At the weekend 10,000 Liverpool fans marched out of Anfield in a protest against ticket prices and it was reported that Sepp Blatter is continuing his campaign to make mischief for football’s global governing body Fifa.
The two incidents are connected and, strangely enough, the connection is the Lancashire town of Blackpool and the global movement of open government.
Sept Blatter, Fifa and open government
You may not have heard of open government. Gavin Starks wrote about it in the Guardian when discussing Sepp Blatter and the allegations of corruption in Fifa:
Allowing citizens to freely access data related to the institutions that govern them is essential to a well-functioning democratic society. It is the first step towards holding leaders to account for failures and wrongdoing.
Jack Hardinges echoed this call recently discussing the upcoming Fifa elections and saying that transparent governments publish open data and Fifa should be no exception. He argued that it:
would not only help a new Fifa president to mark the start of a new era for the organisation but, more importantly, help to bring about the true reform it so desperately needs.
Football fans would do well to heed this message and the need for true reform.
Premier League fans need a change in governance
Following the walkout by 10,000 fans the Telegraph said that “enough is enough, English football should hang its head in shame”. Both the price of a ticket to go to a game and the price of subscription to watch football on television continue to rise. Fans are being priced out of the game.
The Football Supporter’s Federation are mobilising fans to lobby for a freeze on ticket prices but are faced with reports that the Premier League clubs voted against a freeze in a secret ballot.
The clubs hold both the information and the decision making power rather than opening it up to others. Fans can see the effects of ticket and television subscription rises on their own bank balances but they can’t see where the money is going or influence those decisions.
They should be calling both for a price freeze and a change in governance to clubs that are partially or wholly owned by fans.
Blackpool: a club that won’t listen and a council that is closed
In Lancashire there are other problems. Thousands of Blackpool fans don’t walk out in the middle of matches. They don’t even go in the stadium. They have chosen to boycott their club.
This is not because the tickets cost too much. They boycott because a £90m windfall from Blackpool’s one season in the Premiership has not been invested in the club, instead much of it has been transferred to the owner’s other businesses. They boycott because the club’s owners have taken and are still taking legal action against fans. They boycott because the club’s owners antagonise and abuse them. A police officer alleged that the club’s chairman, Karl Oyston, was ‘beckoning and enticing’ fans yet no action was taken.
The fans set up the Blackpool Supporters Trust to tackle these issues. The trust is democratically run and had nearly 1000 people vote in its last election. The trust offered to buy the club. The club refused to negotiate. After three years of attempts the owners have not even met them.
Last month the trust addressed Blackpool’s town council. If they were not concerned about the fans perhaps the fact that local business are complaining and the loss of an estimated £30m a year of extra revenue would catch people’s attention.
The council leader, Simon Blackburn, told the fans “we cannot take sides that is not the role of the council”. He said that his meetings with the Oystons will remain private. An attitude that is completely opposite to the culture of open government that we want from our politicians. Rather bizarrely the local paper supported this stance saying:
can a council leader really go to war with one of the town’s most wealthy business families? Rightly or wrongly, his approach is understandable.
The council has since said that Simon Blackburn has met Karl Oyston twice in the last 24 months but that there are no records of what was said. Even the number of meetings appears confusing when the club claims to have regular meetings with Simon Blackburn. There is clearly more that the councillor and council could choose to disclose. If they don’t then using rights won by the open government movement people can try to compel them.
Because of the owner’s actions many Blackpool fans will never be able to trust them again but they will also struggle to trust a politician whose first choice is to keep things private rather than to open things up or a politician that is not willing to challenge those with power.
Go and listen to the fans
Football and governments have problems globally, nationally and locally. All of these things are connected. Liverpool, Sepp Blatter, open government and Blackpool. They share common faultlines and the need for change. We need to make sure that fans and voters have both information and the power to use it. Unless we deliver these things we cannot increase trust.
When I was writing this I kept thinking back to a recent meeting of the Blackpool Supporters Trust. There were over 100 fans passionately debating the future of their football club and a nervous undercurrent in parts of the room due to the fear of legal action. Despite that fear those fans were still there and still fighting for their club and their community.
I didn’t expect any of the club’s staff to be there. They ignore the fans. But as I thought back I remembered that despite the Blackpool fans’ prominent battles over many years there was not a single politician present to listen to them, talk with them and debate some ideas. If politicians want fans to trust them to help tackle football’s problems perhaps that is the first thing that they need to do.