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From Matches to Manifestos: Football in the Spotlight of Election Campaigns

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Tamworth 2023

Staff writer Grace Holloway examines the sudden appeal to football in UK party manifestoes as the General Election steers closer.

On 4 July, UK voters will take to the polls to elect the new parliament. While the election campaign has focused on traditional themes from the NHS and the state of the economy, another theme has been overwhelmingly present in campaigns: football. Rather than focusing on sports in general, political campaigns have solely focused on football and its position as ‘the working class game.’

Football fans and political commentators have begun to question why politicians have made this a focus point, and how proposed changes to the game have emerged into policy proposals. Why are politicians attempting to integrate football into their campaigns? What impact is this having on the relationship between politics and football?

What’s going on in the campaigns?

While football has always had a political aspect to it, this year’s prime ministerial candidates have embraced the sport more than ever before. 

Arsenal season ticket holder and Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, has notably been leading this focus on football throughout the electoral campaigns. On his campaign trail, he arrived at the Bristol Rovers Stadium to discuss his proposed football and governance bill. Pictured with a ‘Change 24 shirt’ and touring the facilities, this was an attempt to add to his image of being a down-to-earth fan who cares about lower-level clubs.

Starmer has also previously spoken out about his love for five-aside football. This comes as a contrast to Sunak who seemed out of place when participating in football drills with young children at Chesham United.

Similarly, Sunak has been spotted visiting lower league clubs such as Wantage Town FC as well as celebrating Southampton’s return to the premier league. In one appearance, he struck controversy by wearing Adidas Sambas, a shoe associated with football culture. Many saw this as a weak attempt to appeal to the youth and sports fans. Even the Conservative party’s official broadcast features a football field with parties as players.

The Liberal Democratic (Lib Dem) party leader, Sir Ed Davey, has also visited football grounds including Yeovil, but has made football clubs less of a focus point of his campaign trail in comparison. Instead, he has built his persona, less around being a relatable football fan, and more about engaging in silly campaign stunts that get people talking about him, such as doing paddleboard yoga on the River Thames.

Notable is the actions of Nigel Farage, the Reform UK party leader, who has taken a different approach to the issue. He has chosen to engage more with ‘English fans’ as a whole regarding this summer Euro tournament. During England vs Denmark, he was pictured wearing an England shirt watching the game at a pub in Blackpool.

Farage also commented on the backlash of the ‘Ten German Bombers Chant’ which could be considered offensive when used in Germany at the Euro’s this Summer. The chant refers to the conflict between England and Germany during World War Two and England’s victory. Speaking to LBC, Farage said Germans need to ‘get a sense of humour’ and spoke about how young men are being limited in their ability to drink beer, have fun, and chant at the football.

This is part of Farage’s attempt to appear like an ordinary football fan and appeal to both younger and more traditional generations. His comment after the chant displayed his thoughts on patriotism, British history, and the freedom of young men. These are issues that resonate with this voter demographic, who desire to make more open statements about their pride in British identity and their freedom to chant at football matches.

The impact of manifestos and policy promises

This football-oriented campaign strategy has led to impactful policy proposals for both football and sport in general. The three main parties: Labour, Lib Dems and the Conservatives have all included football-based policies in their manifestos. However, the Reform party has not followed this lead.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems support the Conservatives in passing the football governance bill. Originally introduced by the Conservatives, this bill would look to help secure the financial security of clubs after collapses such as Bury FC. This would be achieved through a new independent regulator. The bill may also be reformed by Lib Dems and Labour to further its impact. This may include tackling spending restrictions and punishments imposed by the Premier League, amid recent controversies over its selectiveness. We can take into consideration Labour’s manifesto concerning this:

‘We will reform football governance to protect football clubs across our communities and to give fans a greater say in the way they are run.’

Labour Manifesto

Additionally in both manifestos, Labour and Lib Dem promise to crack down on ticket resales and ticket prices for fans. They also look to invest in grassroots facilities and address equality and diversity within the sport as a whole.

Both have also mentioned very attractive potential policies for football fans. Labour claims they wish to review early kick-offs, which have become difficult for travelling supporters. The Lib Dems have also delved into fans’ anger regarding the lack of free-to-air football matches. They have promised to air almost all sports events on free channels to make sports more accessible for all fans. Both policies have received high media attention.

The Conservatives, however, have a much shorter list of commitments. Following the other parties, they also claim to push for greater investment and an independent regulator for the football league, as well as investing in greater exercise initiatives for children in schools. However, there are less inspiring and major changes that football fans still may wish to see.

These changes include financial regulation and ownership, to concerns over fan access to matches. However, this emphasis on men’s football leaves many other popular sports and the women’s game ignored and underfunded.

