At conference, on Tuesday morning, the party will be holding a debate called “Reclaiming the People’s Game”. That will build on current Liberal Democrat policy and our Manifesto commitment to allow Premier League football clubs to introduce Safe Standing.
First, I must begin by declaring an interest. I’ve been a season ticket holder at Manchester City for over 30 years, and have watched games at 45 different league grounds over the years.
I have seen the highs and (very many more) lows- relegation to the third tier and away trips to Oxford Utd’s old ground (probably the worst ground I have visited) and Grimsby Town and their inflatable haddocks. But more recently winning the title twice in the last three years.
I was a football fan before I was a politician and probably more of a fan than the average MP. I am also a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and the Party spokesperson on Sport. I am a Liberal Democrat because I believe in freedom of the individual and personal choice. We believe that football clubs should be allowed to introduce safe standing areas where there is a desire to do so. Safe standing is allowed in many other sports and in football in places like Germany, the USA and Australia. Why should the two top tiers of football over here be any different?
For years, very few of us would talk about safe standing. A generation of football fans were scarred by the tragedy at Hillsborough, when 96 innocent Liverpool fans died.
After the Hillsborough tragedy, the metal fences, erected in response to the hooliganism in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, came down, and all-seater stadia were introduced. But the recent report into Hillsborough did not blame the disaster on the fact that there were terraces, they rightly blamed poor decision-making by those in charge of the emergency services. But Hillsborough did not bring an end to standing at football. People continued to stand and despite efforts by some clubs to force people to sit down, those efforts have been a complete failure.
Safe Standing is not a return to the terraces of the 1980s. Nobody is proposing the reintroduction of vast terraces like the Kop, or the Kippax or the Stretford End. We want to see the introduction of modern safe standing areas using ‘rail seating’, which operate very successfully in top-tier football across Europe. Rail seating provides a rail on each level, so that people cannot be pushed forward into the person in front, but also has seats attached to the rail, so that safe standing areas can easily be converted into seating areas for European matches that require all seater stadia. This is significantly safer than the current situation where thousands of football fans stand up every week at every premier league ground in areas that are not designed to stand up.
Safe standing areas improve the atmosphere and contribute to a better match day experience. When asked in a recent poll by the Football Supporters’ Federation, over 70% of fans stated that they liked to stand because it created a better atmosphere, and 9 out of 10 supporters wanted to have the choice between sitting and standing.
When clubs & fans are in favour of safe standing and it can be done safely, then why should the Government get in the way? Particularly when safe standing will actually improve safety at football grounds. That is why Liberal Democrats want to change the law.
A standing season ticket at Bayern Munich starts £150. Recently, I went to see City play Borussia Dortmund at their stadium. For league games, Dortmund operate safe standing, with tickets from about 14 Euros (£12.50) and this gives them a capacity of 80,600 (15,000 more than for Champions League Games).
Safe standing offers supporters more choice, a better atmosphere and potentially cheaper tickets, particularly if introduced in conjunction with our conference policy motion that would compel clubs to provide a certain proportion of tickets at an affordable level. It is long overdue, and I am very proud that once again the Liberal Democrats are leading the way by being the first political party to commit to delivering this.