC-BY-2.0

If the Oystons do not leave then in a few years there may be nothing left apart from an empty stadium just outside Blackpool town centre. An empty stadium where a football club used to be.

Fans from other teams, football professionals and journalists stand with Blackpool fans. They choose to speak out against the Oystons.

It is time for others to make their choice: the fans who still go, the players and manager, the local paper, the town council, the football authorities. Rather than choosing to do nothing they could choose to help stop the damage that the Oystons, and others like them are causing.

The old rollercoaster tracks at Blackpool Pleasure Beach by Dave Pearce, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I suspect everyone who has chosen to boycott, protest, speak out and try to change things has made that choice with a mix of sadness, hurt, frustration and hope. They have chosen to do something in the hope it will bring change and make things better.

If the Oystons remain the club will surely fade and die. It will just be one more memory of Blackpool’s past. A rollercoaster ride that ended in disaster.

With the Oystons gone the fans will come back. They can rebuild the club and put football first. They can start to make the club something the town is proud of again.

It’s time for people to make their choice.

Politicians should open up casework data

Would it be useful to know whether complaints about welfare payments are rising or falling? Or to understand more about the jobs that our politicians do?

There is data that can help answer both of these questions and many others. Unfortunately it’s not open.

If this data was open we could make more informed decisions about where to target housing support, how to improve our welfare system or who to vote for.

The chamber of the House of Commons. There are no MPs in sight. That might be because their work in the chamber of the House of Commons is only part of the job. Image (c) Parliament. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Politicians do casework for the constitutents they represent. They help people by solving problems: an issue with welfare benefits, a difficult immigration claim, a housing problem. Someone might ask a politician for help by writing to them, phoning their office or by going to meet them.

Casework is vital. It is one of the ways that politicians understand the challenges faced by their constituents.

As an ex-assistant to a UK politician put it:

What many people don’t realise is that in many cases an MP’s office is a last port of call for those who have fallen through the cracks of civil society.

We can open up data on casework whilst protecting privacy. Some MPs already do this.

Making the data open will make politicians better

There is a lot of data that politicians could choose to publish but casework data seems a very useful dataset. It might even be an easy one if they use a digital service to manage casework and that service published the open data.

Whilst politicians may have no legal obligation to do casework I suspect that most choose to. It is a little understood but vital part of a politician’s job. Publishing data about this work can help voters understand more about the job that politicians actually do. It will help politicians explain their job, and its challenges, to voters and should help voters make more informed decisions when they choose who they want to represent them.

Harriet Harman’s casework statistics, reportedly the largest volume in the UK. (source)

It is suprising how few politicians publish data about their work. Here in the UK Chi Onwurah publishes data and some others, like my own MP, Harriet Harman, publish it but in a form that is not easy to use. Many others, even those who either now or previously have had responsibility for open data, publish nothing. Politicians will benefit from going open and learning from the technology, the data protection challenges and the cultural benefits that openness brings. They will benefit from showing voters that their job is different from many people’s expectations.

There are more politicians than those in the House of Commons. Our representatives also work in Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and the hundreds of council chambers and parish councils up and down the country and they also do casework to help their constituents. All of these politicians could publish their casework data, gain the same benefits and help fix the cracks in society. This is a non-partisan issue. If politicians from all parties and all layers of government open up their data in a standard open format then it can be combined to create a more accurate picture.

Making the data open will help fix the cracks

People contact their MP for help when the system has failed. We will all benefit from the root cause of the problem being solved and the system being improved. Publishing this data should lead to targetted action and better services.

One month of Chi Onwurah’s casework statistics. Are the volumes comparable to other cities? Are the trends up or down? (source)

The data could be combined with other information about an area to help all of us understand the challenges it faces. It could be combined with other data, such as that published by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and local authorities, to inform national debate.

The data might show general trends or it might point to specific issues that can be resolved. A fall in benefits casework might show that the system is improving whilst a rise in casework on housing in a given location might show that services are being increasingly stretched and that action is required to investigate it and build a solution.

By making data about politicians’ casework open we will make politicians better and help fix some of those cracks in our society.

If you know of other politicians publishing casework data then I’d love to see it. If you think this is a good idea then why don’t you write to the politicians that represent you and ask them to publish some data? If you don’t think it’s a good idea then do tell me why. I’m @peterkwells on twitter 🙂

What journalists say about Blackpool FC

Thousands of Blackpool fans are boycotting their football club, because of the owners, the Oyston family. They will not go back whilst the Oystons own the club.

Many football professionals have joined the fans in speaking out about the appalling behaviour and dreadful management of the club the Oystons.

As Blackpool loses yet another game and Karl Oyston is accused by a police officer of inciting violence from fans I thought it might useful to pull together some of what the journalists (*) who write for our national and local newspapers have said. It is useful to know what it is legally safe to say and who has heard journalists saying it.

