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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).

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear