YouTube screengrab and Getty
Show Hide image

Is Arsène Wenger the secret weapon in Jeremy Corbyn’s arsenal?

Can the Arsenal manager help Labour’s leader and football fan inspire his own Red Army?

Jeremy Corbyn was filmed at Arsenal versus Spurs last weekend, clad in a red and white scarf and going on a pre-match demo demanding that all Premier League clubs pay employees the living wage. He even won the unlikely admiration of a Spurs fan, who told him, “you’ve got to be our Prime Minister”. Jeremy grinned and said, “I’ll do my best for you.”

Corbyn then watched an Arsenal team managed by an ascetic, uncompromising idealist. We can confidently assume that Corbyn won’t be modelling his leadership skills on Blair, Brown or Miliband. But might his fellow Islingtonite, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, be a more appealing template for the unlikely leader?

Tony Blair famously sought advice from Sir Alex Ferguson on how to handle a troublesome Chancellor. Corbyn, as a member of the fan group In Arsène We Trust, is already an admirer of Wenger and is more likely to base his style on the Arsenal guru. While Corbyn’s critics might also argue that he displays some of the same flaws as Wenger, such as stubbornness and refusing to compromise on idealism for trophies.

Physically both these 66-year-old men share similar characteristics, such as grey hair, a slim build and a scholarly air. Corbyn has been compared to a geography teacher with his disapproving side-glances at Prime Minister’s Questions, while Arsenal skipper Tony Adams thought on meeting Wenger, “he wears glasses and looks like a schoolteacher.”

One aspect of Wenger’s career that will appeal to Corbyn is that the Arsenal boss spent his playing career on the equivalent of the backbenches, starting off in the French third division with Mutzig and only playing three matches in Strasbourg’s title-winning season before retiring.

When Martin Amis ridiculed Corbyn’s A levels it was very similar to the “show us your medals” jibes aimed at Wenger when he arrived at Arsenal from the Japanese league in 1996. “Arsène who?” was the headline in the Evening Standard. Tony Adams wondered: “What does this Frenchman know about football? Does he even speak English properly?” Midfielder Ray Parlour did impressions of Inspector Clouseau.

Early on in their careers, both annoyed the establishment. Wenger initially refused to have a post-match glass of wine with fellow bosses like Sir Alex Ferguson, while Corbyn wouldn’t sing along to God Save the Queen

And we mustn’t forget the fact both men admire vegetables. Corbyn grows them on his allotment and has posed with a supersized marrow. Wenger revealed upon his arrival: “I think in England you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables.” Wenger then preached the merits of steamed broccoli rather than visiting the Gunner’s chip shop and getting bladdered every night to old-style Arsenal players. Similarly Corbyn is trying to introduce unfashionable concepts to sceptical Blairites, such as believing in something and offering more than vapid managerial soundbites.

Both men take a long-term attitude and are phlegmatic when faced with media panics. Wenger says every game in England brings a crisis, while Corbyn has a conversational style in interviews and says that for all the lurid headlines, on the streets people keep telling him to be himself. Wenger has repeatedly refused to make big-name panic buys, preferring to develop younger, sometimes neglected talents. Similarly Corbyn has energised young Labour Party members and promoted from within the group in the cases of John McDonnell, Seamus Milne and Andrew Fisher — though some Labour MPs clearly feel these signings are more akin to Arsenal’s misfiring former striker Nicklas Bendtner.

Wenger and Corbyn are keen to bring unfashionable concepts into popular debate, such as, in the case of Arsène, the need for a good diet and pre-match stretching, UEFA fair play regulations and a top four place being as good as a trophy. Before Corbyn’s leadership there would have been little discussion of Trident and Saudi jails or questions from the public at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The potential weaknesses of Corbyn and Wenger are surprisingly similar too. Both men can be unexpectedly prickly. For all his intellectual image, Wenger has had memorable pushing matches with Martin Jol and Alan Pardew; while Corbyn looked like he wanted to push Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy for his “tabloid journalism” when challenged on addressing a meeting, including Hamas, as “friends.”

The pair are stubborn on recruitment and unlikely to admit errors; still insisting that Per Mertesacker or Andrew Fisher is the answer. Wenger famously “didn’t see” any incidents where his players were sent off and Corbyn might have a similar blind spot for his staff’s faults.

Both men have been accused of putting principles before trophies. Arsenal recently lost 5-1 at Bayern Munich in the Champions League, mainly due to Wenger not having invested in alternatives to his injured defenders. Might Corbyn too rue a lack of back-up when his defence policy is questioned?

Arsenal won three Premier League titles in Wenger’s early years. But for the past decade Wenger has ignored pleas to spend big on a dominating centre back, a midfield enforcer and world class striker, apparently preferring flowing football to more pragmatic wins – though Arsenal have won two FA Cups and qualified for the Champions League every season. Is Corbyn in danger of producing policies that are pleasing on the socialist eye, but not capable of lasting a whole campaign and nailing the really big prizes?

Chelsea’s José Mourinho taunted that Arsène Wenger was, “a specialist in failure”. Peter Mandelson probably feels the same about Jeremy Corbyn. Though it’s interesting to note that Mourinho is now in a personal meltdown and Wenger, a more likeable figure, might yet capitalise.

These are crucial seasons for Corbyn and Wenger and both will resolutely stick to their approaches. Wenger shifted the debate in British football and Corbyn has in many senses done likewise in politics. The Labour leader has the party fans behind him but will face many calls to compromise or quit from his senior pros and the press – in such moments it’s likely he’ll trust in Arsène.

Pete May is author of The Joy of Essex (The Robson Press).

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.