That's the name of the game

I am so pleased by the shape and sound of this season so far. At long last we have three Jacks coming through, establishing themselves in Premiership first teams. There's the excellent Jack Wilshere at Arsenal, Jack Rodwell at Everton and Jack Collison at West Ham. For over a decade I've been scanning the squad lists and muttering: "Bloody hell, where are they? What are our mums playing at?"

For 13 consecutive years, Jack has been the number one boy's name in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics, which is, of course, not to be totally trusted - yet where were all the players called Jack? It did puzzle me.

I like to think football reflects life, reality, society today. At one time, our heroes had names such as Stanley and Tommy and Billy, names you could identify with, because they were all around - in your class, in your street. Then they seemed to dry up.

One explanation, used for many things in modern football, is "all these foreigners coming here with their funny foreign names". Any likely Jacks lingering among the nine- and ten-year-olds in the academies have little chance of making the team sheet when it's full of Carlos Kickaballs, Emmanuel Eggnogs and Luca Leftpegskis. And yet, if it's true all those Brit mums have for 13 years been naming their male sprogs Jack, surely some of them should have sneaked through?

Ah, I thought, could be that it's the aspiring middle-class mums going for Jack? As we know, the middle classes, being very short-sighted, want their kiddos to be lawyers and doctors, though they will earn a measly £100,000 a year, as opposed to £100,000 a week, like any half-decent, one-legged bench-warmer in the Prem.

The working classes also tend to favour conventional names, apart from the soppy ones who go for soap and film stars, like my friend Melvyn, whose mum named him after a Hollywood actor called - hold on, she did tell me - Melvyn Douglas, was it? Mostly with boys they stick to the same old family names. Frank Lampard, for example, is named after his dad, as is Wayne Rooney. Makes it pretty hard for Jacks to emerge. Now football seems to be catching up with the national stats. Sort of.

The second top boy's name is Oliver and the fifth is Joshua. Come on, tell me any Prem players called that. They'd get the piss well taken in any dressing room. They probably change their names, like actors, once they get on the first rungs of the youth stage.

The mystery is Mohammed. Spelled like that, it is only number 16 in the list, but if you count in all the various spellings, it surges up to number two, just behind Jack. But where are all the Mohommeds on the team sheets, or Mohhamuds? Yes, we think we know the reason. It'll be a few more generations before they aspire to, or are accepted into, British football life.

Meanwhile I've been doing another namecheck. Naturally, one's blind eye picks up one's own name in a sea of print, but although I've yet to see another Hunter anywhere on the planet now that Hunter Thompson has gone, the surname Davies or Davis is suddenly popping up everywhere. There's three at Bolton (Kevin, Sean and Mark), plus Andrew at Stoke, Curtis at Villa and Simon at Fulham. Only three Coles, now that Andrew has retired, so I reckon we're now number one in the Prem. Hurrah for us.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide