Calling urbane, European managers such as André Villas-Boas "the gaffer" verges on surreal. Photo: Getty
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Back to mine: why we still talk about footballers in the language of the pit

They may earn millions and drive Maseratis but today’s footballers are still described using old working-class terminology. It’s the last link with the game’s roots. 

In a sparkling recent column in these pages, Hunter Davies examined football’s fraudulent use of language. He pointed out that although footballers earn millions and drive Maseratis, their lives must still be described using old working-class terminology.

Any player who stays at a club for longer than the duration of a holiday in the Maldives is described as a “fantastic servant”. It is as though, in Hunter’s phrase, “he hadn’t been paid and had just been given food and lodgings, forced to sleep under the grandstand and wash his own kit”.

My favourite football cliché is the ubiquitous “He’s really put in a shift” – a commentator’s euphemism for: “He’s run around a lot today.” What was he supposed to do in return for £200,000 a week? Sit down in the centre circle and meditate?

It’s not just football. County cricket still tolerates the tradition of the “benefit year”, which permits players, who have driven to the ground in German saloon cars, to arrange plastic buckets to be passed around the stands, where pensioners rummage around in their purses for a couple of quid to throw into the whip-round. In the 1930s, when clubs treated professional players like tradesmen, the benefit year helped the seasoned pro settle into a well-earned retirement. Today’s pros have the protection of an effective union and EU employment law, as well as a lot more money.

Football is even more obsessed with retaining and celebrating its working-class origins. This is particularly odd when applied to the new breed of urbane, sophis­ticated and (usually) European manager. Yet we must still call him the “gaffer”. It is unclear exactly what Pep Guardiola (a devotee of Catalan poetry) and André Villas-Boas (the great-grandson of a viscount), with their skinny-fit suits, cashmere V-necks and multilingual panache, have in common with a factory foreman from Queen Victoria’s heyday.

The terror of the half-time team talk is another part of folklore. We are still led to believe that, at the sound of the whistle, 11 balletic young men, most of whom are far more at home eating tuna carpaccio with the Eurotrash crowd in Knightsbridge than unwrapping cod and chips, walk into the dressing room feeling like terrorised orphans in a Charles Dickens novel.

In reality, they will sip on isotonic sports drinks while listening to the kind of complex tactical information that football coaches – aided by their crew of quants and data gurus – now marshal into strategic decision-making. Backstage in elite sport these days has more in common with Nasa’s HQ than a coal mine.

Meanwhile, footballers have become spectacularly wealthy, though their astronomic annual salaries must still be expressed as a weekly wage – a mark of respect to their working-class predecessors. The equivalent salaries dished out by Goldman Sachs are never divided into working men’s chunks, so we remain unfamiliar with the phrase: “Lloyd Blankfein, who earns £8,000 per shift as CEO, answered questions about the bank’s profits . . .”

The players who entertain us so spectacularly in the Champions League and the Premier League – though this point holds more for non-British players – often do not fit the old template of boy-made-good. Kaká and Andrés Iniesta, for example, stayed on in school after the age of 16.

It is certainly true, both here and abroad, that the social composition of the fans has shifted. There is still guilty talk about the “authenticity” of football crowds but they are increasingly drawn from the middle classes. When a season ticket to watch Arsenal costs £1,470, they have to be. Those who can afford it still cough up, bemoaning the trend while not seeing the contradiction. “The tourist is the other fellow,” as Evelyn Waugh once said.

Meanwhile, as an inspiration to thoughtful critics, football has become one of the most sophisticated manifestations of contemporary culture. Jonathan Wilson or Simon Kuper’s forensic analysis of the strategic feints and counterpunches of Mourinho and Guardiola will probably be the most intelligent article you read in the newspaper.

Given all this, why do the old linguistic stereotypes endure? I would take Hunter’s thesis one step further. In the 25 years or so that I’ve been watching televised football, the obsession with working-class terminology has increased sharply. There are more “good shifts”, “gaffers” and “loyal servants” around than ever before. The language of industrial perspiration has hardened into the game’s collective mythology.

So industrial language is not a hangover from the past, an accidental residue that will one day die out. It is a willed, semi-deliberate aspect of football’s identity. Language always has a point, even if it is to obscure reality rather than to clarify it. As the players get richer and their social backgrounds broader, as the crowd becomes wealthier and more detached from the local community, as the writers dazzle intellectually – all this must be counterbalanced by constant references to a simpler, earthier time, when men were real men and hard-working defenders toiled away at the coalface (the tic is contagious), fearing a clip round the ear from the gaffer if they got caught napping on the job and let that whippet of an opposition winger get goal-side.

Roy Hodgson – a civilised and thoughtful man who relaxes by reading Philip Roth novels and who talks wistfully about the view from his old balcony overlooking the Italian lakes – now prepares to take our boys to Brazil for the World Cup. What else can we say to them beyond: “Don’t punch out unless you’ve got the job done and brought home the goods”?

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.