"The death of competitive sports" is the right's favourite Straw Bogeyman

There's nothing wrong with having fun while getting fit, as this picture of David Cameron playing Badminton demonstrates.

David Cameron has been wearing a tracksuit top. Think about that for a moment. David Cameron, a man for whom a white tie and tails probably makes him feel a bit chavvy, has been dressing in a tracksuit.

In this, the year that the John Terry meme gained so much traction it began turning up in a Chelsea football kit ready to accept the glory awarded to other memes, our Prime Minister has taken a leaf out of the loveable Chelsea captain’s book and decided to try and claim the Olympics glow as his own.

Since we’ve become accustomed to ‘medalling’ and ‘podiuming’ as verbs in recent days, why not ‘johnterrying’ too? One could say: “David Cameron really tried to johnterry his way to a boost in the polls by wearing that Team GB tracksuit”. 

Sure, he might look as comfortable in that tracky as William Hague did in that baseball cap all those years ago, but he’s going to give it a go. Not so much the Iron Lady as the Polyester Chap, Cameron has gone further, too, and pressed a few Tory buttons by demanding that there should be a ‘competitive ethos’ in school sports.

It’s a favourite strawman of the Right, this idea that somehow children are kept from competitive sport at school, that somehow the Namby-Pamby Laughless Liberals and their PC Brigade are squashing the joy of splintering a fellow pupil’s shins with a cricket bat, all in the name of Anti-Fun Egalitarianism.

It’s not true, as parents can testify from the mass of muddy debris coming home in sportsbags of an afternoon, and pupils can testify from the lumps, bumps, grazes and bruises they sustain in trying to get a bladder over a line or into a net.

Yes, there are other, less competitive activities now being offered in schools as part of physical education – but no, it doesn’t mean that our cotton-wool-clad babes are being BANNED from WINNING at games because it might hurt their FEELINGS. Some children just prefer keeping fit by activities that require a different kind of discipline, concentration and skill. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s wrong with sport for the purposes of enjoyment? Fun?

There’s something of the “Never did me any harm” attitude about all this, as there is about so much of this Government’s education policy. Let’s face it, this is hardly a cabinet of Jocks who were first to be picked when it came to making teams; these were the losers who got told to stand at silly mid-off in the hope a stray cricket ball might shatter their skulls. Because they suffered, and succeeded (if you deem success as ‘not quite winning a general election despite spending vast millions of pounds’), children today must suffer in order to succeed.

But wait a moment. Who’s this joker, prancing about the gardens of Number 10 Downing Street in his shirt sleeves, wafting a badminton racket around as if he’s trying to swat a fat, asthmatic fly? Why, it’s a pre-tracksuit David Cameron, having a laugh and a joke while playing sport.

Look, that’s a fine and praiseworthy thing, but... well. Odd. It’s almost as if this person is playing sport not with a “winning is everything” attitude in his mind, but for the purposes of... well, enjoyment. Fun. There doesn’t seem to be that ‘competitive ethos’ there at all. What a terrible example to set to children!

That’s the problem when you try and johnterry your way into things that you don’t really know enough about: you’re going to end up looking rather silly, sooner or later. Let the kids have their fun, and not worry about victory or defeat. They don’t want to end up the kind of real loser who wears a tracksuit, just to try and steal a little glory. 

David Cameron in a tracksuit. Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.