Alan White's Olympic diary: The Olympic legacy is too diverse to work under a single political ideology

Listen to the people who know about sport, not the politicians or the journalists.

Let’s talk legacy. What happens when the circus leaves town? Today the Guardian reports that the sale of 21 school playing fields has been approved by the coalition. You’ll forgive a rueful sigh on the part of your correspondent, but it’s for different reasons than you might imagine.

You see, many years ago, a young freelancer called Alan White wrote a story for the Guardian about the creation of new playing fields under Labour. He didn’t get the byline to himself, though he bloody well should have, and it took six months to get paid, but he was in the national press - yay! (Being a twenty-something journalist in a nutshell, there).

He’d landed this story because the press officers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had heard about some research he was doing for a postgraduate course. They offered him an interview with the then-sports minister, Richard Caborn, if he could break their bit of good news.

Alan got his story published, but things didn’t run to plan for the DCMS. A charity called the National Playing Fields Association, which was in the midst of a needlessly vitriolic war with the department, got wind of Alan’s story, and fed the Telegraph a front page splash about how 10,000 fields had been sold between 1979 and 1997. It ran the day before Alan’s story, and as you can imagine this rather took the gloss off the news that 72 new ones had been created.

Now this 10,000 figure (still cited all over the place; even in today’s Guardian piece) appeared to be the result of a methodology slightly less meticulous than that deployed at 10.58pm last Friday, when I dropped my change on the floor and begged the barman to accept I probably had enough down there for a pint. But we’re talking petty political power struggles here, not facts, so let’s soldier on.

The other problem was that Alan decided to sell the Guardian a full transcript of the interview. The Guardian published it online, but the DCMS created such a fuss that they ended up taking it down. They didn’t like the fact I’d actually done my homework beforehand. You’d think the Guardian wouldn’t be scared of the department that deals with all the stuff no one in politics cares about, but these were the days of Malcolm Tucker, for real.

Well screw you, DCMS press staff of 2005: I’ve put it up on my site. Now THAT’s sticking it to the man, even if it is seven years too late. I’ll save you the trouble of reading this incredibly dull interview, but here are some lessons you could draw from reading between the lines.

1. Nobody knows anything. Especially politicians, and certainly not journalists.

Despite all the headlines about them, no one at the time had a clue how many playing fields there were in Britain and whether or not there was a surplus or a shortage. Vague estimates could be made about how many had been sold (but not created), so was it a problem – and if so where? No one knew. An audit of sorts was ongoing: as a result Active Places now lists 50,000 different sporting sites. But now we have it, how useful is the information? Well, as you’ll see, it’s not just a question of numbers.

2. What’s new?

Labour did improve things. As I type this I see Andy Burnham MP (of whom more in a second) is tweeting about the 1998 Act that slowed school sales, and which was updated in 2004.

The sale of school fields is now governed by this strict Labour legislation, which says that the sports needs of schools must continue to be met, there must be clear evidence all other sources of funding have been exhausted, and the money must be reinvested in sport. Now if Gove’s somehow got round these guidelines and allowed the sale of fields that are genuinely needed, let’s give him a kicking. Believe me, I’ll be first in the queue, wearing my Tory-arse-seeking winkle pickers. But the Guardian story gives no evidence for this – and wouldn’t we have heard more from the communities involved?

3. Quality, not quantity, is what matters, dear boy.

What’s more likely is that the fields which have been sold are surplus to requirements. This was the key issue back in 2005 when the young (and, for the record, very likeable) Mr Burnham told me: “It would have been wrong to pass legislation which banned the selling of playing fields entirely, because that would have meant it was impossible to facilitate the development of sporting facilities...In some communities there’s a definite need for more space, but the issue is increasingly more about quality than availability.”  You can see on my site it was considered the priority by Caborn, too.

Things haven’t changed: if you’re a kid, do you want to play footy on your local club’s pitch, or on the shrub land round the back of the sports hall where a tramp’s just defecated on the half-way line? Assuming your school has a sensible deal with the local council/club, it’s a no-brainer. And – as with at least one of the sites mentioned by the Guardian or as with Leigh Sports Village, a constituency project that Burnham cited to me – the sale can mean it’s going to be turned into a better sporting facility for the community as a whole (one of the directions towards which current legislation attempts to drive schools and local authorities).

There’s a crucial lesson about the Olympic legacy here, which is that it’s too diverse a thing to work under the umbrella of a single political ideology. By all means rage at Tory cuts, say: but remember that the legacy will be delivered by local coaches who care about sport and the kids with whom they work. They’re the ones who know what the real threats to sport in their community are – what impact the scrapping of school sports partnerships (this really IS a huge deal, in my view) will have, whether there actually is an issue with provision of pitches, and so on.

Each will have a different set of challenges, and ideas to tackle them. And you’d be amazed how much impact a well-directed initiative can have – I choose this little tale as an example purely because I know the guy who runs it, but there are so many out there.

If you care about legacy, listen to and support the people in your community who really care about sport; not the ill-informed guff belched out by the political opportunists, be they in the lobby, the House of Commons, or some comedian on Twitter.

Odds and Ends

Meanwhile in Germany...a rower’s right wing boyfriend is the focus.

Stephen Feck messes up his dive, and it looks Fecking painful.

Usain Bolt, being great for a change.

Smashing analysis of the 100m dash.

Ah, the brownie defence.

So the obsession takes hold: another Olympics piece on thighs.

The first dunk in women’s basketball (via @alexhern).


School boys on a playing field in the village of Thurgaton, Nottinghamshire. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide