Outside the Matchroom Stadium. Photo: Getty
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It’s not you, Leyton Orient: why a sexist song means I’m walking away from my football club

After tweeting his disapproval of a sexist song sung in the stands, James McMahon found himself on the receiving end of a social media onslaught.

There is a football song you may have been unlucky enough to have heard if you’ve ever attended a British football match. It’s not the worst – if you believe a certain sort of Tottenham fan, the Met Police are wasting their time in Portugal and know exactly where Madeleine is. And that’s not to say that Tottenham fans aren’t without being a victim of the same sort of bile. The elements of the West Ham fan base who hissed throughout the two clubs’ encounter two Novembers ago – the hiss resembling the sound of a gas chamber, Tottenham being a club famous for Jewish support – know that, I’d hope, somewhere in their souls. As for Brighton fans? I honestly don’t know how any Brighton fan can be bothered with going to games any more, it can’t be fun having your sexuality dictated to you by thousands of strangers every Saturday.

Yet people can be bothered, because football fandom isn’t largely about choice. Club allegiances are bound to family ties. Emotional ties. Catchment, to a sadly dwindling extent. Even in this age of football gentrification, when you’re told where to sit and God forbid if you want to stretch your legs, it informs social groups. Being a football fan is a commitment to something you have little control over, but follow with the conviction akin to something you might. This is why when I say I’ve decided to stop following my team (well, my local team anyway – as a South Yorkshire-born man living in Leyton, east London, I somehow juggle space for both Leyton Orient and Doncaster Rovers in my complicated heart), it should mean that it hasn’t been a choice so much as a violent separation of heart and mind.

I went to see Orient vs QPR in a pre-season friendly on Tuesday night. It was fun, to a point. Joey Barton had done something pretty eccentric with his hair. Then, some people sang a song. The song. The song that has been sung for years and years and years and goes, “Oh East London, is wonderful, Oh East London is wonderful, full of tits, fanny and Orient, Oh East London is wonderful”. Not the worst song, but not one I can find any merit in singing in 2014 either. Perhaps the father of the little girl sat in front of me on Tuesday night, who on request, had to explain to his child what words he most likely hoped she wouldn’t have to hear until she’d grown into a person who could hear whatever words they want, on her own terms, will agree with me. I didn’t want to ask. He looked pretty much done throughout the rest of the game.

I admit it. I snapped. Then I left early. And, as is the modern way, instead of filling out a form that may or may not exist, I tweeted how embarrassed I was to be a Leyton Orient fan whenever that song was sung. And then over a period of four days, everything I loved about Leyton Orient – the club I turned to in 2007 upon moving to London, faintly lost, very lonely, so grateful for the sense of community, less of a hobby than a lifeline – was torn from me. The tweet I woke up to this morning, declaring, “Leyton Orient don’t need fans like you now that we’re rich!” (after a fairly uneventful 20 odds years, give or take a few ups and a few downs, Orient were recently bought by ambitious Italian multi-millionaire waste mogul Francesco Becchetti). It was a sentiment that hurt me far more than a tweet should have the power to. When I was sat on the train up to Hartlepool or down to Plymouth to see the team play I never thought I was so… disposable. I always thought fans were lifeblood, owners were custodians.

For the past two days I’ve been deluged with hundreds of messages of abuse on Twitter, on Instagram and the Leyton Orient Messageboard (the unofficial one, the club took down the official one last month after years of problems with right-wing polemic). They have said I “look like a nonce”. I’m a “fat cunt”. All of which have been justified by saying, “it’s just banter”. Apparently, people like me are “ruining football”, that what I said is “political correctness gone mad”, that I shouldn’t be offended because I’m “not a woman”. And then, as if to hit the nail squarely on the head, they found my girlfriend on Twitter and tweeted her asking if she “takes it up the arse”. The question begs, if a man can receive this kind of abuse for questioning this kind of misogyny, what on earth would a woman be on the end of…

I’m quite idealistic about football at the best of times. I had punk polemic burnt upon my fandom during Doncaster Rovers “troubled” late 90s period where we picketed games and staged mid-game protests (the chairman burnt down the mainstand, they only caught him because two ex-SAS men left first-gen mobile phones on the floor – their last text, to him being, “the job has been done”) I believe in football as a source for good as much as I believe it’s the greatest game ever invented. It’s why I increasingly enjoy going to watch Clapton FC in the Essex Senior League, and standing with the Clapton Ultras under their dilapidated scaffolding. They sing the same song as the one I was offended by incidentally, only they change the word “tits” to “pie” and “fanny” to “mash”. Funnily enough, the world didn’t stop when they first did that. They also sing songs about feminism, socialism and Palestinian liberation. And just because they’re inclusive and progressive in their thinking, doesn’t mean they all don’t have an absolute hoot every week.

Like Clapton, I always viewed Leyton Orient as a special club. A different club, one that bore Laurie Cunningham, the most pioneering black footballer player of the 1970s, who sent (and lost) the most young soldiers to fight in the First World War. And, in many respects, I can still view Orient this way. I met many brilliant people through the club; clever, humble, emotionally savvy people. Nurses, poets, plumbers, politicians and teachers. The players are decent men, who’ll stop you on the street and talk to you in a way that has been long lost from the summit of British football. And yet, what has touched me most, are the hundreds of tweets and messages from Orient-supporting women, saying, Wwe always hated this song, we just never dared say it – do you see why now?”.

It’s going to break my heart walking away from my football team. But it’s not you, Leyton Orient, it’s them.

You can find James on Twitter @jamesjammcmahon

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.