That’s not what democracy looks like

January 13, 2011 § 19 Comments

The level of involvement that fans should have in the clubs they follow is one of the more contentious and fascinating debates in modern football. English top-flight fans cast envious eyes toward the Bundesliga or Spain, where a variety of fan-based ownership structures demonstrate their compatability with high-level success. Lower down the pyramid, a number of relatively high-profile fan-driven clubs are achieving long-desired stability by involving their fans.

Writing on this topic in today’s Guardian, Louise Taylor addresses the question of “benevolent dictatorship or democracy?“, and concludes that the dictatorial model is the superior option. This conclusion is based on the following three points:

1. Ebbsfleet United — a club owned by (at one point) 20,000 online members, whose team selections are determined by electronic ballot — demonstrate the failure of democratically structured football clubs. Taylor cites the disinclination of 85% of the (now 4,000) members to participate in the selection voting;

2. Sunderland — under the ownership of Ellis Short and the chairmanship of Niall Quinn — demonstrate the success of the benevolent dictatorship model. Taylor cites the disinclination of Short and Quinn to sack Steve Bruce after the 5-1 whomping at Newcastle United, given their sixth-place league position;

3. Clubs, rather than attempting to involve the fans at a corporate level, should devote their time and money to improving the match-day experience. Taylor cites Manchester City’s “fusion of traditional Arabian hospitality [and] American-acquired marketing skills”, which involves child-sized toilets, fruit smoothies, and live music.

To deal with the last point first, there is evidence to support the claim that improving the match-day experience — in terms of cleanliness, service provision, and so on — does have a positive impact on attendances*. Yet to hold up Manchester City as an example is, at the very least, disingenuous, if not wilfully crass. Without wanting to speculate too wildly on the moral provenance of the petrodollars, it is indisputable that Manchester City find themselves in the situation they are as a result not of good governance but of either fortunate patronage or financial doping (delete according to preference).

Manchester City are, to lapse briefly into philosophical jargon, a “nomological dangler”: they operate, financially at least, without reference to or relevance for other ostensibly similar entities. As one comment beneath the article puts it:

Yeah, whenever I chat with people who’ve stopped going to the match or only go once in a blue moon, it’s always the poor catering and lack of balloon-bending clowns on stilts that seems to be the issue; nothing at all to do with the cost of tickets at a time when the economy’s knackered. In fact, I’d get four season ticket just for myself if we start selling Um Bongo and showcase a cat that can play the guitar.

Turning to the heart of the article, the contention that Ebbsfleet are in someway representative of a democratically run institution is slightly baffling. It is true that they are, in a reductive sense, democratic, if we understand “democratic” to mean “have lots of votes on things”. But political democracy is not governance by perpetual plebiscite; it is representative democracy: a constituency elects an individual, or individuals, to act on their behalf. Variations on representation can be found throughout football: FC United of Manchester; AFC Wimbledon; Chester City, most of Germany … even Real Madrid and Barcelona, after a fashion.

Ebbsfleet, while an interesting experiment in the wisdom of crowds, is not an examplar of democratic club ownership. It is not a model generally advocated by those who seek greater representation for fans within the ownership structure of clubs, and so is not relevant to the debate. Taylor also makes the mistake of assuming that “not voting” equals “not caring”; it could be that those who abstain from decisions are, for the most part, happy to leave the footballing decisions to those they consider more knowledgeable. Knowing when not to have an opinion is a central and oft-overlooked pillar of democracy.

Finally, there is a fundamental category error with the characterisation of a “benevolent dictatorship”. The structure of a dictatorship, whether benevolent or malevolent, is the same: power centralised in the hands of one individual. What makes a dictatorship benevolent or otherwise is how that power is used. More hospitals? Benevolent. State-sponsored genocide? Malevolent. Benevolence, or otherwise, is a moral characterisation based on actions, not structures.

Football, of course, is amoral: you only shine when you’re winning. So a benevolent dictatorship in football is a structure that concentrates power in the hands of the few, but runs the club well. A malevolent one looks the same, but cocks it up. To look at Taylor’s own example, if Short had fired Bruce after the Newcastle loss, it would not have been due to a sudden attack of the will of the people. It would have been due to a dictator making a bad decision, rather than a good one. Indeed, one need only look at Sunderland’s nearest and dearest neighbours to appreciate the perils of cack-handed dictatorship.

In a benevolent dictatorship, the benevolence is not sourced from the dictatorship in itself, but from the decision-making capabilities of the dictator. To advocate a model of benevolent dictatorship — while deriding the idea of a more democratic structure — without acknowledging this is to approach the argument from the wrong direction. Football fans are not arguing for greater involvement on the basis that nobody else knows how to run a club. They’re arguing for democracy on the basis that, in a very special sense, nobody else really has the right to. However benevolent they might turn out to be.

