Reflections from Manchester

Are the Tories "ready"?

The weather over the Labour and Conservative conferences was the reverse of the parties' moods. In Brighton, Labour gathered amid a sense of panic but bathed in seaside sun. Here in Manchester, the mood is calmer as the Tories prepare for power in the dreary autumn rain.

Are the Tories right to be upbeat? On the face of it, yes. David Cameron has carefully and skilfully led his party through a period of success not seen for ten years. As I discuss in my column tomorrow, he has done so without abandoning ideology, unlike the Labour Party when it was modernising itself.

George Osborne's speech on the economy yesterday was well received, his uncharismatic style compensated for by the realism and modesty of his message.

But beneath the gloss, this is the same old party: on the fringes, delegates express predictable views on immigration, Europe and spending. Their spectacles may have thicker and trendier rims, but Tory members remain overwhelmingly male and -- in the description of one broadcast journalist yesterday -- "hideously white".

On the other hand, although this party has not changed substantially, there is almost zero dissent or division. With victory perceived to be round the corner, this is the most united Tory conference I can remember. Eurosceptics are careful not to be provoked into deriding Cameron's own-goal on a Lisbon Treaty referendum. And MPs on the pro-European left are passive. The Tory Reform Group/Conservative Mainstream fringe has in recent years been a hotbed of rebellion and dissent, with Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine challenging the leadership. This year a supportive Damian Green was on loyal form, refuting claims that Cameron has betrayed the Tory left. Steve Norris, the arch-moderniser, expressed genuine support for Cameron's leadership on and off the record. And it was left to Normal Lamont to say Labour could yet pull off an economic and then political recovery.

The Tories appear to be ready to take office. But there is something indefinably wrong here. Something about the collective psche that betrays complacency. This is a professional party, but it is not a government-in-waiting.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war