Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Is football still the game of ordinary working people?

The old news reels of football show mainly men, standing often in flat caps, with scarves and sometimes waving rattles.

What a contrast to today, when the football supporters are a mixture of men, women and children, All are all seated, some in luxury boxes, often wearing the latest club shirt, with players names on display.

So how much has the game changed over the past 50 years, can it still be called the working man’s game? If it has changed, is that for the better?

I began attending football matches in the mid-1970s, mainly at West Ham United’s home ground of Upton Park. The game was certainly different in those days. Most people were standing, the majority males, often fathers and sons.

In the early days, as a kid I used to get to the ground a couple of hours before kick-off in order to get down the front, where you were right next to the pitch and no one blocked your view.

There was a good camaraderie but these were also the days of football violence. There could be disruption on the terraces but more often outside. Away fans would run the gauntlet between Upton Park station and the ground – about a half mile stretch. A favourite chant from the home fans was: “You’ll never make the station.” Most did, with the side roads sealed off with police vans and mounted police everywhere.

The violence in my view was over hyped in the media. Some of the scenes I witnessed also made me wonder, such as when a police officer on duty came over and struck up a conversation with an off duty colleague standing nearby. The gist was there had been a great fight and he had missed out.

One of the most dangerous situations I got caught up in was at the 1975 FA Cup final at Wembley. West Ham beat ~Fulham 2-0 but in the crowd there was a surge. We nearly got crushed in the rush and but for a couple of men shouting out that there were kids, we could easily have been trampled.

These were great days for football, the spirit, and the excitement of the pitch side experience and the almost religious devotion of fans to their teams.

The writing though was also on the wall for the various tragedies that occurred over the next decade or so such as Hillsborough, Heysel and Bradford.

The owners of football clubs really did not give a damn about fans. Those that go misty eyed over the good old days, as though football clubs were owned by representatives of the people, who were at one with the fans really are deluded. If the owners couldn’t make money out of fans they weren’t interested. Compared to today, the football grounds were prehistoric.

The lack of concern for the fan was well illustrated in the period that ran up to the Hillsborough tragedy. The football was far more important than the supporters. So when there started to be pitch invasions, the authorities reacted by erecting fences. This put the fans in an almost cage like situation, unable to escape onto the pitch, when there was a trouble. The tragic events that unfolded at Hillsborough were partly the product of this approach.

The big change in football came about in the early 1990s. The pressure for all seater stadium and better conditions for supporters were at least partly fuelled by the perceived hooligan problem and then the tragedies that occurred. However, the game was also changing big time for the players.

It was not until the 1961 that the players union managed to get rid of the maximum wage. Up until that time the players really had not been paid that well at all. Some look back with nostalgia to the days when the players went to matches on the same buses as the fans. These were the days, when football was just a game. But a pretty badly paid game all the same.

The abolition of the maximum wage saw footballer’s wages increase. Fulham’s Johnny Haynes became the first £100 a week player. The stars of the 1970s were well paid for their work. The glamour and commercial opportunities started to become available, certainly for the big players like George Best and Bobby Moore. However, what these players earned in the 1970s was small beer compared to the rewards on offer for the likes of David Beckham in the 1990s and the stars of today.

The cry sometimes goes up that football is not what it was because of the money. Money has spoilt the game. There is no doubt some truth in this view. But from another angle, it is possible to argue that a decent share of the increased money has gone to those who directly produce the product, namely the footballers.

The man or woman in the stadium might gasp at the hundreds of thousands a week that a player may earn but at least it is those who play the football who are getting the rewards. The Professional Footballers Association has played a major role in obtaining these increased wages, as it did in organising the strike that got the maximum wage abolished back in 1961. Arguably the PFA is the most successful trade union in the land, when it comes to getting a fair days pay for its members work.

Ofcourse the rising levels of footballers pay is not totally due to the union, the rise of agents has also contributed. The clubs can no longer dictate terms to the player. Some would argue the agents have too much power, being able to unsettle players by fanning interest from other clubs. Equally, they will make demands on clubs to get a better deal for their player. Perhaps the agents do have too much power but at least players are seeing a good reward for their endeavour.

The big jump in wages for footballers really came with the introduction of the Premier League, with accompanying TV money. TV had played a large role in football over many years, with Match of the Day a staple of Saturday night viewing. However, the arrival of Sky as a major TV football promoter totally changed the dynamic.

TV money has been flooding into football for the best part of the past quarter century. The boost offered by the most recent TV deal saw the bottom club in the Premiership last season getting as much as the previous year’s Champions Leicester.

