Winning back the ball by standing up to vested interests

Scott_Nicholson_photo_400x400Scott Nicholson, an elected member of the Scottish Executive Committee of Scottish Labour, thinks that standing up to vested interests should define Scottish Labour’s approach, and that football is a key challenge.


When people learn of my involvement with the Labour Party they often ask the question: “What’s with this Ed Miliband?”.

With this question I think they are suggesting that David Cameron is flash, and the kind of person they would expect to lead a political party, while Ed Miliband is portrayed as being a bit nerdy. I believe that they are asking me how he became leader and if he could lead our country.

I reply to this by saying: My favourite thing about Ed Miliband is that he is not afraid to stand up to powerful vested interests.

I think back to the 2013 national conference and tell them: When it was Murdoch versus the McCanns, Ed Miliband took the side of the McCanns; David Cameron took the side of Murdoch. When it was the tobacco lobby versus the cancer charities, Ed Miliband took the side of the charities; David Cameron took the side of the tobacco lobby. When people have to make the choice between eating or heating their homes, Ed Miliband is standing up to the Big Six energy companies and making it clear that this cartel will not be allowed to raise their prices until 2017.

When it was millionaires asking for a tax cut versus the predominantly disabled people paying the bedroom tax, David Cameron took the side of the millionaires. While David Cameron was the Prime Minister who introduced the bedroom tax, Ed Miliband will be the Prime Minister who repeals the bedroom tax.

After that people generally decide that he sounds like a good egg and talk about Tony Blair and Iraq…

However, my point is that voters seem to respond to the idea that while David Cameron is strong at standing up to the weak, he is weak when it comes to standing up to the strong.

Day-to-day, a lot of the challenges faced by Jim and Kezia are different to those of Ed Miliband, but one they share is that, like the Conservatives, the SNP are weak when it comes to standing up to vested interests.

When Ed Miliband spoke out against corporate tax avoidance, the SNP gave Amazon £10m of Scottish government money and encouraged the company to set up Scottish distribution centres. When Ed Miliband took on the Big Six energy companies, the SNP opposed the UK government’s windfall tax on North Sea oil profits. When given the opportunity to stand up for tenants with a rent cap, the SNP stood up for landlords. When given the opportunity to support workers with the living wage during Scottish government procurement, the SNP stood up for bosses offering poverty pay.

When they proposed to cut corporation tax rather than a tax like VAT in an independent Scotland, the SNP stood up for big business and not ordinary families. And as for the worst vested interest of all: despite the revelations about News International corruption and phone hacking in the Leveson Inquiry, the SNP chose not to call for change but to actively cultivate their relationship with Rupert Murdoch.

I think voters understand the concept of vested interests: those at the top, working in their own interests, without a care for ordinary working people. I think they could be made to understand that Scotland is a country that works for the privileged few and not for the many.

Ed Miliband talks about our “zero-zero economy” in which those at the top pay zero tax, while those at the bottom are on zero hours contracts. I think that Jim and Kezia should tell voters in Scotland that this is not the way the world has to be and that this kind of inequality does not happen by accident. They should tell voters that this inequality is driven by a belief the SNP have about how to run Scotland. The belief that the success of Scotland depends on a few big businesses at the top and that cutting corporation tax is the only way Scotland can compete in the world.

I feel that Jim and Kezia need to tell the Scottish people that these beliefs have had their time and that Scottish Labour are prepared to fight so that no vested interest, whoever they are and however powerful they are, should ever be able to hold Scotland back. We in Scottish Labour should not be whiners but campaigners, with alternate models, fighting vested interests to make Scotland work for working people. People should see no vested interest as so powerful that Scottish Labour are afraid to hold them to account.

To this end I would like to see Jim encouraging Scottish elected representatives, be they local councillors, MSPs, MPs or MEPs, to seek out and challenge vested interests in their communities. Remember, aside from campaigning materials, standing up to vested interests is free of charge. Improving public services is the right thing to do but involves committing to additional government spending. Standing up to the powerful and influential costs nothing, apart from votes from people who were already unlikely to vote Labour.

