Why are modern British politicians now less eager to associate themselves with football?

Words By John Brewin Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 9, 2018
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The television footage still resonates. Kevin Keegan, then manager of free-scoring, flashing blade Newcastle United, is playing a game of head tennis with Tony Blair, leader of the opposition, at the 1995 Labour Party conference.

As the ball bounces intermittently between Keegan’s still impressively bouffanted mane and the thinning widow’s peak on Blair’s forehead, it marks a moment when football and politics are acting in a new symbiosis. New Labour’s spin doctors had realised the people’s game, rebooted by Italia ’90 and the formation of the Premier League, was respectable enough to serve as a vehicle for populism.

There had been a sea-change from “the dark days of the 1980s”, a phrase that is time-served as the cliche to describe the era of hooliganism, Heysel and Hillsborough. Back then, just about the only senior politician to be found at FA Cup finals was deputy Labour leader Roy Hattersley.

Margaret Thatcher included football fans among the “enemy within” she believed were undermining her vision of a free-market Britain and the most visible Conservative involved with football was David Evans, chairman of Luton Town, who banned away fans from visiting Kenilworth Road. Evans was the leading advocate of the hated, eventually aborted plan for supporters to require ID cards to attend matches.

By 1996, Tony Blair was sweeping towards victory in May 1997 with the slogan “Labour’s Coming Home”, and every politician worth their salt, no matter how unlikely, became football fans. Peter Mandelson, who infamously once mistook mushy peas for guacamole, became honorary president of Hartlepool United, just about as working class a club as it is possible to be.

Chancellor Gordon Brown, a Raith Rovers fan since childhood, became a regular follower of the England team in the company of chief advisor Ed Balls, and then made the PR error of admitting that one of his favourite goals had been Paul Gascoigne’s volley at Euro 96 against his own Scotland.

And by 2005, Michael Howard, a loyal Thatcherite who was standing as the doomed Tory leader in that year’s general election, was proclaiming a lifelong love of Liverpool Football Club. Even successor David Cameron was an Aston Villa fan, though typically of his blue-blooded breeding, that was due to his uncle, Sir William Dugdale, being chairman of the club when it won the European Cup in 1982.

Football, then, offered a key to the proletariat, common ground on which politicians could meet the electorate, but the years since have loosened its attractiveness as a populist tool. Is football less popular? Not particularly, despite sliding TV figures that are likely a result of the internet’s rise, both through illegal streaming of matches or via social media’s iron grip on attention spans. Stadium attendances continue to be healthy. There are few signs of a 1980s-style slump. Domestic TV deals may not have increased this time around but still coffers overflow.

By 1996, Tony Blair was sweeping towards victory in May 1997 with the slogan “Labour’s Coming Home”, and every politician worth their salt, no matter how unlikely, became football fans.

And yet it would be a brave politician who channelled football beyond local constituency loyalties. Football represents something different to the all-inclusive opium of the masses it appeared during Blair’s rise. Ticket prices have reached eye-watering prices, while TV access is hardly a cheap alternative.

The Premier League in particular, though high finances’s tentacles reach down into the Football League, is rapt by corporatism and globalisation. Foreign owners dominate. Profit is usually the aim, as for Manchester United’s trailer park magnates the Glazer family. Meanwhile, the Abu Dhabi royal family treat Manchester City as a vehicle of vanity for a tiny, yet phenomenally wealthy Arab state. In Nottingham Forest’s case, a Greek shipping tycoon facing accusations of smuggling heroin is the owner of Brian Clough’s club.

Football club owners were not always the most respectable citizens around, but there was rarely need for a “fit and proper persons” test among the various butchers, car dealers and toffs who prowled the boardrooms of the 20th century.

These days, Premier League football can buy legitimacy, one of Roman Abramovich’s aims in setting the trend for opulent foreign ownership when buying Chelsea in 2003, but the game itself, unashamedly awash with cash in a country still troubled by the 2008 economic crash, and seething with third-parties and carpet-baggers, has surrendered the high ground. Only in the lower reaches are clubs still true pillars of a local community. Meanwhile, the England team’s repeated failures offer little chance to piggyback on patriotism.

What of today’s foremost UK politicians? Not even Nigel Farage attempts much football banter. Beyond being the home secretary who ordered the Hillsborough inquiry, Theresa May has shown little interest in football and prefers cricket, while Liberal Democratic leader Vince Cable’s support for York City is barely recognised. Which leaves Jeremy Corbyn, ever the outlier, the out and proud Arsenal fan.

Back when he was an obscure backbencher, Corbyn supported early-day motions that proclaimed the achievements of the Gunners, housed in his Islington North constituency. Now he leads the Labour movement’s unexpected revival in frontline politics, he might need to be more careful about associations with the club, even if Arsene Wenger has occasionally mentioned a “socialism” within his own football approach.

American billionaire Stan Kroenke, the club’s majority owner, stands for profit, profit, profit, and happens to be married to an heiress to the Walmart conglomerate. Corbyn, for whom attacks on “zero hours” contracts have been a mantra throughout his campaigning, has not yet needed to rail against Asda, owned by Walmart, who use “flexible” contracts paying above minimum wage. He has, though, attacked Kroenke for owning a bloodsports television channel that was eventually taken off air.

Beyond contributing to that curious, rather laddish label of being the “absolute boy” more excitable Corbynite supporters attach to him, football is a political hot potato. The Premier League has become archetypal of the globalisation and neoliberalism that Corbyn and his ilk want to neuter. And all along the political spectrum, football’s slackening connection with the common man loosens its former effectiveness as a bridge to voters.

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