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Article in Tribune by Jonathan Michie

5th February 1999

Where is the 3rd Way? Seminars have been held, think-tanks commissioned to think, gurus seconded. Seldom can so many brains have been stormed to so little effect.

Perhaps, to be fair, that is part of the answer - that the 3rd Way is an innovative approach to policy making that welcomes good ideas from wherever they come and is committed to policy activism. (Remember Tony Blair on the final eve-of-election Party political, explaining from his kitchen how he could not be in Number 10 without actively pursuing policies to improve people's lives.)

This description of the 3rd way has been reported as a Government in search of a mission. But there's no need to be cynical. Much better to provide the ideas.

The early establishment of the Football Task Force heralded a new approach to policy making. It was to recommend action to prevent the new commercialism from destroying what is an important part of the nation's social, cultural and sporting life. The example of football is far more significant than might at first appear. The threat of commercialism - which Tony Blair railed against personally - has snowballed dramatically with the entry of the global media moguls who want to use the game for purposes entirely at odds with the ones to which the Government has committed itself.

So on the one hand the Task Force has begun to produce positive proposals for a '3rd Way' agenda which would improve the lives of millions. On the other hand, implementing them would require far more political nerve than could have been envisaged when the Task Force was established.

Firstly, the Office of Fair Trading is arguing that the league shouldn't be allowed to act as a league.

Secondly there's now the Murdoch problem. Great store was put on getting him and his media outlets on side. Now he wants the country's biggest football club for himself. Partly to help his global media empire, but also to circumvent any legislative changes. If there's an attempt to make football clubs act individually rather than as a league, he won't need to compete to broadcast the most popular team. He'll own them.

So what's the Government to do?

It might still be lucky. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission might decide that to monopolise access to viewing Manchester United, either at the ground or on TV, would indeed restrict competition. And the Restrictive Practices Court might decide that a league should be allowed to function as a league.

But what if the MMC and RPC put the ball back in the Government's court? The Government must surely do what it was elected to do. The immediate policies are clear, obvious and simple - prohibit the take-over of football clubs by media companies, and maintain redistribution from the rich clubs to the poor. This already occurs through the league system, and the recent Task Force Report proposes a welcome extension.

But the 3rd Way must surely go further. One of the Government's key aims is social inclusion. Another is devolving power.

These aims could be achieved with football clubs by giving fans a stake, both through a block of shares held in trust, and with an elected member of the board representing that ownership stake.

This model is already working well at Northampton Town FC, as described by the fan-Director at a February 3rd conference on The Corporate Governance of Professional Football. The conference also heard papers from David Conn, the author of the definitive book on the business of football, Football Task Force member Adam Brown, and five supporters of Barcelona FC reporting on the co-operative ownership structure of their club, which is in effect a mutual.*

There is a 3rd Way. Neither a capitulation to excessive commercialism, nor a return to the past. The Government should take it.

* Papers available free of charge from Professor Michie, Birkbeck College, London WC1E 7HX or [email protected]


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