LBC Radio host James O’Brien has the daunting task of talking about politics for a living. Thousands of hours of calls have led O’Brien to his own political theory of sorts; the “footballification” of politics. The theory argues that “actions are judged not by an objective assessment of their content but by the perceived allegiances of protagonists.” In short, O’Brien is telling us that we are no longer judging politicians by their actions but by which political ‘team’ they play for. This “footballification” of politics then seems to be a fairly suitable description for politics today. Politicians are, now more than ever, celebrities whose political supporters (like fans of a football club) seem bound to them for life. James’ idea is definitely compelling and fits into a much broader public perception of politics becoming like football.
However, whilst O’Brien may have a strong point about how the polarised political world resembles a football game, I think in another, much more important way, the politics of business and free-markets in the United Kingdom has a painful lack of resemblance to football.
If we say that politics is like football, then it clearly follows that the general public are equivalent to the football fans. In football, the clubs and leagues only continue to exist because the fans pay for tickets, shirts and TV subscriptions. Much the same can be said about the companies which operate inside the competitive league of free market competition in this country; they exist upon the premise that they could be successful in fulfilling a want/need of their supporters, (the public) who would pay them in return. Therefore, we can say that the existence of both football clubs and free-market firms are fundamentally premised upon serving the needs of their supporters.
Now, the most die-hard of free-market supporters might contend that clubs and companies are not equivalent, as one does not owe a company loyalty like a football team and if a company isn’t providing a good enough service, then the consumer could simply change who they are buying from. However, the flaws in our markets mean we are effectively forced into loyalty. Trains are a useful example in illustrating this point, since, under the current franchise model, train routes are entirely monopolised with only one option for travel for most consumers. Many markets in this country suffer from the same monopolistic issues, with a study from the Social Market Foundation finding that 8 out of 10 key markets in the UK “including groceries, mobile phones, gas and current accounts” were being dominated by a handful of large corporations. This forces consumers into ‘loyalty’ since they have no alternative choice for their goods/services. Therefore, many companies in this country, just like teams, have a captive audience of financial supporters who have no alternative but to use their services often regardless of price.
These monopolistic companies are therefore hugely concerning, but there is hope and it comes from football.
When a group of England’s most rich and famous clubs attempted to break away from the UEFA Champions League, they moved to monopolise their entertainment market. The format would have removed the qualification process and guaranteed all the founding teams a place in the competition every year regardless of performance. This would have guaranteed huge revenue streams for the clubs every season. This process looks remarkably similar to the monopolisation already established in markets like trains, utilities or groceries, where companies have got so powerful they become irreplaceable, guaranteeing their income and continual survival.
Something different happened with football though. The fans rejected this anti-competitive approach and protested with total outrage that their clubs would be rewarded regardless of performance; ultimately competing with nothing to lose and, really, nothing to gain. The move undermined the integrity of free competition and the British fans rejected the move fully, with all the clubs eventually backing out and apologising. Football fans had the power (through passionate protest) to change the actions of their club, because ultimately they pay to keep the club alive.
We established earlier that customers keep companies alive in the same way, so why can’t they do the same to break up monopolies, underhand tactics and unfair pricing? We often say politics is a lot like football. In this manner I really wish it was and that protest would change it overnight. Unfortunately, three key differences are stopping this kind of change from taking place.
Firstly, football fans are passionate and they care about their team deeply. It is hard to invoke the same raw emotion from people when discussing your water supplier. Even if it makes economic sense to care; we don’t care enough because it is boring.
Second, these uncompetitive markets are the status quo, with monopolies having operated in the UK economy for hundreds of years, dating back to Elizabeth I. This means that the practice has been accepted as normal, even if it does substantive damage to the country. People simply aren’t recognising it as an issue.
Lastly, these monopolistic companies are making easy, almost guaranteed profits and are willing to do almost anything to protect them. They have done so by embedding themselves within the UK political system; lobbying and campaigning to retain and introduce favourable legislation, whilst donating heavily to the political campaigns of those who defend them.
Politics is a lot like football? I wish.