EU Referendum

EU referendum: Football fans and LGBT groups join campaign trail

Manchester City fans Image copyright Getty Images

Does being a football fan mean you should vote to stay in the EU in the forthcoming referendum? Does being gay or lesbian make you a natural Out voter? Paul Moss spoke to two activist campaign groups.

When it comes to the truly important things in life, Daniel Swain and his friends fundamentally disagree.

For a start, they support different football teams: it's Manchester United for Daniel, but Spurs, Liverpool and Peterborough that get the others' devotion. They argue about the course of this season's Premier League, about whether it is skill, luck or poor refereeing that have helped Leicester City get within sight of a remarkable title triumph.

In fact, the only thing these football fans have in common is that they desperately want Britain to remain in the European Union. And it is a view they express with only marginally less passion than their thoughts on football; indeed they make a direct connection between their pro-EU stance and their love for the beautiful game.

"Football is global, football teams play all over Europe," Daniel says. "The European Union is the embodiment of that internationalism. The European Union is countries working together, solving problems."

Image copyright Dan Julian/Daniel Swain
Image caption Dan Julian (left) and Daniel Swain say it's football that has made them such ardent europhiles

His friend Anna Sidebottom explains that it's football that makes her feel European. "It's not the Eurovision Song Contest. It's watching European football, watching high-class players from all over Europe - that's exciting."

Anna is worried that a vote to leave the EU in June's referendum will make it more difficult for those players to join British teams. "Free movement of workers touches us all. It allows how we transfer players."

With this in mind, Daniel and Anna have helped form the campaign group, Football Fans 4EU.

They claim to have supporters at clubs around the country, but particularly among the fans at Manchester City, Liverpool, Cambridge United and Cardiff. Now they plan to hand out pro-Remain leaflets at matches.

Image copyright Anna Sidebottom
Image caption Anna Sidebottom says it's football that makes her feel European

"We can win this referendum by appealing not just to intellectual Guardian readers, but also going out and speaking to football fans," says Dan Julian, another Football Fans 4EU founder.

This is perhaps a slur on Guardian readers, many of whom presumably enjoy watching football. Yet there is plenty of support for the underlying suggestion - that the referendum will offer an important role to small campaign groups, organised around interests that are not obviously EU-connected.

Find out more:

Members of the campaign groups Football Fans 4EU and Out and Proud spoke to The World Tonight on Radio 4. Click here to listen.

The UK has seen a marked decline in political party membership and diminishing trust also in politicians. This has created a space for political engagement, which campaigners outside the party system can fill.

"Non-party activists can encourage the otherwise reluctant to become part of the EU referendum campaign," says Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Manchester University and an expert on voter participation.

"People are looking for more information about issues surrounding the EU referendum. You may not trust politicians to give the straight answer you're looking for."

Image copyright Out And Proud

That is a possibility taken very seriously by another campaign group, Out and Proud, the name a pun on the fact that it represents gay and lesbian people who have "come out" but who also want "out" of the European Union. They now plan to hand out leaflets at the 15 different Gay Pride events that will be taking place around Britain before referendum day.

"The LGBT community is a little bit different, because we are used to walking down the street, handing out leaflets saying please support us," says Adam Lake, Out and Proud's director.

Fellow member Malcolm Tyndall explains that concern for LGBT rights has amplified his pro-Brexit stance. "The best way to protect those rights is to have people we directly elect, at a strong Parliament in Westminster. And that is best done out of the European Union."

Out and Proud reject the idea that the EU protects LGBT people through its Charter of Fundamental Rights. They say there has been a recent erosion of lesbian and gay people's freedom in Poland and Hungary, but that the EU has failed to tackle this.

Image caption Out and Proud's Malcolm Tyndall (left), Adam Lake (centre) and Tom Lees (right) believe leaving the EU is the best way to protect LGBT rights

And Tom Lees, another Out and Proud member, fears such omissions could become worse. "You've got countries like Turkey and the Ukraine trying to join the club. Their records on LGBT issues are actually quite worrying and there's going to be an increasing presence of those countries and their votes."

The pro-EU campaign group Stronger in Europe insists that the European Union is a "beacon" of LGBT rights.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the Out campaign group Vote Leave has suggested that British football is harmed by EU membership, because it weakens the development of home-grown football talent.

Of course, the issue of Britain's European Union membership has always managed to rend asunder erstwhile political allies. So perhaps no-one would expect it to unite either gay and lesbian people, or football fans.

But groups like Football Fans 4EU and Out and Proud do have long-standing communication networks: specialist magazines, websites and Facebook pages. And even if their influence is marginal, polls suggest that the referendum will be a close-run affair, so the smallest of margins might decide the final result.

Follow Paul Moss on Twitter @BBCPaulMoss

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