Wimbledon 2013: Why we love an underdog

The triumph of the unexpected, shock exits, poor weather, Pimms - it must be Wimbledon.

Wimbledon is always my favourite time of year and the best of the grand slams (unashamedly biased): plenty of Pimms, unreliable weather and surprise exits.

The shock of Rafa’s departure should be taken with a pinch of salt - his return from injury seemed near miraculous, but from the start he looked out of sorts of the green grass of Wimbledon. Playing on grass presents different challenges - the season is extremely short and going from the clay, where the ball plays slowly, to grass where the game is fast is not an easy transition. After his first round exit last year he was yet to play on grass, skipping Halle after victory at the French, so it was not a complete surprise he lost to Steve Darcis; the unseeded Belgian who played out of his mind. But Nadal will be back and no doubt with more hunger to win.

The exit of Federer seemed somewhat more peculiar; in his first round he had a mere six unforced errors and won in a little over an hour. During the match he looked so at home on centre court that I was predicting an eighth title. Writing off the greatest player of all time may not be the wisest move, but after he defeat I certainly sense a change in the tide. Luckily, the changing tide is one involving a serve and a volley - the sort of game commentators feared was extinct.

However, whilst the big stars enjoy the limelight, the small stories can be the most compelling – the stories of the underdogs. The underdog is an ingrained British obsession; we can’t help but cheer on the likely loser only to see hopes dashed when they crash out. In sports, as in fairy tales, we are looking for the character with a bit of an edge.

At Wimbledon there is always one who fits the bill and this year belongs to Dustin Brown, the 28 year old German/Jamaican dark horse of the tournament, who knocked out former world number one and Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt just a few days ago.  Brown has never made it further than the first round of a major but, having won the challenger tournament (without dropping a set), he’s now buzzing with confidence. Hewitt was by far the favourite going into the match but Brown played with such panache and style it was difficult not to warm to him.

The beauty of a player like Dustin is to see what the game means to him. The match was the biggest win of his career. This is a man who between 2005-2007 drove around in camper van which his parents brought him, playing challenger tournaments. It is hard imagine just how that win must have felt, but it showed in the tears as he left the court. Moments like this always add humanity to the tournament, breaking up the media monotony which can often focus solely on the top players and British hopefuls.  

The rest of the tournament will no doubt be full of surprises, upsets and heartache but I have to say, I think this story will remain my favourite. There is nothing more British than seeing an underdog succeed on the green courts of SW19.

28 year old Dustin Brown: this year's Wimbledon underdog story. (Photo: Getty Images)
Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.