Football and politics: two worlds united

Ben Mountain

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced his plans to change the way we enjoy football in a bid to earn the support of the sports fans. It’s simply the most recent example of football and politics living side-by-side.

Whatever your own views of Corbyn are, the steps would likely help us football fans out massively. Labour have promised to introduce a ‘flexible football ticket’, whereby train costs can be refunded should the match be rescheduled.

In addition, they’ve pledged to enforce that 5% of the Premier League’s TV deal must be invested into grassroots football. That will ensure a fresh crop of young English talent are financially supported as they break into the world of football.

Lovely stuff.

But this is nothing new. Football and politics live hand-in-hand more than we may realise.

Aside from being a ploy to engage the ‘working man’, football has a massive appeal across the country and its events can – no exaggeration – define political history.

The former Prime Minister and Labour leader, Harold Wilson, for example, has quite astonishing views on the effect of football upon politics. In fact, he felt that it lost him the 1970 general election with just four days to go.

As England famously shaped up under Sir Alf Ramsey to face West Germany and defend their 1966 heroics, Wilson’s Labour party shaped up to storm their way to retaining political power. All but one opinion poll had them in the lead. They were miles ahead pre-match.

However, on that fated day England lost 3-2 and the four-year high from ’66 had succumbed.

The feelgood factor had died out and England came crashing back to reality.

Wilson saw it this way…

“People get fed up with their government, like supporters get fed up with a team. And that’s what happened. When I heard we [England] lost 3-2, I thought there’d be an effect.”

“I did hear a lot of voters saying ‘Oh, I can’t stand anything after this.’ It had some effect on the election. Not decisive, of course.”

In fact, Wilson had previously feared that “if we were defeated just before polling day the Government would suffer”.

The Government did suffer and Labour lost in 1970.

Wilson had seen the result in that football game as crucial in determining the mood of the nation and subsequently what way the vote was swung.

Ultimately, with England having lost, the Conservative leader, Ted Heath, won the election. He was later defeated by our aforementioned Harold Wilson, who returned to power in 1974 despite England’s failure to even qualify for the World Cup.

Now, and don’t take this as gospel, but Wilson and Heath had one clear difference. Asides from the latter’s love of yachts and country houses, the two politicians employed very different uses of football.

Whilst Wilson seemed to be a genuine fan, one from his youth that is, Heath opted for the modern approach of picking any old team and purporting to support them.

Heath went for the old David Cameron-esque approach of faintly promoting a love of (in Heath’s case Burnley) any old football club and thus becoming a ‘man of the people’. As seen, this approach doesn’t work.

Whilst Heath never quite forgot who he actually supported, he didn’t show anywhere near the passion for the game that Wilson did.

Perhaps this explains Heath’s ultimate failure and fall from power. Had, as Wilson no doubt felt, harnessed the power of football in a more convincing way, he could have retained power.

Or perhaps if he hadn’t aggravated the Northern Ireland situation, allowed the end of free school milk and provoked the trade unions then he would have been okay.

But let’s stick with Wilson’s line; the power of football in politics is vastly overlooked. According to Wilson, had England won that World Cup game, Heath would never had assumed power anyway.

Hell, it was under Heath that Margaret Thatcher rose to prominence. And we all know how far she helped the ‘working man’.

We can blame Sir Alf for that one, then.

Anyway, even after Wilson and Heath in the 1970s, football has been instrumental in the actions of politicians.

Football is the perfect microcosm of (previously) working-class life. It is a vast and influential crowd, diverse and aspiring. Among football fans, opinion is easily spread and it is a hot-bed for movements and ideas.

And that explains the heavy-handed involvement of Britain’s politicians in football both past and present. We’ve seen it beyond the terribly plastic front of the supposed adoration MPs have for picked-from-the-hat teams.

Take Thatcher’s proposed ID Scheme, her ‘Goalies for Hoolies’ campaign or the ‘War Cabinet’ designed to combat football hooliganism. Perversely, she failed to actually tackle the issue. It didn’t start to decline until the very end of her tenure, when UEFA took control.

More recently however we’ve seen Cameron and Miliband battle it out on the political scene and using football to their advantage.

Miliband pledged to increase fan ownership over their clubs and Cameron promised a 25% rise in women on governing bodies.

Sadly, neither of these pledges were followed through. The former because Mr Miliband had the social capacity of an angler-fish and the latter because Mr Cameron soiled the country and his political career and then failed to see the whole mess through. We feel that Mrs May has more on her mind now than football’s governing bodies.

As seen by her recent hibernation.

Now, Corbyn has put football back on the agenda. But it’s not as revolutionary and innovative as you might think.

Believe it or not, football and politics have existed hand-in-hand for years.

And with England facing Scotland on June 10th, who knows, might we see a reversal of Wilson’s theory based on the election results? Will the next Government affect our player’s attitude.

If they do, we’re currently set for one massive great drubbing.

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