Party poopers

While most of the country was focused on the climax to the football season, some, as always, were seeking to exploit the game for political gain, writes Barney Ronay

Last month a survey named Wayne Rooney as the number-one choice among children under 13 for prime minister – narrowly edging out Harry Potter and Charlie from the defunct boy band Busted. News of Rooney’s popularity will surely have made waves among the image handlers and style technicians in Whitehall. At some point in the run-up to the general election a process of Wayne-ing up of the Prime Minister will have been tentatively focus-grouped; the potential pull of the retrosexual number-three crop debated; and yak fur Wellington boots with matching, custard-coloured gilet ordered in Cherie’s size.

Football has never really had much to do with party politics. Despite this, over the past six weeks the game has yet again been fished out from the back of the campaign cupboard – along with kissing babies and promising to do terrible things to Gypsies – and shoehorned awkwardly into the pre-polling day bunfight.

It’s still only relatively recently that football was an electoral pariah, the campaign equivalent of telling constituents you spend your Friday nights binge drinking and stealing traffic cones. These days, however, a display of awkwardly staged soccer-fandom has become required shorthand for candidates interested in projecting an ersatz common touch. According to a Guardian questionnaire, a fifth of Labour MPs claim to pass the time when they’re not waving and smiling either watching or playing football.

This kind of fair-weather support usually ends up being a deeply embarrassing experience for everyone concerned. In April, local MP Robin Cook made a rare appearance in the main stand at Livingston for the league game against Celtic. Conspicuous in a tightly fastened raincoat and knotted club scarf, Cook was subjected to a full 90 minutes of valuable constituency feedback from the home fans in the stand above him as Livingston lost 4-0, the repeatable parts including chants of “Where were you every other game?” and suggestions that the former foreign secretary might be better placed becoming the club mascot.

Even more cack-handed and, predictably, more sinister, Michael Howard’s association with Liverpool has led not to a tide of Scouse support, but to questions about the non-declaration of members’ interests. The Tory leader began by making much of his support for the red side of the (strategically crucial) city. Unfortunately, during an interview in Time Out he also admitted to receiving free tickets to sit in the directors’ box at Anfield, a freebie that his entry in the Register of Members’ Interests makes no mention of. A spokesman for the party called the slip “an oversight”, which is probably a fair description of most trips to watch Liverpool play at home this season. On the other side of the floor, Sir Alex Ferguson made a podium-stepping appearance at a Labour rally.

Ferguson’s public anti-Thatcherite stance and his endorsement of the Blair leadership are well known. This time around he even posted a message on the government’s election website praising “two brilliant barnstorming speeches from Tony and Gordon” – but making no mention, sadly, of his own brief appearance on Newsnight, which saw the United boss turn a deep shade of puce on being asked whether he and Blair were united by the experience of being unpopular leaders whose best days are behind them.

This kind of thing is, of course, relatively new. As recently as 1987 football had never been considered an election issue. Headlines had been predictably grabbed by Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to introduce ID cards for supporters five years previously, part of a fist of pointlessly draconian potshots at the game during her time as PM. By 1992, however, the Taylor Report had become a minor campaign issue for the three main parties. John Major could be seen sitting in the nice seats at Stamford Bridge. And within three years the leader of the opposition, Tony Blair, and the leader of the Toon Army, Kevin Keegan, would exchange 27 consecutive headers for the benefit of TV cameras on Brighton beach. (Keegan was of course well ahead of his time in seeking out this kind of photo-opportunities. His simpering pincer movement on Margaret Thatcher in 1980, along with a star-struck Emlyn Hughes, is perhaps the most famous – and reviled – image of football and politics intermingled.)

By 1997, New Labour’s sweeping victory at the polls had a bizarrely football-leavened flavour. Blair had been pictured in the stands at Euro 96. He cultivated a mannered ordinariness, of which football became just attention after the travails of previous decades, but it was to be a brief affair. By the 2001 election WSC 173 was already noting that any kind of football-related policy-making was already “much lower on the agenda of every party, where it appears at all”.

Some developments, such as the Department of Trade and Industry’s response to BSkyB’s attempted takeover of Manchester United and the initiative behind Supporters Direct, had drawn the government closer into the politics of the game. Elsewhere, and pretty much ever since, the Premiership and the financial helter skelter of the leagues below it have been left to progress along their lawless Thatcherite path of fiscal boom or bust.

When it comes to the popularity competition that precedes the democratic process, when anything goes and no shot is ever too cheap, football is clearly still fair game. In April, Chancellor Gordon Brown, well known Raith Rovers fan, visited Charlton’s community programme in south-east London, in the process making sure he was pictured holding up a replica shirt with “BROWN” on the back – one of the less cynical moves, perhaps, given the scale and innovative nature of Charlton’s local network. But didn’t they have Health Secretary John Reid down there – in this coincidentally electorally crucial corner – only the month before?

Meanwhile, Sports Minister Richard Caborn has suddenly decided to get involved in the visa application of Tranmere Rovers player Calvin Zola, who looked set to be deported back to the Democratic Republic of Congo after failing to produce the right documents to extend his stay in the UK. Initially immigration officials refused to meet Zola. But following a supporters’ petition and with the impending election casting the two marginal Labour Wirral constituencies in even more desirable light, Caborn has decided that justice must prevail and assured the player of safe passage to pick up his papers.

Quite how this would go down with the group of Gillingham fans who arranged for the rightwing UK Independence Party to sponsor the club’s home game with Burnley last month is open to question. A full-page programme advert for the party was eventually withdrawn. The PFA issued a reminder that UKIP’s views on immigration were not compatible with football’s European market, but Gills chairman Paul Scally later admitted that FA regulations prohibiting the advertising of political parties had been the club’s deciding factor in refusing the endorsement.

Of course in football’s fairly recent past, the game became a clearing house for small but vocal sections of the far right, drawn in by the chance to spread a little discontent among what was a predominantly white and excitingly tribal audience. In fact, in the past 20 years football only ever seems to have attracted the most divisive kind of politics. Take a look at the Premiership to find out what ten years of hot-housed Thatcherite free-market economics looks like.

The past three general elections have been notable for the absence of any player from a top-level club making any kind of public political statement whatsoever, however feeble and however self-serving. Millionaire footballers, like most of the millions of people who want to become millionaire footballers, simply don’t seem to care about politics beyond the mechanics of personal gain. The nation’s under-13s will remain disappointed: Wayne Rooney will never become prime minister.

Meanwhile, Harry Potter is tied up in a movie franchise for the next 20 years. Charlie from Busted – straighten that punk-ish Armani shoestring tie. Your country needs you.

From WSC 220 June 2005. What was happening this month