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Laurie Penny: Why I despise the World Cup

Who cares about a bunch of misogynist jocks tossing a ball around? Football is commodified nationalism that excludes more than half the population.

Much as I hate to disagree with Gary Younge, I can't get on board with his utopian vision of the upcoming World Cup evoking a "collective sense of latent English identity . . . infused with positive energy".

I despise the World Cup. I will not be supporting England, nor any other team.

I refuse to get excited about some wealthy, misogynist jocks tossing a ball around in the name of patriotism and product endorsement. Mistrust of team sports as a fulcrum of social organisation comes naturally to me. I'm a proud, card-carrying member of the sensitive, wheezy, malcoordinated phalanx of the population for whom the word "football" still evokes painful memories of organised sadism and unspecified locker-room peril.

I'm a humourless, paranoid, liberal, feminist pansy who would prefer to spend the summer sitting in a dark room, contemplating the future of the British left and smoking myself into an early grave.

The fact remains, however, that there are more pressing things to worry about over the soccer season than the state of Frank Lampard's admittedly shapely calves. This country is in crisis. Young people are in crisis, poor people are in crisis, unemployment stands at 2.5 million, the labour movement is still leaderless and directionless, and there's a brutal train of Tory public-service cuts coming over the hill.

In short, the left has more important things to do than draw up worthy charts determining which Fifa team is worth supporting on the basis of global development indicators.The British left has an uneasy relationship with international sport.

Liberal alarm bells can't help but start ringing when a bunch of overpaid PE teachers get together to orchestrate a month of corporate-sponsored quasi-xenophobia; however, as soon as World Cup fever rolls around, members of the otherwise uninterested bourgeois left feel obliged to muster at least a sniffle of enthusiasm, sensing that not to do so is somehow elitist.

This is a misplaced notion: football is no longer the people's sport. Just look at the brutal contempt that the police reserve for fans, or count the number of working-class Britons who can afford to attend home matches, much less the festivities in South Africa. Then there's the uncomfortable fact that the World Cup is only and always about men.

Younge is right to celebrate that race is no longer an impediment to his young niece's and nephew's vision of football as a world "in which they have a reasonable chance of succeeding" -- but unfortunately, his niece can forget about it. Even if she were to make it to the big leagues, she would be forbidden to play in the World Cup: the women's league, held separately next year, garners barely a fraction of the media coverage devoted to proper football, where the only significant female figures are footballers' wives.

In South Africa itself, female players are lucky if they are merely dismissed -- barely two years ago, Eudy Simelane, star of the South African women's team, was raped and murdered for the crime of being a lesbian.

There is something suspect about a people's sport that violently excludes more than half the people, and boozy, borderline misogynist pseudo-nationalism is the last thing Britain needs to help foster a badly needed sense of community. George Orwell observed in 1941 that "in England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the 'Rule Britannia' stuff, is done by small minorities . . . The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious."

Britain itself is a shuffling, gloriously dissipated nation that also includes many people from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. By contrast, the kitsch, horn-honking vision of English identity associated with World Cup-EnglandTM is too easily co-opted by big business in an effort to get us to spend money on booze, branded sportswear and chocolate bars emblazoned with the England flag. B&Q, which expects to make a loss over the season, has even released a range of garden gnomes wearing the England strip, which rather sums up the twee consumer desperation of World Cup season.

Marketing strategists clearly envision the people of England drinking and shopping the summer away, safe in the knowledge that national pride is being guarded by a regiment of xenophobic pottery goblins. This cheery commoditised nationalism runs unnervingly close to the uglier face of engineered "English pride".

Of course, not everyone who displays an England flag is a fascist, but a few of the flags in circulation will undoubtedly be reused at the upcoming EDL rally in east London, which plans to process through the same streets where Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts marched in 1936.

As football season begins, England flags are once more emerging like a welter of giant sticking plasters where social injury is keenest, in areas where the coming cuts will be deepest.

Meanwhile, the left still has no coherent response to Britain's bricolage of troubles. The problem with footie as commodified nationalism is that it leaves the left wing entirely undefended.

The tacky, tribalistic, red-and-white bandage of cheesy national sentiment is already stifling the healing power of political expediency. And as the people gear up to root for EnglandTM, the left's best chance to reorganise and re-energise is deflating like a football, smashed against a wall by idiot children.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.