Rio Ferdinand seems to think his "choc-ice banter" is a private conversation

Footballers, freed from the clutches of their media advisers, can become alarmingly interesting online.

Last week, Rio Ferdinand seemed to endorse the term "choc-ice" on Twitter in reference to fellow black footballer Ashley Cole. He laughed at the term and called it a "classic". Others on Twitter were quick to tell him it was racist. Whatever your interpretation, it was another glimpse into the fabled world of footballing ‘banter.’ Some call it light hearted and harmless fun amongst a self-regulating tribe of exuberant young men for whom pretty much no subject is off limits. Others say it’s cruel bullying by another name. Either way, when banter strays out of the confines of the football pitch or changing room and into the public sphere there is usually trouble. The consensus among footballers seems to be that they can say what they want amongst themselves. The problem is, what they say is increasingly uncontainable and seems to be seeping out into the wider world on a daily basis.

For years football fans longed for their heroes to say something, anything, of interest. Mocking their drearily familiar lexicon of clichés became a cliché in itself. It wasn’t that all footballers were really inarticulate or dull. They were just extremely cautious about media misinterpretations of their words. In no other field are the press quite so obsessive in their scrutiny and so relentless in their speculation. Every utterance of top-flight footballers is analysed to death then reconstituted into the dramatic soap opera plots that are ravenously consumed by millions of obsessive football fans. So, really, it was our own fault that our heroes were so boring. They had to be. Who knew that so many of them were burning with bright ideas, interesting vocabularies, fascinating insights and surprising opinions? They were just too paranoid and PR managed to ever express them. Then Twitter came along.

Footballers who make an art form of mumbled caginess in front of a journalist’s microphone can be the very opposite when engaged in the Twitter app on their smartphone. One minute they’re boring a newspaper with their firm intentions to "take every game as it comes" and the next they are posting pictures of their new hair transplant (as Wayne Rooney did last year), their thoughts on Morrissey and Nietzsche (Joey Barton’s stock in trade) or having a captivatingly ugly spat with a hack (as Rio Ferdinand did with The Mirror’s Oliver Holt last year) for the whole world to see. Twitter has showed us that footballers can be candid, controversial, opinionated and funny. But it has also given us the odd glimpse into the more complicated and politically dubious aspects of their banterish tendencies.

It was in the aftermath of John Terry’s racism trial that a fan tweeted Rio Ferdinand referring to Terry’s character witness Ashley Cole as a choc-ice. Ferdinand responded: "I hear you fella! Choc-ice is classic! hahahahahahha!!" When accusations of racism immediately flooded in, he defended himself by tweeting: "If I want to laugh at something someone tweets....I will! Hahahahaha! Now stop getting ya knickers in a twist!" And later: "What I said yesterday is not a racist term. It's a type of slang/term used by many for someone who is being fake. So there." In other words, it was harmless banter and everyone should get over it. But, as we well know, the internet has no sense of context or irony and takes everything strictly at face value.

We cannot, and probably should not, attempt to censor the rules of private banter, however unpalatable it might sometimes seem to many. But Ferdinand had temporarily suffered from the delusion that conversations on Twitter were sort of private. They couldn’t be any more public.

Ferdinand has more than three million followers on Twitter. More people see his tweets than read most daily newspapers, listen to most national radio stations or watch most terrestrial TV shows. But would he have made a similar remark through any of those more conventional mediums? Of course not. And not just because there’s no Manchester United publicist stood over his shoulder every time he formulates a tweet. Ferdinand is smart and experienced enough as a public figure to know what might cause controversy. And he is probably sensitive enough as a human being to understand what might cause offence. What he might not understand is that all the same rules apply on Twitter. These are not private conversations among a tight-knit community who "get" the rules of banter. It’s clear that he sometimes lapses into imagining that they are.

Footballers, just like everyone else, are still in the preliminary stages of learning how to use social media. Just because it can be controlled directly, invites whimsical, train of thought expression and often carries with it a prevailing air of lawless frivolity, it doesn’t mean that your comments won’t be scrutinised with the same intensity as they are elsewhere. Or have the same impact. No one can stop Rio Ferdinand finding the term "choc-ice" funny. But he can spare everyone else his public LOLs over it.

 

Can Rio Ferdinand spare everyone else his public LOLs over the term "choc-ice", please? Photograph: Getty Images

Sam Delaney also writes for The Guardian, The Big Issue and numerous others.  He is the author of two books: ‘Get Smashed – The Story Of The Men Who Made The Ads That Changed Our Lives’ and ‘Night Of The Living Dad.’ He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 and is a host on talkSPORT radio.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.