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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.

Photo: Getty
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Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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