Democracy – if there is a single thing that encapsulates what the supporters trust movement is about, it’s probably that. Trusts are open to all to join, and anyone can stand for the board of the trust. Those elections mean that there’s a ready way to bring new blood into the running of the trust, and deal with people who have taken decisions that the members disagree with.
That accountability is the bedrock of the trust message. Many a chairman or director will have claimed that there is no need to elect a man onto the board, as they are a fan, and are on the Board, but the key is that this particular fan is not accountable for their actions.
Across the board, accountability is a good thing. Schools have teachers, work has bosses, and most organisations have evolved mechanisms to deal with the (hopefully) rare times when people need bringing back into line, not least governments.
A central part of the trust message is that football has suffered from not having this. As we fans mostly continue to go and watch, there’s no serious and immediate pressure from declining revenue, and even if there was, the shareholders who would be concerned about this are usually the ones who have made the decisions. They are ultimately accountable only to their bank balance.
But what of Trusts? Are we truly democratic, with boards really held to account, rather than being simple accountable? For sure, we have in the form of the IPS a legally-guaranteed democratic framework, and the rules promoted by Supporters Direct stipulate that there are Annual Elections, but structures on their own are not enough. Do we have the right democratic culture?
Let’s take Trust representatives on the Board of a club. We say that these people are democratically accountable, but according to last year’s survey of members, of the 44 trusts responding that they had a rep on the board, only 12 elected that person.
Obviously, there is an element of this that is out of the hands of a trust. The existing board often have a fear of the electoral process, and at best, worry that the wrong element will upset the applecart, and at worst, believe that fans will elect someone who is patently unable to do the job. The latter hasn’t happened, and is unlikely to happen, and says more about the unfounded fears of many a club director.
But whilst the circumstances under which a Trust get the seat on the Board might be out of their hands, once a person has worked their way in, and has achieved a degree of respect, the trust should be pushing the make an honest representative of them by securing the mandate from their members. It’s important to state clearly here that election by people who are elected is not the same as an election. It’s obviously preferable to have someone elected by the Board of a Trust than hand-picked by the club, but it’s the less good option, not the best, and is a starting point, not the final system.
Trust members are far less likely to feel that they have a meaningful say in the direction of the club if all they are given is the option to vote for the members of a board who then elect of their number to become a club director in a system modelled on a Conclave to choose a Pope. It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in them as individuals who have the capacity to make a decent choice for who they think should be involved in their club, and is not the best selling point for joining the trust.
But maybe the gap between the possibility to be democratic and the reality goes even deeper, into the heart of Trust Boards. The biggest problem many trusts face is that is simply getting enough people to stand for elections. In that same survey last year, of those returning answers, only 20% had elections in the previous year. Most trusts get just enough people to stand so elections are a nice idea, rather than something that happens on a regular basis.
That has to be placed into context of wider factors in society that make our work even harder. People in the UK work the longest hours in Europe, so we have less free time. There are lots of rival activities chasing this shrinking time, such as charities, schools people send their children too, not to mention those children themselves. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the trouble with supporters trusts is not only that they take too many evenings up, but there’s some good stuff the telly too at the same time.
And what happens if we do get people to come along? They will find something that they probably will not understand, and many will not like. The IPS structure is a Victorian creation, where calling people to meetings was much more a part of a political culture that was full of activism. Coming to a meeting where people invoke standing orders, raise procedural motions just seems alien and strange. Hearing people who raise the same points at every meeting, issues dividing between people who base their opinion on the issue based on who’s proposing it, not the substance of the matter, so every debate becomes a proxy for another debate that refuses to die. And that’s if they work well.
Can anyone say they enjoy them? Can anyone really say that they think it was a good way to spend an evening? It’s important to be clear here that meetings, as the sovereign body that governs a trust are essential. At some point, people have to come to a meeting and say yes or no, and the trust members decide what they want to be done and not done. But before then?
We will never be in a position to roll back these changes in society, so we either have to shrug our shoulders and accept a seemingly inevitable decline, or try to find ways to work with the grain of 21st century life, not against it. That means getting past the idea that if people want to get involved with us, they have to give up an evening. That is not about abandoning meetings, but making them part of how people get involved, not the only way.
Trusts are not alone in needing to address these challenges. Political parties and campaign groups have a more pressing need to find solutions, and where others have come up with ideas that have started to work, then we will be looking to learn from them and get that information to trusts, but with the trusts we have, we have enough organisations who can start to find ways which work themselves, which we can all learn from. The key though, is recognising that there’s a problem to begin with.