The advent of the Premier League has certainly seen the position of football in the national psyche rise. Football is now often headline news across the media. In the 1960s and 70s, no matter how important the game, football stories always remained on the back pages and at the end of news bulletins. Today, football can dominate front middle and back pages of newspapers and whole news bulletins. Football is big business.

It is the big business element that troubles those who say it’s not what it was.  Clubs owned by foreign billionaires, some of whom seem to be more interested in piling up debt against assets, than pursuing the football ethos of the local area.

It can also be argued that the role of the fan has diminished. Television is the dominant force in football because it is putting so much money into it. So it is TV companies who effectively decide when games are played. The fans will accommodate.

The fan tends to be another exploitable commodity. The old tribal loyalty of the supporter remains but in this day and age it is milked by the clubs with the branding exercises, constant kit changes and price rises.

Despite all the billions put into football by TV, the price to go to a game is at a very high level. I often wonder how ordinary working people of the type who attended football in the 1960s and 70s can attend the game today. Admission prices have risen well beyond the cost of living over the past three decades. It is a strange irony that many of those playing the game for £30k plus a week come from the same backgrounds of those on the terraces, who would be lucky to earn such an amount in a year. Yet still the fans keep coming.

Take West Ham. Back in the days when I used to stand on the terraces, the average gate was about 27,000, with the capacity at 39,000. Last season at all seater Upton Park, the ground was at full capacity of 35,000 for most of the season. The move to the new London Stadium saw the capacity go up to 57,000 – season tickets quickly sold out, with all but 5,000 already renewed for next season.

Working people still make up the hard core of those attending football matches. Football though has become a fashionable thing among all the classes. From Princes William and \Harry to former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron everyone has a football team. (Though in the case of Cameron the devotion appeared superficial, given his propensity to forget which team he supported.)

There are more families at football matches these days. Girls are as keen as boys, with female football now really taking off across the world. (The TV companies have seen the potential for another exploitable source in the women’s game.)

Football though has come to reflect the business world. The clubs with the most money, employ the best managers and win the trophies. It was all becoming a bit predictable but then along came Leicester City. Leicester famously won the Premiership in the 2015/16 season, with a relatively cheaply assembled team. There were no huge wages or transfer fees but the players became imbibed with a team ethic and will to win that saw them brush aside all of those mulita billion clubs.

Leicester’s victory was similar to that of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s. Another team of also rans, galvanised to become an unbeatable force. The Leicester victory and those giant killing efforts staged by lower league teams in the FA Cup each year prove that football retains its magic. Whilst most years it is the big money clubs that win everything there remains that possibility of an upset, a giant killing.

Another complaint is that clubs do not bring through their own local players anymore. West Ham were well known for developing home grown talent, a tendency that reached its nadir in 1966 when the club provided three home grown players for England’s World Cup winning team. West Ham were the last club to field an all English team in an FA Cup final back in 1975. Today, though, West Ham have just one home grown player in the side, captain Mark Noble, with vice chairman David Gold recently warning that it would be difficult for youngsters to break into the side in the future. However, other clubs do it, most notably and successfully over recent years have been Tottenham Hotpsur with the likes of Harry Kane, Deli Ali and Kieran Trippier. So where there is a will, home grown players can still break through.

It also has to be said that the standard of football today is much better than in past years. The game is much quicker and the skill content higher. Foreign players have helped raise those standards. In a funny way the arrival of so many foreign players in football again mirrors what has been happening in the wider society. Just as employers in other businesses often can’t find the skills they require in the domestic market or that those skills cost too much, so too with football. Clubs have found they can get higher skilled players for less from abroad. It has been a marked development in football over the past quarter century that has seen the supply of players from the lower and non-leagues to Premiership clubs dry up. The top clubs go abroad for talent.

So overall, football has changed over the past 50 years. It has evolved very much in the way that the society of which it has been a part has done. The neo-liberal market economy that has dominated society resonates in football. The insecure contracts, particularly of those in non-playing roles in football clubs, the foreign players and commodification. Notably, though, the players have done better than many other workers when it comes to securing the fruit of their labours. Football does remain the people’s game, some of the people may be a bit different from those of the post war period but the game is more popular than ever. The sense of community remains, while the entertainment value is high. So certainly football is not what it used to be but who knows it maybe better.  

*published in culturematters - http://www.culturematters.org.uk/index.php/culture/sport/item/2544-football
published in Morning Star - 5/7/2017

Sunday, 25 June 2017

What happened to living simply

Whatever happened to living simply? It was a great idea, championed by Church agencies, encouraging people to live sustainably and tread more lightly on the earth.

