Offside, 1 June
'Tony Blair has used football to dress in the replica shirt of ordinary blokishness - but his government's handling of major sporting issues has been indecisive and inept.'
‘Labour’s coming home’ declared Tony Blair, adapting the Euro 96 football anthem, in his speech to the 1996 Labour Party conference. Four-and-a-half years later New Labour is still very much at home – but its public love affair with football appears to be on the rocks.
New Labour figures have always been keen to demonstrate publicly their passion for the People’s Game. Tony Blair professes to support Newcastle United while Alistair Campbell has said: ‘Watching Burnley is the only place I’ll ever turn my pager off.’
Football has been more than just a good photo opportunity for New Labour. Euro 96 was one of those rare ‘watercooler’ moments in British public life, when a nation cheered together (and then groaned as the Germans won on penalties). Acutely aware of public disenchantment with politics, Labour adopted the idiom of football as a means of connecting with the electorate.
The pictures of Tony Blair playing keepy-up with Kevin Keegan in 1996 said ‘I’m just an ordinary bloke’ far more eloquently than William Hague’s implausible claim that he used to sink 14 pints a day. As it happens, Blair’s childhood memory of sitting in the Gallowgate end at Newcastle is equally contrived – the Gallowgate end had no seats in those days!
While it has been simple for Blair to dress up in the replica shirt of ordinary blokishness, his government’s handling of major sporting issues has been indecisive and inept:
— Labour’s 1997 manifesto pledged to ‘provide full backing to the bid to host the 2006 football World Cup in England’. In truth, the England bid never stood a chance. The 2006 bid ended in ignominious failure, exposing Labour’s ignorance of international football’s realpolitik.
— Sports minister Kate Hoey has expressed support for safe standing areas at football grounds, but culture secretary Chris Smith overruled her, insisting that terracing is unsafe (1).
— Labour’s manifesto promise to ‘work to bring…major international sporting events to Britain’ now rings hollow in the wake of the Wembley fiasco (2). Although the government tried to shift the blame on to the Football Association, a senior cabinet minister is reported to have said ‘It’s pretty humiliating for the image of this country that Britain keeps screwing up these big projects’ (3).
By contrast, Labour has been far more decisive in legislating against the virtually non-existent problem of football hooliganism – proving that it is far easier to tilt at windmills than build a national stadium. After the violence at Euro 2000, Labour declared war on ‘yob culture’. The Football (Disorder) Act 2000, which was rushed through parliament in a matter of weeks, means that unconvicted fans, who are merely suspected of hooliganism, can be banned from matches and have their passports confiscated.
Jack Straw has said that the trouble in Belgium was caused ‘by the xenophobic, racist and offensive behaviour of a significant number of drunken white males’. The notion that young white English men have a predisposition to violence is simply the prejudice du jour – New Labour’s version of the black mugger panic of the 1970s.
And herein lies the contradiction in Labour’s appropriation of football. Despite its declaration of love for the People’s Game, Labour’s public order policy shows that it holds the people who follow football in contempt.
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