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16 August 2023

Why doesn’t football love Keir Starmer?

Talking about the game only makes the Labour leader and politicians look dumb.

By Clive Martin

As “the national game”, “the working-class ballet”, and every other cliché you can throw at it, football is inevitable in British culture. It’s the most watched, most played and most discussed sport in the country, and thanks to the strength of the Premier League, it’s one of our biggest exports (alongside precious metals, aircraft parts and Hollywood leading men). 

It’s only natural, then, that campaigning politicians will seek to capitalise on some of the game’s pull. In recent British political history leaders from all parties have tried to channel that earthy relatability that football provides, attending games, pouring pints at grass-roots clubhouses, and tweeting, like Ed Davey, in support of the Lionesses as they advanced to the World Cup final this Sunday. Yet often, when politicians talk about football, it fails to convince.

Consider Keir Starmer’s self-commissioned Arsenal tribute. Posting on his official Twitter account, the Labour Party leader used the first day of the new football season to detail his love of the Gunners, creating a short, heartwarming clip full of sepia-tinged shots of the Emirates stadium, archive footage of Ian Wright, and the Clock End at the old Highbury ground. 

Yet something about the video doesn’t work. First and foremost, there is the dubious notion that a young Keir was too poor to attend Arsenal games. Starmer would have come of age in a time in which attending football was dangerous, violent and forbidding, certainly, but hardly expensive, with ticket prices only reaching £3 around 1980. That was the era of bunking turnstiles and invading opposition ends, which feels like a much greater barrier for a studious lad from Oxted to contend with.

Then there is the non-committal, non-specific language he uses: “adult”, “grass”, “London”, “smell”, “noise”. To the uninitiated, this probably all seems a fine way to describe the rituals of a game, but when true football fans talk about attending matches, they tend to use specifics: the station you arrive at, the road you walk down, the pub you go to before, the pub you go to after, and the stand (or end, if you really know the lingo) you sit in.

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Instead of taking us deep into Arsenal lore, Starmer cobbles together a bunch of tired clichés and vagaries, including a line about the smell of “horse manure and hamburgers mixed together”. Mostly, it comes across like ChatGPT being asked to recreate one of those terrible poems the BBC insists on commissioning before cup finals. At one point, he even becomes lyrical about the smell of grass, something nobody has ever experienced at a Premier League football match.

What’s even stranger is that Starmer is apparently a bona fide football fanatic, a long-term season ticket holder spotted at games well before his ascension to the Labour leadership, as well as a self-proclaimed five-a-side obsessive and “box-to-box midfield general” (according to his official Labour Party bio). This is a man who most likely knows his Ødegaard from his Right Guard, yet he seems to be holding something back. He goes to games, plays several times a week, is regularly spotted with “young gooners” in North London pubs (according to one WhatsApp group I’m in), yet talks about the subject with all the ineptitude of a US president being asked a throwaway question about the “soccer” World Cup.

To his critics, Starmer’s wariness around real football discourse reflects his political persona: evasive, circumspect and probably run through an expensive focus group. After the Arsenal video was released, many pointed to his appearance on the popular Football Clichés podcast, where he listed “goals” and “football” (that’s football, in and of itself) as his favourite things about the game. Which makes about as much sense as saying your favourite thing about parliament is “politics”.

[See also: The Rest is Football should be sent off]

Yet this phenomenon isn’t just confined to the centre. Starmer’s arch-nemesis, Jeremy Corbyn, is another Arsenal season ticket holder, yet they seem to find uncommon ground when it comes to the ways in which they talk about football. Corbyn is similarly cautious when he talks about his team. His favourite player is Dennis Bergkamp (one of the few universally beloved Arsenal players); he adopted a gentle “in” stance during the Wenger wars; and he occasionally says something nice about Bukayo Saka. He’s also quick to praise other teams. Speaking about Liverpool’s title chances in 2018, he said: “They certainly have got all the chocolates in the box; they have got great players and great support.” Which is a nice moment of diplomacy, but it reads like a phoned-in soundbite from a Hollywood actor at a Chelsea game.  

Rishi Sunak is another football fan who’s hard to pin down. A fan of his hometown club Southampton, he has been spotted intermittently at games and once tweeted a screenshot of the Saints’ brief spell at the top of the table. Yet again, it all feels rather superficial. His favourite player was Matt Le Tissier (interesting to see if he still runs with that one after Le Tissier’s promotion of Covid conspiracies); he once received a signed shirt on his 18th birthday; he wished his team good luck in their game against Manchester United, when in fact they were about to play Leicester City. Still, it’s a tad more convincing than David Cameron, with his famous Aston Villa/West Ham gaffe, or Ed Miliband’s vague nods to being a “lapsed Leeds United fan”, or most sinfully of all, Boris Johnson claim that he “supports all the London teams”.

Perhaps, though, all this tiptoeing around football culture is because it can be a bit of a minefield. As someone in the business of winning votes, a politician can never really get too tribal about the game. Could you imagine if Sunak was spotted singing “Oh Portsmouth is full of shit!” at Saint Mary’s or if Starmer decided to launch into his thoughts about the merits of David Raya vs Aaron Ramsdale on a partisan Arsenal podcast? Could the Notts County fan and Lib Dem leader Ed Davey reveal a huge “County til I die” tattoo on his back? It wouldn’t exactly be career suicide, but it would be a strange addendum to the clean, welcoming persona a modern politician needs to adopt. British football is an inherently adversarial game and politicians seem to struggle in presenting themselves as authentic fans.

There is also that one looming example of footy chat going extremely wrong: the Jackie Milburn incident. This occurred when Tony Blair, perhaps seeking some credibility in his famously blue-collar North East constituency, declared himself to be a long-time Newcastle fan who grew up watching “Wor” Jackie Milburn at St James’ Park’s Gallowgate end – a story with which there were many issues. The first was that Milburn retired in 1957, when Blair was four years old and living in Australia. The second was that Blair never actually said it.

It was in fact a misquote from a Radio Five Live interview (Blair claimed to have become a Newcastle fan just after Milburn retired), written up by the Sunday Sun, a local newspaper, and turned into an apocryphal story for the ages. To many, it was the perfect example of New Labour’s desperation to connect with old Labour’s northern heartlands, a tale to sit alongside Peter Mandelson’s infamous guacamole/mushy peas mix-up in Hartlepool (which was apparently committed by a young American intern, if at all, not Mandelson himself).

Since then, football has become a fascinating hurdle for politicians. Many of them are probably genuine fans of the game, yet it appears to be a concept you can’t embrace too much. It’s something that you must understand, but not pontificate on. You need to have a team, but you can’t be too tribal about it. Ironically, to win votes off football fans, you need to be the kind of safe, middle-class part-timer that the terraces claim to despise. You need to be, in the immortal words of Roy Keane, a “prawn sandwich”.

However, it’s important to note that the longest-serving prime minister in post-war British history, Margaret Thatcher, had nothing but disdain for the game and championed all manner of draconian anti-hooligan measures (while simultaneously lighting the touchpaper for aspirational away-day violence). Johnson’s attempts to connect with fans were half-hearted at best.

Maybe when you have enough tub-thumping, enough flag-waving in your politics, you don’t need football at all. Simply sing the national anthem, wish Harry Kane or the Lionesses good luck and stick to rugby otherwise. But for the technocrats, academics and Islingtonites in our political class, football is still the best way to tap into normality (as long as you don’t tap too hard). 

[See also: How sport explains Thatcher’s brain]

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