* See Simon Kuper & Stefan Sysmanski, Why England Lose


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§ 19 Responses to That’s not what democracy looks like

  • Michael says:

    Does Louise Taylor even know what point she’s attempting to make half the time? Agree that Ebsfleet is a particulary disingenuous example. FC United would probably be the best comparison, particularly given the circumstances that prompted their birth.

    In my opinion, the best model of ownership is the FC one – supporter-owned, one member one vote, and the election of people who know how to run a club to positions of power. If Andy Walsh arranged for a free trip to their next home game, Taylor might think so too…

  • Norman says:

    Running a club as a co-operative always sounds like a great idea, but it is not always beneficial to have those with most emotional investment in an entity to have significant power in running that entity.

    Take for example a club where a chairman and board of directors, elected by a co-operative system, decide that in order to secure the long-term future of the club sell some playing assets and look for cost cutting and efficiency measures in the short-term. This obviously leads to a worsening of results, perhaps relegation a couple of times.

    Would the co-operative ownership model make the right choices to keep that chairman and voard in palce and not elect someone who promises fottballing success at the expense of financial stability?

    This is an extreme example, but one that is more and more likely to occur in the modern world of footballing financials.

    I am not sure I can say anything better about the dictator model either!

    • twistedblood says:

      I agree to a certain extent, in that, when dealing with something as emotionally involving as a football club, heart often trumps head. Which is why the representative model is important: those you elect, you hope, remain clear-sighted enough to do what needs to be done.

      On the relegation point, I think the exposure of the neo-liberal model of football governance has caused a lot of fans to reconsider relegation. I suspect that – post-Leeds, post-Wednesday, post-Chester, etc. – more fans would be willing to be relegated than to gamble with their clubs existence.

      • Rob says:

        Most clubs that are 100% run by democratically elected supporters have had huge amounts of turmoil that led to the Supporters taking over (Brentford, Exeter City) or being formed in the first place (AFC Wimbledon, AFC Telford United, Merthyr Town, Scarborough Athletic, FC Chester). The only exception is FC United, who were formed as a protest, and have adapted to their new level brilliantly.

        It’s the clubs that have been majority (but not fully) owned by Trusts that have over-reached themselves (or in Notts County’s case sell their club to people that don’t exist), just like “traditional” dictatorialyl-run clubs have.

        How on earth did Louise Taylor manager to compare dictatorial and democratically run clubs without mentioning a single Supporter’s Trust run club, or the movement as a whole?

  • […] Read this article: That’s not what democracy looks like « Twisted Blood […]

  • Louise Taylor’s piece was the sort of ill-informed, unresearched space filler that gets professional journalists a bad name. Her choice of Ebbsfleet and Manchester City as examples was utterly ludicrous.

    I think you’re right with your follow up comments about supporters who take over being more realistic if they’ve gone through the mangle. My club is Dundee FC, currently in administration for the second time in seven years. If it survives then it will almost certainly be owned by the supporters, who are the only reason that the club has not already been liquidated. Relegation is far from being seen as the worst case scenario.

    One of the most powerful motivators behind the Dundee supporters push for ownership is our anger at the way that the benefactor model has meant that we are accountable and responsible, but largely powerless. When things go wrong the “benefactors” piss off or just pass the buck to the supporters.

    The supporters then have to dig deep and raise money to keep the club going. The financial costs and penalties are directed at the people who want to keep the club going, not at those who caused the problems.

  • twistedblood says:

    Thanks for the comments all.

    @ Rob

    There is a series of wonderful articles waiting to be written about the various models of fan-centred football club ownership; how they’ve worked, the pros and cons, and so on. To mention only the oddest, while dismissing the rest of them, is illogical in the extreme.

    @ James

    You’re absolutely right. A dictator remains a dictator for as long as it works for them. But in politics, occasionally, dictators who fail their people bear the brunt of their wrath. In football, they become chairman of the Premier League.

    (Incidentally, I am not advocating the lynching of Dave Richards. But he should be forced to bear the blame for the failure of his stewardship of a fine football club.)

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris Nee, Linda, David Rawson, Voxra Andersen, Andrew Thomas and others. Andrew Thomas said: NEW POST | Another plug for my analysis of Louise Taylor's anti-democracy piece (go on, RT it. You know you want to) | […]

  • Shirley Crabtree says:

    FC United remind me of St Pauli in Germany, a fake, hip type of football fandom, created and run by middle class, crusty or student politic types who now have their own plaything. We are constantly reminded how perfect a vision it all is, whilst, for example, those who ‘still’ go to Old Trafford are reviled.
    Don’t get me wrong it’s a fun project for those involved, but in the new realpolitik world of football it’s all a little bit irrelevant.

