Women's sport sold down the river only a month after Olympic high

What should be a blockbusting qualifying fixture for England's women footballers will be played at a time and place that guarantee it will be ignored.

The London Olympics catapulted women’s football into the spotlight. More than 70,000 fans watched the GB women’s team beat Brazil 1-0 at Wembley, eclipsing a 92-year old attendance record for a women’s game in the UK.

This huge turnout suggested the British public had finally cottoned on to the fact that women can play football and that it's worth watching. It was impossible for the media to ignore, even with plenty of competition from other Olympic events. Many hailed the Games as a new dawn for women's football.

But now, just over a month since the end of the Olympics, that dream appears to be over.

Today, the England women’s football team plays its final qualifying game on the road to the 2013 European championships. If this was the men’s team, it would be a blockbusting fixture at prime time on the hallowed turf at Wembley.

But this is the women’s team we’re talking about. The match takes place at the 11,000-seater Banks stadium, home to League One Walsall. And guess what? Kick off’s at 5pm, when everyone is still at work. Even if you live in Walsall, chances are you won’t be able to make it.

The game will be shown live on BBC2, which is progress. But according to research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation women's sport receives less than five per cent of sports media coverage, despite the fact that other research they’ve done shows 61 per cent of fans want to see more women’s sport in the media.

When I complained during the Olympics about the lack of coverage of women’s sport outside of the Games, and said there was never anything in the press to tell me when England’s women’s matches were on, people dismissed my comments and said that with the internet there’s no excuse for not being able to find out. They also said if no one makes the effort to go to women’s games the media won’t cover them.

So I promised myself that when the Games were over I’d look up the first England women’s match and go to it with my daughter. When I found out where and when it was I had to laugh. If I hadn’t, I’d have cried.

Football matches at impossible times mean fewer people will be able to go. When no one turns up, the male-dominated sports desks of our national newspapers will say: “Look, no one’s interested, why should we write about that?”

Media coverage equals role models, and this is particularly important as when they leave school girls are only half as likely to play sport as boys.

A keen footballer as a child and teenager, I understand the sexism girls and women come up against. I played in my primary school 11-a-side team and the girls’ 5-a-side team. The girls’ team made something of a local name for itself thanks to an inspirational and forward thinking teacher (Mr Matthews, if you’re reading this, thank you) who made it his mission to turn us into footballers. We dominated the local primary school league for years, winning the Trevor Brooking Cup on many occasions. I still have a photo of me shaking hands with the former England player as he presented me, as team captain that year, with the shield.

But all that changed when I started secondary school. None of the local schools had girls’ football teams. For a couple of seasons I played for a team on a local estate but the encouragement and the role models just weren’t there. Add the influence of society’s expectations of what teenage girls should be and do, and eventually I gave it up.

The lack of encouragement I faced as a young teenager in the late 80s should be a thing of the past. It’s not just about the media. Sports bodies need to do much more to promote women’s sport and more investment is essential to convince girls that sport is as much for them as it is for their male peers.

But the media can take a lead and stand up for women’s sport and sports fans. It can push UEFA to take a more ambitious approach to timetabling women’s games so more people can go and watch. It’s not too late to harness the enthusiasm and excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics. I really hope the Walsall fixture is a hangover from a bygone age, something already set up that they couldn’t rearrange, but I’m not convinced. Unless we start to see women’s football at high-profile venues around the country and prime time kick offs soon, an opportunity will have been lost and another generation let down.

The Team GB women's football team. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.