For anyone who hadn't noticed, the FA Premier League football season kicked off this month, bringing another year of both joy and tension to millions of homes and significant stress to associated bank balances.
The Barclays Premier League is now the wealthiest football league in the world. The combined revenues of Premiership clubs stood at approximately £1.9bn last season and they spent £600m on players' wages alone. Owing to season ticket price hikes averaging 7.8% and lucrative new broadcasting rights, their incomes are set to rise even further this season.
Yet despite the astronomical salaries of top players, poverty pay remains endemic throughout the league for those staffing the turnstiles, serving the tea, sweeping the terraces and or servicing the luxury hotels of some clubs. Every single Premiership club – despite the fortunes paid at the top end – allows many of their staff to live in working poverty.
Meanwhile, an unlikely convert in the form of new London Mayor Boris Johnson recently pledged to continue the ''London Living Wage' policy introduced Ken Livingstone and announced a new figure of £7.45 per hour. As he said: 'In London, largely because of housing costs, you need an hourly rate of nearly 18% above the minimum wage to take you above the poverty level.' By extension, all five London premiership clubs are employing staff on poverty pay.
The scandal of super rich clubs paying super low pay was exposed by the Fair Pay Network and IPPR this month. They surveyed premiership clubs to discover what knowledge they have of their own pay structures, as well as their contractors. They discovered many workers on the minimum wage, even in London. Worse than that were examples of part-time working based solely on commission or just the possibility of a match ticket. They even came across a UK-based supplier for three premiership clubs that pays an aggregated rate of £2 per hour for the production of official club merchandise.
With the increasing growth of low paying sector jobs such as hospitality and retail in the premiership, there is a real danger that low pay could spread through the elite clubs just as fast as star players' wages shoot up at the other end of the scale.
I can just about remember the days when fellow fans survived on molten Bovril and meat pies but these days our clubs are keen to entice us to the superstore for this season's new away strip or even a stay at the swanky stadium hotel for the most dedicated – and wealthy – supporters.
Our national sport should set a national standard for fairness and lead by example. But this is not a case of social justice over-riding economic efficiency. Many of the companies that were forced to implement fair pay by grassroots campaigns have since become just as surprising converts to the cause as London's Tory Mayor.
Though initially they were pushed in to action by grassroots campaigns, they have since discovered that better wages and conditions have dramatically reduced the costs of staff turnover and absenteeism and productivity has improved. The premier league's own sponsor Barclays, along with such unlikely socialist icons as Price Waterhouse Coopers, KPMG, HSBC, Deutsche Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland, are now enthusiasts for living wage policies, often going above and beyond the initial demands of campaigners.
This not only illustrates some of the flaws in the neo-liberal paradigm but also demonstrates that fair pay policies are well within the mainstream of social democratic politics. If New Labour was about creating social justice without undermining economic success, then here is a perfect model, one that deserves more enthusiastic support from across the government. With or without such direction at a national level, however, these campaigns also represent the type of social action with which Labour's grassroots base should engage locally. A wider movement will not only sustain the durability of a progressive government but also go beyond it, as we have witnessed in London.
Modern football illustrates the social and economic trends with which the left is grappling and the cases above will resonate with hard working people across the low paying sectors throughout Britain, far too many of whom receive poverty pay as a norm. But it can also serve as an example of how to respond. Initiatives like this have reignited grass roots social justice campaigns and that's the kind of action that the Labour Party should be involved in, both through government support and at grassroots level, if we are going to revive our own activist tradition.
More details of the campaign at www.fairpaynetwork.org