Leadership matters, it’s time to improve the football governance bill | Football

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John Bowers KC, esteemed barrister, principal of Brasenose College, Oxford, and, most importantly to me, friend and Grimsby supporter, recently released a book on the decline of standards in public life called Downward Spiral. This excellent book serves as a timely reminder, as we approach a general election, of how much we have normalised misbehaviour and accepted the lack of integrity among some politicians – a trend that seemed to reach its zenith under the Conservative leadership of Boris Johnson. Whether it was Partygate, questionable PPE contracts, Greensill or the cronyism in recommending family and friends for honours, we have lost our expectations of integrity or high standards in public life.

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have stated their intention to restore confidence in the integrity of the office of prime minister. They are scheduled to appear in a live debate on Sky News in Grimsby on WednesdayThis event provides both leaders with an opportunity to appeal to the “moral sentiment” of a town frequently featured in Sky News’s coverage leading up to the general election.

Grimsby, seen as a bellwether for national politics, embodies the emotions of a post-industrial town striving to redefine itself as a future green energy powerhouse. A Labour stronghold for 74 years, Grimsby switched to the Tories in the last election and also voted 71.4% in favour of Brexit. Despite overall disillusionment with national politics, the town is energised by numerous community organisations working to effect positive change.

I have previously written about how the football club in a community such as ours is one of the central institutions integral to a place’s identity and has an outsized opportunity to change a town’s narrative. Leadership matters and a club can reflect a town’s culture and values. With this in mind, I hope to raise a national issue with the future prime minister on Wednesday that deeply affects every community such as ours: the football governance bill.

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Although the bill was well advanced, it did not pass through the “wash-up” of policies before the election and I am among a small minority pleased about the delay, because it creates the opportunity for improvements before the bill is passed. This is a chance for the leaders to show moral leadership by committing to prioritise this once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure the game’s future, ensuring long-term financial stability and fairness for the whole football pyramid.

There are three practical areas that could help improve the bill towards this goal. First, the independent regulator must be able to set the financial parameters any broadcasting deal must meet, including distribution among all clubs and terms of parachute payments. Without clear upfront specifications, we could see a prolonged process whereby the Premier League challenges the regulator in eternal legal reviews.

Second, as Bowers makes clear, there should be no vested interests in the decision-making process. No one involved in the regulator should work for the Premier League, English Football League, Football Association, National League or for any organisation significantly funded by these entities.

Finally, while it may seem trivial, given there will be additional costs for clubs to implement legal changes mandated by the regulator, support for clubs to implement these changes would be required. Beyond these practical measures, there is a larger moral argument to be made about “who the game belongs to”, which has been somewhat lost in the purely economic debates about the distribution of TV money.

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A more expansive conversation from politicians about culture, history and fairness could bridge the differing perspectives of the PL and EFL. That they have been unable to agree a deal can be better understood through the framework suggested by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind.

Haidt’s research suggests that people’s values are influenced by six fundamental moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. Liberals tend to prioritise care/harm and fairness/cheating, emphasising empathy and social justice, while conservatives give relatively equal weight to all six foundations, supporting group cohesion and traditional structures.

The Premier League’s arguments seem to focus on authority/subversion, liberty/oppression and sanctity/degradation. The “sanctity” of the product that the Premier League has created could be undermined by a regulator regarded as an “oppressive” force infringing on the league’s autonomy. While no one disputes that the Premier League is an incredible product, this view overlooks the fact that the success of the past 30 years is built on the foundations of the entire pyramid, nearly 140 years of hard work.

Both main political parties have the opportunity to appeal to care/harm and fairness/cheating values, which will resonate broadly with the electorate if framed correctly. By addressing financial disparities and supporting lower-league clubs, the bill ensures all clubs, and the communities they represent, receive the support they need to thrive. This aligns particularly strongly with leftist values of justice and equality, ensuring fairness for the majority of people in the UK.

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The next prime minister needs to move beyond the threadbare, moral wastelands of the past 14 years. Leaders need to eschew pulling football shirts over their office attire or trying to dribble footballs badly to show they are in touch with “ordinary citizens” unless it comes naturally to them. Football runs authentically through our nation’s veins, and most are tired of these staged antics.

The gameplan we need is committed action: truth, honesty and integrity from our political captains. The final whistle is blowing for the Conservative party who have no moral authority left after David Cameron and Greensill, Johnson and Partygate, Liz Truss’s 49 days that tanked the economy, and a prime minister, Sunak, who ended up in Downing Street as the last unused substitute and seems happy to lie on TV debates to try to cling to power.

The football governance bill offers a chance for Starmer to demonstrate moral leadership by ensuring the game reflects fairness and integrity, values that resonate deeply with communities across the UK. He understands the game and by prioritising this opportunity, the next prime minister can show that football, like politics, must serve the people, upholding the standards and trust vital for our society’s future.

Jason Stockwood is the vice-chair of Grimsby Town

The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, and prime minister Rishi Sunak will appear in a live debate on Sky News in Grimsby. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

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