I know the idea is a work in progress, with valuable manifestations in the form of things like the live simply awards for parishes but there is still a long way to go.

A recently published book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth, challenges the notion that humanity has made much progress at all toward living simply.

Kingsnorth plots his own journey from long walks in the wilds as a child through being an anti-road protester at places like Twyford Down to where he is today – living with his family in a bungalow, working 2.5 acres in traditional methods.

Kingsnorth has become disillusioned with the environmental movement or what he calls neo-environmentalists. He tracks how the focus of environmentalists has been reduced down to cutting carbon to address climate change or as he succinctly puts it “the business of sustainability.” The argument has become one of windfarms versus wave machines. Other issues like the mass extinction that have been going on over recent decades have been sidelined.

Kingsnorth highlights how consumption remains a false God under this model of development. There is no effort to reduce levels of consumption, simply to consume in a more sustainable way.

He also takes issue with the idea of progress as defined in society today.  He looks at the Palaeolithic period between 30,000 and 9,000 BC, when people were living the hunter gatherer lifestyle. People were taller and healthier even that late 20th century Americans. This well being was due to the healthy lifestyle but they became too good at hunting, killing off the food supply while over producing  people, thereby sowing the seeds of demise.

The next phase of development was agrarian, which was more labour intensive and less healthy and so it goes on. He mentions the green revolution of 1940s to 1970s, which boasts to have fed another billion people. However, the cost was in terms of what the herbicides and pesticides etc did to the environment. There was ofcourse also the need to keep feeding that extra billion and further billions beyond that.

So progress as understood, if not changed, amounts to the steady destruction of the environment.

The way to fight back, in Kingsnorth’s view is the live in a simpler way. He himself has recoiled from the world, moving to the small holding in to Ireland, seeking to live with nature, using the traditional methods like the scythe to cut the grass and make hay.

He has got rid of much technology from his life like smart phones, television etc. There is a sense of a turning back of ‘progress’ in the conventional sense to reclaim some of the simpler more eco-friendly ways of living. He talks of five points to adopt: withdrawing, preserving life, getting your hands dirty with physical work, recognising nature has a value beyond utility and building refuges to preserve creatures, skills etc   

There is much value in what Kingsnorth suggests. He throws down a challenge to walk the walk as well as talking the talk.

Kingsnorth’s recollections reminded me of the lives of two Christian environmental activists, Ed and Barbara Echlin, who live in East Sussex. They similarly practice what they preach, growing most of their own food, generating energy and not using aircraft for travel. They also campaign vociferously at local, national and international levels for the environment. They are among the growing number of people who live true lives of witness.

The Church has been slow to move on the environmental agenda, despite some excellent leadership in the area from Pope Frances and Pope Benedict before him. It is time for a renewed effort to live more simply in order that others can simply live. This effort needs to go further than a bit of recycling here and there, we need to fundamentally review the way in which we live and change life for the simpler.

*Confessions of a recovering environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth

published by Faber and Faber,  price £14.99
- article published in Universe 23 June 2017

Saturday, 24 June 2017

When will Tablet and other media give Corbyn a fair run?

When will there be some positive coverage in the Tablet of the Corbyn led  Labour Party? The election result was extraordinary, especially given the vitriol directed at Corbyn by the mainstream media and many of his own backbenchers. He had an astonishing campaign, promoting social justice across the land.
Surprise surprise, the social justice message found an audience across the generations but especially amongst, the young, who came out in their millions to vote for something they could believe in. It is extraordinary that as Church we go on endlessly about the social justice teachings but when a leader of the Labour Party talks in similar terms they get derided. Surely, time for a more positive approach?

* published in Tablet - 4/6/2017

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Jeremy Corbyn - zero to hero in seven short weeks