Quotes from journalists on Blackpool FC

Jack Gaughan of the Daily Mail reported:

Murky goings-on are nothing new at Bloomfield Road. Part of the £26m to have left the club includes a deal whereby the Oystons are understood to have bought up land — owned by Blackpool FC — behind the stadium for £650,000 only to then sell it back for £6.5m after a lease for a Travelodge had been secured.

Henry Winter of the Telegraph wrote:

There are many unanswered questions over where the funds generated in the Premier League have gone. The Football League needs to be more robust with the likes of Karl Oyston. Call him to account. Go through the accounts.

At that time Karl Oyston sat on the board of the Football League. No action was taken.

Paul Wilson of the Guardian said:

The owners of the club — not the manager and the playing staff — appear to have some sort of death wish, at least as far as footballing survival is concerned.

In 2015 the Mirror asked “Professional football or Sunday league? Make up your own mind.” Picture by @derekquinncomm.

Before the end of the 2014/15 season when Blackpool were relegated the Guardian’s James Riach said

Protests instead have been targeted at Karl Oyston, the Blackpool chairman, and his father Owen, the club’s majority owner. It is they who have presided over a remarkable decline, one with no end in sight. Perhaps when the parachute payments from the Premier League dry up after this season, a clearer future will emerge.

The parachute payments have ended. The club look like they will be relegated for the second season in a row. The future seems clear.

The Independent reported on an apology to Karl Oyston:

Comedian Jason Manford has ‘apologised’ for describing Blackpool owner Karl Oyston as an odious ferret after being handed a solicitors letter from Oyston. Cheeky Manford has responded to the letter to say that he is sorry…to ferrets and ferret owners for comparing them to the Seasiders’ owner.

Last year the Telegraph decided Blackpool was the worst run club in Britain:

At the centre of all of this was chairman Karl Oyston, who was forced to make a public apology for sending abusive texts to a Blackpool supporter and whose Land Rover mocks the protestors with a OY51 OUT number plate.

After his abusive text exchange with a fan the local Blackpool paper said:

Given such disgusting and offensive comments, Mr Oyston’s weekly column in The Gazette has been scrapped with immediate effect.

Reporting on the Oyston family removing a statue of footballing legend Stan Morten before a fan’s protest march the Mirror said:

The Tangerines’ boss is Public Enemy No.1 for fans after branding supporter Stephen Smith a ‘retard’ in a text message, adding: “Enjoy the rest of your special needs day out.”

As Alyson Rudd of the Times wrote:

legal wrangles come and go at Bloomfield Road it is local people who are suffering the most from club’s decline.

You would have expected that this chain of thought would resonate with Blackpool’s councillors. The leader of Blackpool council invited Karl Oyston to his wedding.

Who hears the views of journalists

UK national newspaper print circulation in 2015. Source: Wikipedia

The Guardian, the Telegraph and the Mail have a combined print circulation of about 2.3 million people with 28.8 million online readers in November 2015.

Just this weekend 2.5 million people heard boos when the Oyston’s name was mentioned on Radio 4.

The blue line is internet searches for “Blackpool” the town. The red line is internet searches for “Blackpool FC” the club. Data from GoogleTrends

The seaside resort of Blackpool has been in decline for many years. Unfortunately Google’s search data tells the tale of an enormous drop in searches for Blackpool following the Oyston’s mismanagement of the club. Sport and entertainment could have played a significant part in regenerating the town. Instead Blackpool’s promotion was a wasted opportunity.

Internet searches for “Oystons”. Data from GoogleTrends.

The data also tells another tale. The growing number of people who are researching the Oystons.

Increasingly it is stories from the fans, the football professionals, journalists and their tales of the Oystons’ appalling behaviour that they are finding.

(*) I know Kelvin Mackenzie, ex-editor of the Sun, has also written strong words about the Oystons and Blackpool but he is no journalist. You can donate to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign online.

What football professionals think of Blackpool FC

At the weekend the current manager of Blackpool FC, Neil McDonald, criticised the fans of Blackpool FC saying:

the support needs to be better. They shouldn’t be shouting about their issues throughout the whole game. That’s all I’m hearing.

Excerpt of league table (c) BBC

His criticism came after Blackpool lost 1–0 against a team that was down to 10-men for the entire second half. The defeat took Blackpool back into the relegation zone from the third division. Blackpool had the second worst record in the football league in 2015.

Neil McDonald has previously said “the fans had every right to boo“ poor performances so the issues he refers to seem be different.

It was probably the performance of the club as a whole that the fans were protesting. Many Blackpool fans are boycotting the club until the owners, the Oyston family, have gone. Others go and protest.

