Ken Early: Liverpool are a long way from socialism these days
Shankly’s club along with the rest of the Premier League are the ultimate neoliberalists
Liverpool fans hold up a banner with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn before the game against Southampton. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
Tradition has it that Liverpool FC stands for socialism, even while many of the legends who bestrode the Anfield turf quietly voted Tory because they liked the idea of lower taxes. The association goes back to Bill Shankly, whose line that “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, it’s the way I see life,” became a slogan that sold a million T-shirts.
Shankly’s socialism was practical rather than theoretical: he is remembered for declaring to a crowd that, “Even Chairman Mao has never seen a greater show of Red strength,” but moments earlier he’d had to ask Brian Hall for the name of the Chinese leader.
So the Liverpool fans who produced a pro-Jeremy Corbyn banner at the match against Southampton yesterday were honouring a cherished part of the identity of the club. But the striking thing about the banner was how quaintly out-of-place it seemed at the club Liverpool has become, and indeed in the wider context of the Premier League.
Liverpool has changed even more than most clubs, the club of Shankly is now under its second set of American owners. The first set were leveraged buyout specialists, one of whom memorably compared Liverpool FC to another company that was once part of his portfolio, Weetabix.
That is to say, he recognised that Liverpool FC was (a) famous (b) cheap and (c) had a lot of obvious room for improvement. “If we could acquire this for the debt, I really feel like we would be stealing this franchise,” Henry wrote in an email to his co-investors.
No UK investor both understood the economic potential of the club and had the finance to invest. Henry and his group have seen Liverpool’s valuation increase by nearly a billion dollars since they bought it for $500 million in 2010.
There were three main factors behind that spectacular capital gain. Most important was the increase in the Premier League’s income from new TV deals. Second was the building of a new main stand at Anfield, which was chiefly aimed at increasing the number of corporate seats. Third was the thorough rationalisation of how Liverpool were managed, through the introduction of statistical and mathematical methods into scouting and recruitment.
It’s not fashionable to speak about “Moneyball” any more, and the word would probably have struck Shankly as an oxymoronic and faintly obscene piece of Newspeak, but it remains the most concise description of the ethos of the current Liverpool FC.
And most of the other Premier League clubs are run along similar lines. Some of the critics of the Corbyn banner argued that politics and football should not mix, but those critics are failing to grasp that the Premier League promotes a certain set of political values simply by its existence and example.
From its inception, when the richest clubs decided to break the link with the rest of the football pyramid so that they could take a greater share of the forthcoming boom in TV money for themselves, the Premier League has embodied the values of neoliberalism.
It has become Britain’s most successful cultural export, and probably its most globalised industry. Owned by foreign capital, dominated by talented foreign coaches and players, and compliant with up-to-date standards of political correctness, it stands for internationalisation, deregulation, conspicuous consumption, and free trade.
For years people have worried that the influx of vast sums of money into the game would break the emotional connection between the fans in the stands and the players on the field. With the average Premier League footballer now earning more than 100 times the average industrial wage, the days of players spending midweek evenings drinking with fans in working mens’ clubs have long gone.
It turns out that people still can empathise with what happens on the field, because that emotional connection never had anything to do with money in the first place. But you wonder how long the Premier League can continue to stand for values that the fans who fill its stadiums increasingly seem to be rejecting.
Whether the Corbynistas at Anfield or the Tories who seem to be in the majority elsewhere, it seems that the great majority these days would have some reason to hate the model of the Premier League – a Murdoch-sponsored greed-fest where immigrants have already taken two-thirds of the jobs.
Perhaps the league can take comfort in the fact that people seem to be rather good at disconnecting their thinking about football from their thinking about politics. No other set of immigrants is as warmly received in England as talented football players. There are millions of football fans who cheer every week for foreign footballers, then vote for whichever party promises the harshest measures against immigration.
This might be why the Premier League still seems confident that they can win an exemption from the coming restrictions on employing immigrant labour. Many of the same people who scowl at the thought of Polish plumbers taking English jobs would nevertheless be delighted for Chelsea to sign Robert Lewandowski. In football at least, most people can still see that England for the English is a step in the wrong direction.