The result of the general election is still sending shock waves through the political system of the UK.
Nothing has been the same since that uncannily accurate exit poll came in at 10 pm on election night. From that point on, it was clear that PM Theresa May had badly misjudged the mood of the country, when she called a general election, having previously denied she would do such a thing.
The calculation seems to have been that the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party was weak and divided. The opportunity was there to strike, secure a 100 plus majority and rule with impunity. How wrong was that calculation?
The most amazing factor of the entire election was the way in which Corbyn grew in stature as May declined. Corbyn was constantly out on the road, talking to the public, debating in the media. Meanwhile, May seemed to be hiding from the public. She refused to debate with the other leaders, whilst claiming she was strong and stable – the person most suited to deal with the EU.
The launching of the manifestos was another crucial point in the campaign. The Labour manifesto was first leaked, then officially launched a week later – a deft way to draw maximum publicity to the content. The manifesto, which promised more funding for the NHS, health and education, went down well with the public. A public tired of austerity for the many, whilst the few went along with business as usual, getting ever richer.
The manifesto though whilst portrayed by some as some sort of outlandish left document was very measured in tone and fully costed. As the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith noted it would only put the UK on the same footing as other European countries in terms of how it was run.
The Conservative manifesto was another disaster, not costed, it seemed to target the very people who usually support the party. The now infamous dementia tax, coupled with a decision to end the triple lock on pensions and restrict winter fuel allowance for the elderly. May was backtracking on the dementia tax within days of the manifesto launch.
The question of the EU exit process, the alleged reason for the election, proved another strong area for Labour. A well nuanced position saw the party promising not to leave the EU without a deal. The position appealed to both remainers and leavers.
The election campaign was punctuated with terror atrocities in Manchester and London. However, even these attacks seemed to work against the Tories.
What appeared like a perfect opportunity to at last look like a“strong and stable” leader turned into another disaster, as police cuts - particularly in Manchester - that the Police Federation had warned against- were trumpeted across the media.
The result of the election was largely due to a very good Labour campaign led by Corbyn, against a truly appalling effort from the Conservatives.
Corbyn’s honesty appealed, especially to young people, who came out in their droves to vote Labour. The commitment of the young was brought home to me by my next door neighbour, whose son made a special trip back from York University for the day to vote in east London.
Labour also managed to mobilise, the thousands of activists who have joined the party since Corbyn became leader, on the streets. The organisation Momentum played an important role here. The energy and idealistic enthusiasm of many of the younger people knocking on doors and attending rallies was infectious.
Corbyn’s Labour also managed to overcome an almost universally hostile media. He continued to make the grown up arguments, whilst there was intense activity on social media to try to circumvent the negative coverage in the mainstream papers like the Sun and Daily Mail. The strategy seemed to work. The result should cause for question in editorial offices across the land – the message, to get out more and maybe talk to your kids.
One of the more amusing elements of the success post-election was to hear those in the Labour Party who have spent so much time over the past 18 months denigrating Corbyn, now having to praise him. As ever Peter Mandelson attempted another spin masterclass, talking in the third person of those who had under rated Corbyn, whilst failing to acknowledge himself to have been foremost amongst them. Meanwhile, the same media commentators who told us that Corbyn had no chance now pen pieces explaining why he won. Penance indeed.
The future now looks bright for Corbyn and Labour. Re-energised, the party can look forward to another general election in the not too distant future. If the momentum can be kept up and divisions in the party avoided, Labour should win next time. The one proviso must be that the Conservatives, with a new leader, surely cannot perform so badly again.
Corbyn needs to keep going – his energy for a man of 68 is truly extraordinary. I have known Corbyn for more than 20 years, often dealing with him on miscarriage of justice cases like the East Ham 2 and Bridgewater Four. Also, on Ireland, where his valiant efforts together with those of the likes of Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell helped lay the way for the peace process.
It is ironic that having attacked Corbyn relentlessly for his role in talking to Sinn Fein that the Tory Party now seeks to get into bed with the Democratic Unionist Party – a party with past close links to Loyalist paramilitaries.
The Labour leader has certainly gone from zero to hero in the space of seven short weeks. Never regarded as a leader, he has grown into the job, stood by his principles, when being pilloried from all sides. Fortunately, for us all, he has remained standing with his message of hope resonating with people across the generations. The challenge now is to keep the pressure on the government, as Brexit negotiations open. As for the man himself, he will probably be reflecting on the aptness of something his former mentor the late Tony Benn said: “First they ignore you, then they say your mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

* published Universe 16/6/2017

Monday, 12 June 2017

Confessions of a recovering environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth

This fascinating book raises some fundamental questions about the relationship between humanity and the environment.

It is made up of a series of articles that Paul Kingsnorth wrote in publications between 2009 and 2016. The result is an account of a man plotting his own path through life, whilst trying to make sense of the world in which he lives.

There is an element of the Damascan conversion, as he moves from the early years of walking with his father in the wilds of Cumbria and Pembrokeshire to the road protests of Twyford Down onto the environmental movement today.

This path leads to a certain disillusion with much of that movement, which he sees as being consumption obsessed, not seeking to make basic change in the way of life but instead just looking to make it more sustainable.

He criticises the lack of concern over the mass extinction of species that has gone on over recent decades, when the focus of environmentalists has been reduced down to cutting carbon to address climate change or as he succinctly puts it “the business of sustainability.” The argument has become one of wind farms versus wave machines, with no effort being made to address the question of consumption.

