Fans are top of the league at AFC Wimbledon

Plough Lane is a dense, ugly and lifeless property development in South London. The sign on one of the walls as you enter blandly reads ‘no ball games’,...

What has happened since is akin to a test tube experiment on a business, if you could separate out the external investors from the life and energy of the members involved in a club. 

The investor owners wanted their financial return and, as property prices rose, that meant looking for speculative gains by selling the ground. The fans wanted their club and their game and took the ball away in 2002, by forming a new co-operative, AFC Wimbledon — one of the pioneers of today’s supporter trust co-ops.

AFC Wimbledon is wholly owned by its supporters via the one-fan, one-vote Dons Trust. At the time of writing, the club stands second in the Blue Square Premier League and is set to take part in the play-offs. If promoted, it would return to what supporters regard as its rightful place in the Football League.

AFC Wimbledon is now a pioneer for a second time around, exploring new models of democratic involvement. This time, it is the wider co-operative sector, not the football magnates, that should take note. 

In the early days, member involvement is driven by the adrenalin of hope and fear. When a co-op settles down, and particularly when it grows, it has to answer the question of how a member-owned organisation engages those members in deciding priorities and taking decisions. The representative democracy model of co-operatives can deliver a decisive Board, but without doing more, it can’t of itself ensure that Board decisions feel like they are shaped by members.

AFC Wimbledon have turned to two traditional models of direct democracy, updated and combined in a single, new, structured method. The models are consensus and deliberation; the method is called Crowd Wise. 

Consensus voting — or preference voting — has been around for over 200 years. It is topical now, not least because it is, in the form of AV, the same form of voting that has just been the subject of a UK referendum. It is new in that Crowd Wise integrates consensus voting within a structured process that includes opportunities for open conversation (‘deliberation’ in the jargon of participatory techniques) in choosing the options that are voted on. 

Crowd Wise typically follows three stages. First, a range of options is identified. Second, a mixture of discussion and consensus voting is used to identify how much consensus there is among the participants and where that consensus lies. Third, the result is usually a final consensus option.

The Dons Trust Board decided to use Crowd Wise to engage with its fans, especially those who belong to the Dons Trust, to set the strategy for the club. 

Key issues included:

• How ambitious should they be? Would fans give up their ownership of the club if a ‘sugar daddy’ promised to take them back towards the Premiership?

• The club currently has a ground in Kingston. How important is it to return to Wimbledon, or at least to Merton, the London Borough of which Wimbledon is a part?

• How much energy should the club put into its local community — whether that be Kingston, Wimbledon or elsewhere?

Over the second half of 2010, these options were developed by a ‘Survey Working Group’, open to all Dons Trust members. This settled down with about a dozen regular members. The group brainstormed ideas, then sorted them into five themes: Ambition; Funding; Ownership; Location/Transport; and Support/Community.

The group then identified six stories that covered the main possibilities facing the club:

• A ‘sugar daddy’ paying for promotion and a stadium in exchange for ownership of both

• Remaining resolutely where we are, small and fan-owned in Kingston

• Partnership/funding deal with/within Merton 

• Staying small and fan-owned and thus an affordable small stadium in Wimbledon

• Go aggressively, Premiership-or-Bust to be South West London’s ‘local’ club

• A partnership/funding deal with Kingston.

Each of these options — which the group renamed scenarios — was then worked up so that it covered all of the themes although, of course, each option emphasised some themes over others.

Regular items in the programme for home matches kept the supporters at large in the picture. 

The scenarios were road-tested on supporters at a couple of home games. They passed the test: no additional scenarios were identified, and no significant changes were needed to the existing ones. The scenarios and a ballot paper were then handed out at further home games. Ballot papers could be filled in by hand or online and the voting period ran until February 5th. There were 730 valid and completed ballots.

The main conclusions were that here was a strong desire to retain ownership by the fans — this applied to the ground as well as the club — and that there was a desire to get back to Merton, with Kingston in particular and south west London in general as acceptable, but second best.

Wimbledon fans are cautiously ambitious. They do not want ambition to jeopardise fan-ownership, and balance it against the wish to return to Wimbledon or Merton.

This process took five months, but renewed the heart of the club with the result it delivered — member involvement. 

But Crowd Wise has been used in other contexts that have taken as short a time as two hours — with a little preparation! One example is with Transition Towns. 

The Transition Town movement aims to improve the resilience of local communities, in particular to deal with the threats of climate change and the end of cheap energy.

“Many Transition Towns,” says Co-operatives UK’s Mark Simmonds, “are developing co-ops to make this happen.”

Set up in 2007, Transition Town Lewes (TTL) is one of the most active Transition Towns, reflecting Lewes’ long radical history. It has undertaken 27 practical projects, ranging from the Lewes pound to a master composter scheme, and to Food Up Front Lewes, which helps people start to grow their own food. 

But owing to the loose network structure of the organisation, there was no overall decision-making body. The result was a lack of a procedure for making decisions which put a great burden on those at the centre. They found themselves the most involved in trying to resolve problems, to the point of burn-out. Some decisions that needed to be made didn’t get made, or only were only made late in the day.

The need for a defined decision-making body had been agreed in 2009, but by autumn 2010 had not been acted upon. Crowd Wise was used to choose one. On October 28th, 2010, 23 people turned up to a two-hour meeting. They worked through five pre-prepared options, and ended up combining two of these to emerge with a clear, new and democratic consensus option for the future.

The greatest asset of the Co-operative Movement is its democratic model, which gives it life and legitimacy. But whereas the quality of Board governance and handling the tension between elected members and paid officers has been given considerable attention over the years, there has been less focus on radical, new models of participative member engagement. 

As a follower of AFC Wimbledon might say, co-operation is a game of two halves. You need members to hold formal ownership, but to sustain your energy and creativity, you also need members to have a clear sense of ownership.

• Perry Walker is a Fellow of New Economics Foundation. He can answer questions about Crowd Wise and supply a spreadsheet for analysing votes by email. Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK — his first visit to the terraces as a child was to Plough Lane.

 

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