    • Dave says:

      have you ever been to FC UNited? Ever hung out on their forum? Spoken in a pub after a match with their fans? If you had, you’d realsie that they don’t ‘revile’ people who go to OT, not least because a pretty sizeable chunk of the regular match goers are also attendees at OT. It’s a spectrum of activity, and whilst some would think being anti-Glazer whilst buying a season ticket is somewhat contradictory, that’s a personal choice issue, not a point of principle that all who attend must subscribe too.

      I can assure you that in the realpolitik world of football, it’s highly relevant, not least because by having 2000 people raise 1M in capital, they show how fans can take matters into their own hands and start taking clubs over, instead of waiting for them to be broken by benefactors before being given the arduous task of righting the ship.

  • FFFFFC says:

    Unless Shirley Crabtree has a specific axe to grind, what conceivable reason could she/he have to resent what FC United have done? I mean a group of fans tires of being treated badly by club owners and so, instead of sitting around sulking and expecting someone else to do something, they get off their backsides, put their principles into practice and show that fans can run football clubs. Why would any football fan worth his/her salt not have at the very least a grudging acknowledgment at the success of their fellow fans?

    I suspect the explanation is that Shirley is one of that sea of fans who’re very eloquent when it comes to complaining about the state of affairs at their club and very brave when it comes to saying what should happen, but who melt away at the first opportunity to get off their arses and actually do something about it.

    That sort of fan is safe and smug if no-one does anything, but the minute a group of fans does take action, Shirley’s own inaction is uncomfortably highlighted.

    Exactly how “relevant” is Shirley in the world of football realpolitik? Trooping obediently through the turnstiles and putting money in the pockets of the owners and the players every week, sitting quietly and never complaining.

  • FFFFFC says:

    Norman, but look at what Peter Ridsdale did to Leeds. Ruined his club by putting a pipe dream in place of financial stability.

    Outside the top few clubs in the Premiership, how many clubs are in debt because of owners who spent and spent in the pursuit of an impossible dream?

    So, yes, a fan owned club can easily make disastrous decisions but there’s no indication that the dictatorially run clubs do any different.

    I’m sure that you’d deny it but you’re arguing for feudalism. No parliamentary elections because the people can’t be expected to vote for financial prudence, they’ll vote for spending money the nation doesn’t have on the NHS, won’t they?

  • Shirley Crabtree says:

    Shirley wants to watch good football every week just as he wants to watch good films and listen to good music. It’s what he chooses to do, it’s not about being smug and safe.BTW people have set up football clubs at all levels for years, they just get on with it and don’t feel the need to constantly preach how virtuous they are. Good luck to FC United but don’t offer a club at non league level with a few hundred fans as a viable example of how league clubs can be run.

  • Stephen Turner says:

    I can’t believe that Shirley thinks that the people who created and run FC United are middle class, crusties or student politicos. When |I’m at a game and look around I see ordinary working class football fans who got off their arses and did something. Of course a lot of people think that working class people are incapable of doing such a thing, FC United have proved them wrong.

  • twistedblood says:

    Thanks for the comments all.


    So why do you think that the FC United (or AFC Wimbledon, or whoever) model wouldn’t work at a higher level? Because criticising the motives and the class origins of the fans involved isn’t really addressing that question. And why should such a model be incompatible with the good football you expect?

  • I think the analogy with political governance is somewhat specious on Louise Taylor’s part and thus some of the comparisons drawn don’t really fit. What we are talking about here is corporate governance and the success of the Co-op (annual revenue £9.4 billion – 38 times greater than Manchester United) and the John Lewis Partnership (annual revenue £7.4 billion – 30 times greater than Manchester United) show that more democratic alternatives to the traditional “majoritarian shareholders = management board” structure can and do work at the very highest level.

    I’d also suggest you look at the Green Bay Packers, the only non-profit, community-owned franchise in major league American professional sports:

    It is governed by a seven member Executive Committee, elected from a 45 member board of directors, elected from amongst its 112,015 stockholders. Though private sales can exceed the face value of the stock, each share is in theory worth only $200 and in practice rarely fetches much more. Shares of stock include voting rights, but the redemption price is minimal, no dividends are ever paid, the stock cannot appreciate in value, and stock ownership brings no season ticket privileges. In other words these stocks can not function as financial investments; they are a mechanism for fan ownership. No shareholder may own over 200,000 shares, there are 4 million shares in total so that means no one individual or body can own more than 5% of the club.

    And, oh yes, the Packers are the most successful team in the history of American Football.

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