Neil McDonald has never spoken up about the issues that affect the fans. Perhaps he doesn’t understand them. Lee Clark explained this phenomenon after he quit as Blackpool manager:

Nowadays players are often in a bubble, they don’t know the man in the street, they don’t understand how football affects supporters’ lives. Knowing all that is why Blackpool hurt so much.

I’ve always tried to have a relationship with supporters but I got labelled as a good friend of the Blackpool chairman, who was backing what he was doing, when I wasn’t.

Former Blackpool player and England international Trevor Sinclair, who’s clearly been keeping a closer eye on the issues at Blackpool than the manager, recently expressed his sympathy for the fans’ #napm (not a penny more) campaign.

Perhaps Neil doesn’t sympathise with the fan’s protests and issues though. Perhaps he only cares about the views of his fellow football professionals? If so, then to help Neil out I thought it would be useful to collect a few quotes and stories from the last few years.

The Oystons take legal action against football professionals, just as they do with fans, so most quotes are similarly carefully worded.

Christian Purslow, the ex-chief executive of Liverpool said:

Blackpool are the only club in the history of the Premier League who didn’t give their manager a chance or spend anything. They just trousered the money and said “sod it we’ll just go straight back down”

The owners even tried to get out of paying players a bonus for their promotion to the Premier League. In 2010 Charlie Adam took the club to court to get the bonus that he was owed.

In May 2015 Ian Evatt said:

It is so disappointing looking into the club from the outside,” Evatt said. “There was always a chance it could self-destruct. It was a ticking bomb that has seriously now gone off. It’s so frustrating to see that our hard work has just disappeared now.

Chris Basham said:

It was heartbreaking to leave but we could see what was going to happen. You could just see everything falling apart around us.

The secret footballer, whoever that may be, said:

Oyston has damaged Blackpool in a way that the club will do well to recover from any time soon but he has made a lot of money in the process

Paul Ince had nice words to say about the chairman who sacked him as manager by text message:

It was deeply disappointing to have been notified that my contract was to be terminated via text message after a lengthy meeting with the chairman on Sunday where no indication was given that any of the coaching staff, myself included, were going to lose their jobs. Neither I nor my coaching staff received a telephone call from the chairman at any stage after this meeting.

In the same round of text messages the chairman, Karl Oyston, sacked Steve Thompson. Steve Thompson had been with the club for 10 years helping the club to get promoted twice and standing in as caretaker manager twice.

Jose Riga who was sacked as manager after just 4 difficult months was asked whether clubs would loan players to Blackpool:

Could he imagine a top Premier League club loaning players to Blackpool in their current state? “I don’t think it is difficult to find the answer,” he says. “Of course they are going to think twice.”

Neil McDonald has recently discovered this for himself:

Being truthful it’s been difficult to recruit.

I’ve had one Premier League club who wouldn’t loan us a player because of the problems we have here.

Neil clearly didn’t do his research before he joined Blackpool but rather than the fans or a fellow football professional perhaps Neil McDonald or anyone else thinking of joining the club should have been listening to someone who has actually worked at Blackpool all along.

Bart de Roover resigned as assistant manager in 2014 claiming that he had worked unpaid and without a contract for two months. The chairman of Blackpool football club Karl Oyston responded to Bart’s complaints by saying:

He knew exactly what he was coming to when he came and if he didn’t, more fool him

For once I agree with Karl Oyston.

More fool Neil McDonald and more fool anyone else who attends a match or takes a job at Blackpool whilst the Oystons remain in charge.

If they had done their research and thought about the issues before joining the club perhaps they would have found themselves putting football first and joining the Blackpool Supporters Trust instead.

The people’s railway will need to start soon

Railway ticket prices in the UK have risen by 25% in the last 5 years. This yearly rise in prices, and continued complaints over punctuality, has led to the usual yearly rise in news stories about the UK’s railways.

There were 1.6 billion passenger rail journeys in the last 3 months. In addition to passenger journeys railways also transport the food we eat, the material that is used to build our houses and our post and parcels around the country. More than 190,000 people work on the railways to deliver these services.

In 2014 60% of the public were in favour of railway nationalisation believing that it would lead to greater accountability, cheaper prices and better services.

Nationalisation will take at least a decade. Technology driven change in transportation is moving faster than this. The UK needs to look for a different path.

The UK debate over public or private ownership of railways

Railways are a highly efficient and environmentally friendly form of long distance mass transit. The UK led the way in innovating and building railways during the industrial revolution.

Early and marvellously innovative train Stephenson’s Rocket on display in London’s Science Museum. Image by Paul Williams CC-SA-2.0.

In recent years, with the exception of Northern Ireland (*), the UK’s long distance railway network has operated with a model of publicly owned tracks used by privately owned train franchises that lease trains from other companies. This model is not generating the right results. The incentives are flawed. The parts do not work together for the common good. The whole is less than the sum of the complex parts.