Voracious consumption can go on in this world of what he calls the neo-environmentalists, it just has to be done sustainably. So rather than look to a more simple way of living with nature, humanity seeks to bring everyone up to the consuming levels of the west - which will require the colonisation of other planets.

Kingsnorth looks at the idea of progress, which he concludes has brought humanity to the point of self-destruction today.

He looks at the Palaeolithic period between 30,000 and 9,000 BC, when people were living the hunter gatherer lifestyle. People were taller and healthier even that late 20th century Americans. This well being was due to the healthy lifesyle but they became too good at hunting, killing off the food supply while over producing  people, thereby sowing the seeds of demise.

The next phase of development was agrarian, which was more labour intensive and less healthy and so it goes on. He mentions the green revolution of 1940s to 1970s, which boasts to have fed another billion people. However, the cost was in terms of what the herbicides and pesticides etc did to the environment. There was ofcourse also the need to keep feeding that extra billion and further billions beyond that.

The progress question is a troubling one that does go rather unresolved in the book.

Kingsnorth provides all sorts of interesting vignets, like a chapter on the impact of the Norman conquest, which led to the concentration of land ownership in the hands of very few (mainly the crown) that continues to this day.

There is also some interesting wrestling with the idea of nature, a greater being and spirituality. Non-religious, Kingsnorth is captivated by the idea of the sacredness of the natural world. He describes a visit to the Grotte de Niaux cave deep in the mountain, where he finds the paintings of bison, going right back to the Palaeolithic times. He then contrasts the wonderment of what he saw in the cave to the activities of the de-extinction people today, who seek to try to bring back species like the woolly mammoth. Kingsnorth sees the latter activity of humans taking over the God role, deciding what lives or dies. The author suggests that one of the problems today is that humans see themselves as master over nature, rather than co-workers in the great plan.

Taking in the wide span covered in Kingsnorth’s work could leave the reader with a feeling of hopelessness. But he does offer ways to fight back. He himself has recoiled from the world, moved to Ireland and bought a bungalow with 2.5 acres. He now seeks to live with nature, using the traditional methods like the scythe to cut the grass and make hay. There is a vivid description of the creation of a compost toilet.

He has got rid of much technology from his life like smart phones, television etc. There is a sense of a turning back of ‘progress’ in the conventional sense to reclaim some of the simpler more eco-friendly ways of living. He talks of five points to adopt: withdrawing, preserving non human life, getting your hands dirty with physical work, recognising nature has a value beyond utility and building refuges to preserve creatures, skills etc   

 Kingsnorth succeeds in bringing together a number of separate essays into one embracing narrative. He covers much ground, asking some questions that need deeper answers. But there are fundamental questions for the environmental movement today, as well as the politicians who in many cases it would seem are simply managing natural decline, ironically, often in the name of progress. The hope in the book comes from the power of one, the power within us all to combat the destructive human machine by to a degree turning back to simpler times and life coping methods. Everyone can in some way make a difference changing their lifestyle to a more compatible complimentary way of living. 

- published by Faber and Faber, £14.99

published Morning Star - 19/6/2017

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Anti-terror legislation has not prevented terrorism, it has resulted in the iimprisonment of innocent people and the alienation of communities

It seems to be an accepted part of the populist narrative that every piece of anti terror legislation passed in the past 40 years actually prevented terrorism, so anyone like Jeremy Corbyn, who voted against such measures, was is someway soft on terrorism. This is a complete fiction, legislation like the Prevention of Terrorism Act did little to prevent terrorism but did result in the imprisonment of innocent people, like the Guildford Four and the alienation of communities (first the Irish, more recently Muslims).
Give up your liberties in exchange for security has been the cry of dictators down the ages, the same applies today. Making a bonfire of our liberties does nothing to prevent terrorism, in fact it marks a capitulation to the terrorists who want to destroy our democratic way of life.

*published Evening Standard 7/6/2017

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Political discourse on immigration is economically illiterate

How extraordinary to see the validity of any party’s position on immigration being set according to how much they can reduce the numbers by.

This country has an ageing population, migrants virtually run many of the vital services, like the NHS and education, yet apparently – post Brexit -we don’t want them. Migration contributes billions to the exchequer, without which vital services could not be funded.

Immigration will reduce when the economy declines and the jobs are not available. A ridiculous position that Theresa May seems to prefer to that of a buoyant open economy with migrants. Even former Chancellor George Osborne has described the Tories position on immigration as economically illiterate.

Maybe the questions on immigration should not be premised on cutting numbers but as to whether the politicians concerned want to make people poorer. If the answer is no, then it follows , don’t cut immigration.

Published Evening Standard - 6/6/2017