Every now and again I think back to the halcyon days of June and July – the sun was shining, Love Island graced our screens every night, and millions tuned into the World Cup to check in on the England men’s best performance since 1990. It felt like a golden time for the collective national mood, though certainly not for the collective national state of our livers.
Their triumphs did not magically heal the deep political fissures the United Kingdom has been experiencing over the past several years, nor did they mark a shift in the Overton window signalling a mass call for nationalisation of all services. They did however, combined with the unusually hot weather, seem to promote a greater sense of contentment and solidarity across many parts of the country. England and the UK are, of course, not the same thing, but viewing figures in Scotland and Wales were also strong, whether driven by a sneaking fondness for Gareth Southgate’s boys or simply an increased level of satisfaction derived from seeing the Three Lions knocked out so close to the final. In my lifetime, I can’t remember the public feeling so favourably towards an English football team – Twitter constantly erupted with praise for Southgate, Pickford, Slabhead and the rest. And out in the real world, people put down their differences and picked up a pint for a couple of hours, to enjoy either a much-improved technical style of play from the England men’s team, or a nice shout at the TV in the pub with their pals, accompanied by a side order of Three Lions. This may present as an idealised, romanticised version of summer’s events, but the principle still stands, however short-lived and superficial it may have been. Twenty million people, around a third of the country’s population, tuned in to see England cruise to victory against Sweden on 7th July, with similar viewing figures also being recorded for the thrilling match against Colombia earlier on that week.
Crucially, all World Cup fixtures were shown on the BBC and ITV. Anyone could enjoy these matches for free, in the comfort of their own homes, on their laptops on the go, or in any pub. I was definitely guilty of screaming out loud on a train watching England trounce Panama 6-1, via terrible Wi-Fi. However, subsequent matches from this successful men’s team – the Kick It Out International and all UEFA Nations League games – have only been shown on Sky Sports. A cursory glance at Sky’s website puts the Sky Sports package at £22 a month, with an eighteen-month contract, at a total of £396 – thanks owed here to my phone calculator. For £22 a month, a person could buy a standard Labour Party membership for five lucky over-14s, or a reduced membership for ten ecstatic 20 to 26-year-olds. In more frank terms, £22 is not an unsubstantial amount for many people to throw away on a TV channel every month.
Football as a sport can have the power to bring the nation together, from armchair fans to die-hard followers. Pub gardens were overflowing with spectators over summer. There were those who tagged along with their mate whose cheeks were emblazoned with English flag face paint, just to see the potential reaction if England were to lose. Those who spilled out of work at five thirty to get the best seat – right under the screen, near the bar for the optimal half-time turnaround. Friends and families congregated in each other’s homes, a chance to get together under the guise of World Cup fever. No one should be excluded from this experience due to their disposable income, or through not having the right TV package.
The Labour Party and football share an intrinsic link; a communitarian thread running through the history of towns and cities across the country. Football as a sport, before the professionalisation of many teams, was built around the unification of sections of local communities, with matches and training often organised to fit around the working day. This was particularly prevalent amongst towns in the industrial north of England – the Football League founded in 1888 didn’t feature any clubs from the southern half of the country (bonus points for anyone who can name its twelve founding member clubs). Many of these towns and cities across the UK where football was most popular constituted some of Labour’s traditional strongholds, from Liverpool to Glasgow, and values of solidarity and justice so intertwined with Labour politics are mirrored in grassroots football. Amateur clubs were owned and controlled by fans and followers, local working people from whose homes and community venues the clubs were run, a practice which continued even following the professionalisation of many teams. It is fitting, therefore, for Labour to be calling for the common viewing of all national football matches on free-to-air channels, not just during major tournaments.
Of course, players were generally all working men – the Football League was male by default, the same going for the Scottish Football Association formed in 1873. Even today, women’s football is treated as subordinate to the men’s game, though that is perhaps a topic for a separate piece of writing, and a separate campaign for Labour to be leading on.
Labour understands the importance of the connection between football and the community. The party’s last two manifestos have included the promise to delegate a greater amount of power and responsibility to fans of football clubs. In 2014, then policy co-ordinator Jon Cruddas stated that “football clubs are part of people’s identity and sense of belonging.” The next year, Ed Miliband’s platform promised that Labour would “introduce legislation to enable accredited supporters trusts to appoint and remove at least two of the directors of a football club and to purchase shares when the club changes hands”. The party would also “ensure the Premier League delivers on its promise to invest five per cent of its domestic and international television rights income into funding the grassroots”. Clive Efford, the then shadow sports minister, said Labour would “change the way football is run” by promising that fan representatives would be installed on boards of English football clubs, and that the appointment of at least two directors would be voted on by fans. These policy promises were retained as part of the 2017 manifesto, with another commitment also being made to ensure that the Premier League donate at least five percent of its revenue from television advertising into training young players and coaches. Labour is aware of the importance of making football accessible and inclusive – making it easier for everyone to watch international matches would be a further step in this direction.
The Labour Party purports to be for the many, not the few. It is a party that goes against the Thatcherite adage about individualism, bringing democracy back to local communities. The price of tickets for matches rises every year, making football increasingly inaccessible for the people for whom it was originally intended. Labour should be doing everything possible, including lobbying the government, to ensure that anyone can watch football – money should be no barrier. All matches by our home nations should be viewable on free-to-air channels, especially after a summer when national spirits were buoyed by an unexpectedly strong England performance. Let football come home!