These unaccountable interests could be anywhere. For example, I personally feel that Scotland has a problem with sugary fizzy drinks manufacturers making a profit from Scottish obesity. However, I recently heard Jim discussing football with regard to drinking alcohol at matches. In this context he feels it is unfair for middle class people to be able to enjoy alcohol in the corporate boxes while working class people on the terraces cannot. I think football could be an important area for Scottish Labour to tackle vested interests.

Every constituency in Scotland has a football team that voters in that area predominantly support. Football is hugely culturally important and, in Scotland, little else gets more media coverage. For the last year STV news coverage has been pretty much split 50- 50 between football and the referendum. Why shouldn’t Scottish Labour help communities by standing up to vested interests and then benefit electorally from that media coverage?

Scottish football has some huge challenges and choices ahead of it. The Scottish Premier League does not boast huge broadcasting revenues and the increased unemployment and stagnating wages of supporters have contributed to a drop in attendances. Despite this, football clubs have consistently failed to reduce ticket prices (from a not insignificant average of £23 a match) to boost attendances and improve the quality of the experience for the supporters.

I certainly do not need to tell anyone in Scotland about the consequences experienced by clubs like Hearts and Rangers, when the borrowing and spending of owners exceeds that of the communities supporting them. However, south of the border in England we see one of the wealthiest and most watched leagues. We see a league where billionaire owners characterise the game; yet it is perhaps the most commercialised and uncompassionate to supporters.

The borrowing and spending of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, and the US-based Glazer family have saddled Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United Football Clubs with hundreds of millions of pounds of debts. Particularly uncompassionate to the fans and community supporting them, have been the various owners of Liverpool Football Club who have systematically bought and left derelict the houses in the streets around the club’s ground, in order to attempt to build a new stadium. As the number of derelict houses has grown, so has the deprivation, crime and antisocial behaviour. This is perhaps a worst case scenario but highlights the negative impact vested interests in a football club can have on a community and the potential good Scottish Labour could do by being brave enough to stand up to those powerful interests.

To that end it is interesting to follow the dealings of billionaire sportswear retailer Mike Ashley in relation to Rangers Football Club. His purchase of shares also includes a marketing agreement with Ashley’s zero-hour contract abusing Sports Direct firm. Ashley has also recently invested in Debenhams and Tesco, so he could just be buying Rangers because he feels that the business is undervalued. However, either way, is this type of ownership best for the fans and the local community?

Perhaps a better model of ownership is emerging in Edinburgh. There, Heart of Midlothian Football Club’s recovery is being aided by lifelong supporter Ann Budge, who became chairperson and is financially underwriting a process in which fans, incorporated as the Foundation of Hearts, will take control of the club. Local Labour MP Ian Murray has also been instrumental in this process. In addition to this – and in contrast to Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United – under this ownership model Hearts have severed all sponsorship ties with the exploitative pay-day loan company Wonga, and become Scottish football’s first official living-wage employer.

Today in Scotland I think lots of people feel that they are not fully in control of their lives and are unable to make an impact on the world. Normal working people are more and more excluded from the ownership of assets. The community ownership that fans are working towards in Edinburgh provides communities with the opportunity to reclaim power over their lives.

Community ownership allows local people to work together to achieve common objectives of affordable ticket prices, good entertainment, better facilities and improved performance on the pitch. Germany’s Bundesliga is another of the world’s biggest leagues but, with only the odd exception, its clubs operate a minimum 51 per cent fan ownership rule. Bayern Munich are 82 per cent owned by their 187,865 members, allowing the club not only £62 season tickets but to lift the trophy in Europe’s most prestigious tournament, the UEFA Champion’s League.

Communities and fans own the traditions, culture and spirit of their football clubs; it is time for Scottish Labour to stand up to the vested interests and help communities gain material ownership too.

I was at a meeting recently in which Margaret Curran told us how one of her constituents used the footballing analogy “It’s not just that Labour have lost the ball to the SNP, it’s that Labour are not even trying to win it back”. I think by tackling vested interests, like unscrupulous owners of communities’ football clubs, Scottish Labour can start winning that ball back.

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