In 2015 we also had a mid-year rise in news stories about railways. Following his recent victory in the Labour Party’s leadership election Jeremy Corbyn confirmed Labour would renationalise the railways if it won a general election victory in 2020 by building railways that are cooperatively run by government, workers and passengers. Labour has stated that nationalisation will lead to cheaper and better services.

Many other countries successfully run their railways under full or partial public sector ownership. The East Coast mainline was run very well by the public sector until recently. The previous owner of the franchise, National Express, walked away as they were not making sufficient profit. The public sector took over, successfully ran the franchise and made a net contribution back to the Treasury. Contributions from publicly owned transport can be reinvested in building better infrastructure.

The digital age will beat a steam age policy

Unfortunately beneath the headlines I expect that Labour’s plan will fail to deliver what people want: greater accountability with cheaper and better services.

Rail franchise schedule as of November 2015 (source). The Scotland franchise is not shown in the schedule but a 10-year contract was awarded in 2014.

The policy will not have any effect unless Labour win a general election in 2020 and it will then require contracts for existing railway franchises to expire before the new government would bring the franchise back into public ownership.

Nine railway franchises are due to be awarded before 2020 and the likely 10-year terms of the contracts will run beyond a 2020–2025 parliament. Nationalisation by this approach will take decades.

It will run at the speed of the steam age rather than the digital age.

Long-distance transport in the digital age

Passengers are unlikely to wait. The move to build cheaper and better services will be faster.

The existing train services rely on passengers purchasing and showing a paper ticket at a time when a growing number of passengers have a smartphone or contactless bank card in their purse/wallet. The franchise operators have failed to invest in modernisation and building a better user experience. There is good evidence that that UK public sector knows how to use technology to transform mass transit services but, unlike the rail franchise operators, some private sector companies also know how to do this.

The technology companies that have been reinventing transportation in our cities will soon start to focus their efforts on long distance travel whether it be through personal services such as ride sharing and automated cars or new forms of mass transit.

If those services are cheaper and better than railways then people will choose them. People are currently complaining that the UK’s railways are run from France and Germany, soon they will find themselves complaining that their transport is run by technology giants in the US or China.

Some passengers will get the benefits of modernised services that are cheaper and better but we risk losing the environmental benefits of mass transit, the accountability that people say they want and benefits for all. You cannot use Uber unless you are online and many UK adults are not.

The UK Government currently has a permissive approach to regulating these services so unless the technologies companies choose to open up, be more inclusive and become more accountable to governments, passengers and workers then we need to consider a different path.

Taking the cooperative path and using the market

The franchising system allows people to organise and use the market to take power.

A cooperative could be formed that includes local government, devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, workers, freight companies and passengers. This cooperative could work together to bid for franchises as they are put out to tender. The cooperative model brings the accountability that we risk missing out on if we wait a decade for nationalisation. It can still provide money back into the public sector that can be reinvested in building better infrastructure.

Bidding for a franchise is not cheap. Experts in railways, technology and running cooperatives will need to be employed to pull a bid together. It is reported that Virgin spent £14m on their failed bid during the disastrous West Coast mainline franchising process in 2012. There were 1.6 billion passenger rail journeys in the last 3 months. Modern digital approaches can be used to crowdsource money and build scale fast. If people can crowdsource $100m for a computer game then people should not be frightened of raising money to bid for a railway franchise.

New cooperative railways could build on the expertise gained through the extremely effective running of the East Coast mainline; connect with the new Transport for North initiative; and work with city-regions to support their need to integrate national transport infrastructure with local transport options such as cars, buses and trams.

Concept image for Elon Musk’s hyperloop project by Camilo Sanchez, CC-SA-4.0. Why couldn’t a cooperatively run transport system raise money to build one in the UK? Or branch out in buses?

Even without the involvement of national government a cooperatively run railway that bought in expertise from the public and private sector could deliver on the promise of greater accountability coupled with cheaper and better services.

That is what people want and need. The new franchises can be open, inclusive, innovative and modern at a time when the UK’s privately run railways are not.

There remains the chance that government will put new requirements into the next round of franchises; that the existing rail franchise operators will modernise and become more accountable; or that the new technology companies will choose to open up.

If they don’t a people’s railway will continue to be demanded but it will need to start soon if it is to have a chance of success.

(*) curiously most UK debate over railways does not seem to recognise that in Northern Ireland the railway is publicly owned.

In 2017 there are expected to be three invitation to tender (ITT) and two annoucements of who will run rail franchises in England. (Source)

[Update 5 Jan 2017 as various news stories emerge about the usual annual increase in rail fares here is the latest rail franchise schedule from the Department for Transport. Three new invitations to tender are expected this year. I wonder if any mutual organisations will bid.]

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