In defence of football: a lefty writes

Crude caricatures of all football supporters as sexist homophobes insult readers’ intelligence.

An article claiming that "all Tories hate women and gays" would rightly receive short thrift from NS editors and readers alike. When it comes to football, however, such easy stereotypes have twice graced these web pages in the past year.

A polemic smearing football lovers as fascists was followed yesterday by another post attacking supporters, calling on them to "justify [their] decisions" to support misogyny and homophobia, and asking: "How on earth can lefties like football?" Such crude caricatures insult readers' intelligence.

Left-wingers in football are not only to be found haring up the port flank on a Saturday afternoon. Indeed, the sport has been home to many intelligent, progressive voices. The manager Brian Clough was chair of the Anti-Nazi League, while Alex Ferguson is still a regular fixture on Labour Party campaign material. In November, Eric Cantona called for a run on banks to start "a real revolution" against institutions at the heart of a system that "must be destroyed".

Outspoken left-leaning stars are matched by a growing grass-roots movement to counter the greed and commercialism rightly criticised by Laurie Penny and Helen Lewis-Hasteley. The formation of FC United in protest at Malcolm Glazer's controversial takeover of Manchester United was followed in 2007 by the mutualised purchase of Ebbsfleet United by ordinary fans, each paying £35 through the website myfootballclub.co.uk.

It is fans who are leading the battle against the tide of capital sweeping through the modern game. When Red Bull bought SV Austria Salzburg, summarily changing the club's name and kit and declaring that "this is a new club with no history", the drinks giant was forced into concessions, in the wake of a Europe-wide campaign by supporters' organisations. Ridicule of grotesque consumption in football, such as El Hadji Diouf's absurd gold Cadillac Escalade, will first gain traction in online forums.

Sweeping generalisations that "women are nothing more than baubles" are insulting to those blazing a trail of equality within the sport. The second target of Richard Keys's career-wrecking remarks was Karren Brady, married to the Canadian football club manager Paul Peschisolido and, as such, a "footballer's wife". As the former managing director of Birmingham City Football Club and the youngest ever director of a UK plc, however, she would surely object to being referred to as maîtresse-en-titre.

The sport has made huge strides in confronting head-on issues of racism that were rife on the terraces in the 1980s, but no one will deny that football – like politics – still has issues with sexism and homophobia. Rather than champion the cause of women within sport, however, Lewis-Hasteley counsels abandoning the Beautiful Game to what is now a small minority of bigots. To suggest that those taking their daughter to under-11 training or cheering Stonewall FC from the touchline are wasting their time is more Helen Kendrick Johnson than Emmeline Pankhurst.

A myopic scrutiny of testosterone-fuelled Premier League excess will never recognise the spirit of community and solidarity engendered in local areas by the tens of thousands of clubs outside of football's elite. In the words of Bill Shankly:

The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it's the way I see football and the way I see life.

This sounds more like the game I know.

Football isn't fox-hunting. Attempts to link something so gloriously variegated to a single political outlook are doomed to failure. We're not asking you to enjoy our sport. But stop tarring those who do with the same sexist, homophobic brush.

Laurence Durnan is the editor of Political Scrapbook.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.