Why Labour loves muddied oafs

Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan preferred Ruskin and Milton to soccer matches. Middle-class socialists sta

Why is Labour so obsessed with football, even to the extent that four MPs thought it their business recently to try to get the manager of Sheffield Wednesday sacked? Football seems to provoke passions in the party that were once satisfied by ideology, and seems to create loyalties that were once inspired by class.

What was the biggest back-bench rebellion of this parliament so far? Not lone mothers, not Kosovo. No, the issue that forced 60 backbenchers to stand up and be counted was the 1998 World Cup. On the eve of the tournament, Tony Blair issued an edict to the Parliamentary Labour Party forbidding everyone but the minister of sport and the Home Secretary to go to France to watch the football. Not when there was such a shortage of tickets for everyone else. Got that? No, was the answer. There was a mad rush for the Eurostar. One Labour MP was caught in a Glasgow car park handing over £500 in used notes to a ticket tout.

It has become tiresome to go through which teams Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Alastair Campbell and so on support. We know their football loyalties better than we know their views on equality. Blair set the tone by appearing in a sequence of photo shoots with Keegan, Ferguson and Hoddle. Then the PM turned against Hoddle, in a dry run for the Sheffield intervention. Blair also took time off to get Juninho a work permit to play for Middlesbrough. On the morning after the lone mothers' revolt, he went on the Today programme, not to reassure us about the future of the welfare state, but to share his disappointment over Newcastle losing to Man Utd the evening before.

You might wonder about the timing - the government has embraced the people's game just as the people's game has become the plaything of multimillionaires - but you cannot doubt the political consequences. Labour has gone seriously populist.

Populism is as old as politics itself, and the standard way to confer warm humanity on a cold politician has always been to reveal an extra-curricular obsession. Hence Stanley Baldwin and his pigs, Churchill and his watercolours, or Chamberlain, a week before Munich, writing to the Times claiming to have spotted a grey wagtail in St James's Park (Westminster not Newcastle). Yet the Labour Party steered clear of populism, believing that so long as it was trying to transform society, nothing was to be gained by going with the crowd, or being diverted by a rare bird.

That's why Labour distinguished between "democratic" and "populist", and tried to educate the electorate, not flatter it (still less imitate it). Despite being the "party of the working class", Labour was never the party of the "ordinary bloke". Politicians such as Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan did not want to project "the common touch". As autodidacts, they were natural elitists. They brandished a love for Ruskin and Milton, and assumed that the workers, once elevated by socialism, would do the same. In their view, football was at best irrelevant and at worst chloroform.

In any case, football, which emerged as a mass spectator sport at the same time as the Labour movement, was a competitor for the allegiance of the working class. The first socialists understood this perfectly: a man may swoon over Billy Meredith or be moved to defiance by Ramsay MacDonald, but he would not do both.

"Football man" and "political man" were seen to inhabit different mental universes, the one governed by unruly passion, the other by rational thought. Wandering into the other's territory could result in the kind of existential confusion experienced by Hardie on the terraces of Villa Park in 1898, where he watched his one and only football match utterly perplexed by this "unknown world".

His colleague John Paton fared no better at the Old Firm derby at Ibrox. "The air was rent with howls and yells and groans," he reported. "But what it was all about I didn't know."

The Celtic v Rangers tie, in particular, was hated on the left because of its blatant sectarianism. According to the very first edition of the Daily Worker, the players in this match cheated, fouled, argued with the referee - and the clincher for Marxists - "always won by the tactics at greatest variance with all that is scientific".

Labour's slow reconciliation with actually existing working-class culture was paradoxically triggered by the increasing numbers of middle-class Labour MPs. "It's a funny way of putting it," Hugh Gaitskell told his fellow Wykehamist Richard Crossman, "but we must feel humble to working people." His own diaries are peppered with descriptions of visits - pilgrimages would be a better word - to hard-drinking northern working men's clubs.

Under his posh leadership, Labour's cultural elitism began to erode and the party's first, largely Oxbridge-educated, football enthusiasts appeared. Michael Foot (Plymouth Argyle), Tony Crosland (Chelsea) and Curly Mallalieu (Huddersfield Town) led the way. The union was confirmed when Harold Wilson made Stanley Matthews the first footballing knight.

Wilson really began to bone up on the "people's game" after the 1966 World Cup, although there was always something ersatz about his fervour. He, too, supported Huddersfield Town. That was also my team when I was a boy, and I remember a match where Wilson was in the main stand. Over the tannoy we were told that he'd never seen Town lose. This was obviously meant to impress us with his lucky-mascot credentials, but it actually showed what a part-time supporter he'd been over the years that Huddersfield had plunged from the First to the Fourth Division. Years later I read his memoirs, which claimed, on the very first page, that Huddersfield had won the League and Cup double twice when he was a kid. We'd actually won the old First Division three times in a row. But the point was not that Wilson knew about football. It was that he wanted people to know he liked football.

A public passion for football gave Labourites a working-class identity just as the real sources of radical politics were drying up. But Wilson looked lukewarm compared with what goes now.

Last season, Labour's two Barnsley MPs asked the Commons to register its disapproval of a referee who'd denied their team a penalty. Then Tony Banks started humming and aahing when asked what he'd prefer - Chelsea winning the title or Labour the general election. Gillian Merron, introducing her Football Sponsorship Bill, said: "There are those who say that losing a game is like losing an election. It isn't. It's worse."

Jack Straw took this tired old Shanklyism even further when he told the press that, on a visit to a youth club on a troubled north Wales council estate, he had "talked about something that is more important than life - football".

And at a Labour Party conference, David Blunkett appealed to Roy Hattersley to fall in line with the new policy on grant- maintained schools.

"When socialists fall out, the Tories rejoice," he told the conference. "When Sheffield Wednesday supporters fall out, the gods weep."

It looked like a cheap way of closing down the debate. Now, I suppose, the gods really are weeping.