The target audience

While football has always been political and a way to engage with the working class, much can be analysed with regards to this particular election and who the parties are seeking to attract.

Traditionally, football is seen as a working-class game. With many club’s origins in trade unions, football has always been the sport for working-class men. In 2019, the working class vote turned Conservative, following the fallout from the Brexit referendum. Areas such as the traditional ‘red wall’ turned blue, with the Conservatives doing best across the C2DE (lower) class.

However, the cost of living crisis and economic hardships post-COVID have caused much of the working class to move away from the Conservative government which they supported in 2019. This then leaves a group open to the other major parties: Lib Dems and Labour, but also Reform and their less mainstream political policies.

There is also a key gendered audience undertaken since the majority of football fans are male. When looking further into this demographic, the attempt by Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives to attract male voters is highly linked to the foundation of the Reform Party’s new support. In current polling, the Reform Party is supported by 21% of men compared to 14% of women and is only one point away from the Conservative’s support from the C2DE working-class group.

Across social media platforms such as TikTok, a high amount of young men are beginning to support Reform due to its more conservative and populist values. Therefore, the other major parties are hoping to change their minds by appealing to their interest in football.

For the Lib Dems, appealing to this group can be essential for overtaking Conservatives in traditionally blue seats. The Conservatives also want to reclaim the voters moving to Reform, to prevent the deep decline that is predicted by current polls.

Is their appeal working?

It is difficult to tell if these attempts to reclaim working-class male voters have worked just yet. However, judging by polls and media attention this has benefited some parties more than others.

For the Conservative Party, their campaign strategies have only furthered their bad media reputation. In one appearance, Sunak made the regrettable decision of asking Welsh football fans if they were looking forward to the Euros despite not qualifying. His other attempts to appear more ‘down to earth’ and ‘trendy’ have seemed unnatural and made his image as a detached upper-class man more entrenched.

Based on current polls, Labour has a solid foundation of male and working-class voters by dominating both categories. The Lib Dems, in turn, have failed to do better than Reform in both the male and working-class categories, showing that Reform is building a solid foundation among these voters.

To some extent, this focus has only benefited Labour in entrenching their support across all groups. For the Conservatives and Lib Dems, they have struggled to make their appearances and policy platforms stick among these groups. Despite Reform’s lack of football-related policies, Farage’s appearances along with wider policies on issues such as immigration has attracted strong support from the traditional football fan demographic and even younger men.

Traditionally, football fans are in favour of more conservative and traditionally masculine policy platforms, for example, immigration to attempt to protect English values and English society. This has led to a high amount supporting Reform and Farage’s populist policies on issues such as immigration but also ‘woke culture’.

While the other parties have recognised this movement towards Reform, their attempts to cling back these voters via football-based policies may not be the best way to tackle the issue. If parties such as the Lib Dems were to take a more neutral stance on Brexit and for Labour to act more tough on immigration, then they may be able to bring back some of this group.

Should football be political?

Many voters have embraced this overlap, with someone even generating a fantasy football-style election game. However, there is still a greater question of whether politics should be embraced into football or should football be embraced into politics.

Football has always been political; from the associations with nationalist and unionist groups such as Celtic and Rangers in Scotland to protests against the government. For example, on multiple occasions, many Liverpool F.C. fans boo the national anthem as a form of protest since they feel neglected by the government and establishment.

The Premier League has also enforced political movements within football games, such as Minute’s silence in support of Ukraine, or its Rainbow Laces campaigns in favour of LGBTQ acceptance. However, most political ties are often fan-led, and movements originating from upper-class politicians or businessmen are usually less supported.

From one point of view, professional football and the premier league have expanded so much that it is in need of political regulation. For example, the government has looked into the new ownerships of English Clubs by Middle Eastern Countries and the management and finances of lower league clubs to prevent club disappearances. These instances have shown the role of the government in the supervision of football club ownership and regulations. Football also generates a high revenue for the UK economy and therefore has a political influence to it.

From a fan perspective, it is unclear whether politicians actually care about the struggles of fans and teams, and are instead using the sport as a political chip. As a fan myself, it feels as if most politicians are trying to pretend they understand fans’ concerns and what they want, however, in reality, politicians such as Sunak do not understand the struggles of most fans.

This focus on football seems to be something that will be dropped shortly after the election, with only Starmer having a more sustained historic record of displaying his position as a fan. Most of the promises being made, regarding kick-off times and tv broadcasting, appear as promises that will not be kept.

With the movement in favour of Reform and its conservative policies, it is difficult to see how the traditional demographic of football fans would move towards other parties solely based on their football policies. While football is being used as a campaign strategy, I do not think it will drastically change the support from the football fan demographic at this election based on other pressing issues such as immigration.



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