Will the Olympics change our politics for good?

Voters should not be underestimated.

We British can give ourselves a rather tough self-assessment. For instance, only one in four of us (24 per cent) think Britain is a good place to invest and just 13 per cent of Brits think we have a strong economy. Among global consumers looking at Britain from a distance, the figure rises to 42 per cent for investment in the UK and 48 per cent thinking we have a strong economy. Indeed, across a whole range of topics we find people around the world seeing Britain in a pretty positive light, compared to how we British see ourselves.

Of course, that pessimism is not that surprising, especially given the economic situation.  According to the Ipsos MORI Issues index, the economy and unemployment are constant anxieties for many people – the economy has been top of the country’s agenda every single month since September 2008 - and increasing numbers are worried that government and public services will not be able to do enough to help people in the years ahead.

This year, however, Britons have been looking to the Olympics for a feel-good effect to brighten up the national outlook. Just before the Games, seven in ten said they thought the Olympics would help to improve the mood of the British public, while politicians such as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, speculated about a possible boost to the UK economy thanks to the Games.

This brief pause between the Olympic and Paralympic Games provides a good moment to see if a feel-good effect has really materialised.

Our recent post-Olympics poll shows that in the light of the Olympics success British people do say they are now more positive about a whole range of organisations and people involved in public life. Four in five (81 per cent) said the London Games had a positive effect on their opinion of the BBC, seven in ten (70 per cent) of the Royal Family and around three-quarters (74 per cent) said it had improved their opinion of Londoners.

Even Londoners themselves say the Olympics has left them upbeat, with 83 per cent saying the Games has improved their view of their fellow citizens of the capital. Londoners are also most likely to say it has given them a positive view of their public transport system with 65 per cent saying they have become more favourable towards it.

Has this feel-good factor also reached perceptions of the Westminster village? On the face of it, yes. Benefiting particularly from the halo effect is Boris Johnson, with 61 per cent saying it has improved their view of him (even higher among Conservative voters).  Nevertheless, he is not the only one; the overnment and the three main party leaders have all seen their approval ratings go up over the last month, according the latest Ipsos MORI Political Monitor. Satisfaction with David Cameron is up six points, Ed Miliband up eight points, and Nick Clegg up five points.

But the question is, is this a real change in the political landscape? Approval ratings for all the party leaders are up, but it does not seem to have had a great impact on voting intentions.  Labour retains a clear lead over the Conservatives, despite their share dropping two points on last month to 42 per cent. A third (32 per cent) say they would vote for the Conservative Party and 11 per cent for the Liberal Democrats, both just one point different from July.

The public also remain as sceptical as ever about politicians and their motives, and there is much change in public perceptions of the coalition. Two in five (42 per cent) say the coalition is providing stable government (compared to 39 per cent in July), just over a quarter (27 per cent) say it is working as a united team (no change compared to the 26 per cent in July) and just over half (54 per cent) say it is unlikely to last until 2015 (compared to 52 per cent in July). To top it off, we also find this month that a clear majority of voters think that all three main political parties put the interest of their party before the national interest.

It is also worth questioning the extent to which national occasions such as the Olympics really do have an impact on people’s perceptions of politics – perhaps because their very nature as unifying events, above the usual cut and thrust of daily politics, means that people do not see them as so relevant to their judgement of the different parties.

The Diamond Jubilee this year is a very recent example, which despite leading to very high satisfaction ratings with the Royal Family seemed to have no significant impact on voting intentions.  Looking back to the Royal Wedding in April last, there was no positive effect for the government immediately afterwards (nor was there from the wedding of Charles and Diana in July 1981 in our polls from back then). Satisfaction with the leaders actually fell slightly, with the exception of Mr Cameron’s rating which remained the same from April to May. 

Even the Golden Jubilee celebrations of June 2002 seem to have had no obvious impact on voting intention, with Labour holding a consistently strong lead over the Conservatives during that period. There was a seven-point rise in satisfaction with the way Tony Blair was doing his job but that was relatively short-lived dropping off in the month afterwards.

When England won the rugby world cup in November 2003, there was a four-point rise for the sitting Labour government in December to 40 per cent but certainly no lasting effect as it was straight back down in January. There was hardly any change in satisfaction ratings for the then leaders either. And England’s procession to the semi-finals in 1996 – for better or worse – didn’t seriously impact Labour’s stranglehold in the polls. 

And, of course, perhaps that is just as it should be. The public should not be under-estimated; they know what is important to them when making their judgements about politicians, and it is those factors that the parties will need to return to when normal political life resumes.

Gideon Skinner is head of political research at Ipsos MORI

Vice-President of Brazil Michel Temer, Pele, David Cameron and Mo Farah at No 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images

Gideon Skinner is Head of Political Research at IpsosMori. He tweets as @GideonSkinner.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era