Football could be key part of Labour’s election manifesto, reveals Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer believes football could become a key manifesto issue for Labour at the next general election.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, the Labour leader revealed that, in addition to attempting to make the top end of the sport “fairer”, his party would seek to greatly increase affordable and available playing surfaces for communities as part of their “bottom-up” approach to revamping the game.

The government was supposed to publish its white paper on football governance reform on Wednesday, only for that to be delayed due to a cabinet reshuffle and the arrival of Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky. The white paper is the government’s official response to the recommendations of a fan-led review into football, which were published in November 2021, and is expected to support the creation of an independent regulator for an increasingly unequal sport.

The Independent understands that the white paper has been signed off by government officials and will be published towards the end of the month. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is said to be keen to be involved in the white paper and was minded that Mr Zelensky’s visit would inevitably overshadow the launch.

But Mr Starmer accused the government of “dithering” and said delays are endangering financially struggling clubs.

“Football in this country is very strong – but it’s not fair,” he said. “And, as a football fan, I want fairness. That’s at the heart of the discussion about where we go next. It’s why we are pushing so hard for an independent regulator.”

The government’s white paper is expected to propose handing a new independent regulator powers to impose a financial distribution settlement on the Premier League, English Football League and the Football Association – the organisations that run football in England – if they cannot agree one between themselves. The three organisations are meeting regularly to discuss the so-called “New Deal For Football” which includes talks on how money is distributed from the Premier League to the rest of the pyramid.

While the replacement of Michelle Donelan with Lucy Frazer as the minister responsible for sport leaves open the possibility that the white paper could be redone from scratch, this is not expected to be the case, as Ms Frazer realises its urgency.

“I think the independent regulator is pretty urgent because some of these clubs could well go under while the government is dithering,” Mr Starmer told The Independent. “Football has had ample opportunity to self-regulate. Labour strongly supports football regulation and a meaningful voice for fans, but the government has dithered and delayed on taking action.

“Clubs are at the heart of communities and it’s clear that the game urgently needs new laws to stop any more clubs going bust, or being used as a cash cow for the wealthy. Historic clubs like Derby County, Oldham Athletic, and Bury have all suffered. Fans want reform. The government just needs to get on with it.”

Labour would seek to greatly increase facilities, amid moves from the DCMS to invest £300m into 8,000 playing surfaces.

“If you’ve got football or sport and you’ve got facilities that are available at a price people can afford, that is something that can be a focus,” Mr Starmer said of football’s community role.

“It’s got to be affordable, it’s got to be available. And simple things. In the winter, you need floodlights. I’ve seen across the country really good pitches, no lighting means October onwards until about March, young people can’t play on those pitches because they’re dark.”

Mr Starmer also said Boris Johnson should not take credit for saving football from the threat of the European Super League, because the then-prime minister “changed his mind” on the competition

The controversial Super League was a proposal by Europe’s richest football clubs to withdraw from their national competitions and set up a lucrative continental league in which 15 founder members, including six English clubs, would ring-fence huge financial gains. The Super League’s shock announcement received widespread backlash across the game, quickly forcing an embarrassing climbdown, and it was eventually thwarted in court.

Boris Johnson used a coronavirus press conference to condemn the idea of the European Super League back in April 2021 (PA Wire)
Boris Johnson used a coronavirus press conference to condemn the idea of the European Super League back in April 2021 (PA Wire)

Mr Johnson accused the Super League rebel clubs of acting like a “cartel” and vowed to deploy a “legislative bomb” in order to scupper the plans.

However, The Independent revealed at the time that Mr Johnson had met with Manchester United officials in Downing Street only days before the Super League’s launch. The government insisted there were no discussions about the breakaway competition at the meeting, but Mr Starmer believes Mr Johnson “changed his mind” on the issue after the vehement response from football fans across the country.

“It was once he worked out that he was against it rather than for it,” the Labour leader said of Mr Johnson’s reaction to Super League. “I mean, as with Johnson it’s a bit like everything else, he wrote one paper for it and one against and then changed his mind. I don’t think he should take credit for what happened there, but it was a very good thing that got thwarted.”