Dave Skelton is Deputy Director of Policy Exchange and a "passionate North Easterner". Follow him on Twitter.
It’s the North East derby this weekend. Like every Sunderland fan, I know that those 90 minutes are going to be nerve-wracking. In a region like the North East, where football is under the skin, the result matters a hell of a lot. Bragging rights for the next few months will be decided in schools, workplaces and even divided family homes.
Growing up in Consett, a working class town where there are plenty of Sunderland and Newcastle fans, you certainly knew about it if the result had gone the wrong way.
The rivalry between the sides has become, to many supporters, visceral, vicious and all consuming. There are plenty of fans on both sides of the divide who would now rather win the derby than win the league – I know because they’ve told me.
24 fans were arrested after the derby last year and the police presence and atmosphere of tension is always massive. The chants about opposition players and supporters are, all too regularly descend into the outright offensive.
It isn’t just the North Eastern derby that has taken on a new level of tension in the past couple of decades. The same has happened in London. Last week Spurs and Arsenal had to issue a pre-match statement calling on fans to respect rival fans and players. Local rivalries have now taken on the type of bitterness once reserved for those matches, such as those in Glasgow, where religion, politics and football made for an often toxic combination.
Last weekend, I was talking with people in Consett who watched football in the decades after the war. They pointed out how much the derby has grown in intensity. Len Shackleton, our greatest post war player and Bob Stokoe, our greatest post war manager, had both also played for Newcastle and Stokoe faced none of the abuse that Steve Bruce faced for his “Geordie” past. It was only in the 1970s and 1980s that local rivalries became verbally and, at times physically, violent.
That surely has something to do with deindustrialisation and the decline of working class communities.
Working class people used to have many identities that they could hold on to with a strong sense of pride. They were proud of their football team of course and a trip to Roker Park offered a welcome break from back breaking labour and a rare means of working class self expression.
But your football club used to be one of many things that gave you pride. People were proud of their jobs – important, skilled jobs that the rest of the economy could not do without. People were proud of their communities – close , cohesive, with a real sense of belonging and solidarity. Some felt a pride in their Methodism and others a pride in their working class politics (often both). And communities felt a pride in their capacity for self-improvement and the fact that they were represented by an MP who genuinely represented their community.
Now all of those things that gave working people pride have gone and, to many, only football remains.
I saw how much damage was done to my home town of Consett when the steelworks closed and most adult males were thrown on the dole. Deindustrialisation and the mass unemployment that accompanied it continues to blight towns like Consett. Close communities have been broken up, with some of Consett’s once vibrant terraces now peppered with boarded up homes. The main shopping street is now littered with discount stores and charity shops. Methodism and working class politics have both declined completely. And the number of working class MPs from all parties has also fallen.
Many areas that were once beacons of working class pride are now areas beset with intergenerational unemployment and welfare dependency, as well as comparatively poor educational performance, poor levels of health and high levels of anti social behaviour.
The hollowing out of many working class communities leaves football as the one thing to cling to. Footballing rivalries have become increasingly bitter. Many of the things that used to matter to working class areas have gone. To many, football is all that remains.
Is it any wonder that so much emotion and so much passion is now invested in football when every other element of working class pride has been diminished?
Politicians of all parties have made well intentioned efforts to turn deindustrialised areas around. But it’s time to admit that some of the old answers to providing a brighter future have failed. We need bold, radical and imaginative solutions to bring back optimism and pride to working class communities.
It’s a sad truth that parts of the country hardest hit by deindustrialisation often haven’t been able to create sustainable private sector jobs to replace the jobs lost in the 1970s and 1980s. Radical reforms, including to the planning system, are needed to create private sector jobs in areas blighted by high unemployment. Poorer areas need the right transport and digital infrastructure to encourage job creation. Parts of the North East, for example, have woefully bad transport infrastructure.
Education reform needs to be targeted at ensuring that kids from working class areas are able to meet their educational potential. All too often, it’s the kids from poorer areas who are let down by the system and education reform is essential to raise the quality of education in poorer areas. So many of the people I went to comprehensive school in Consett with weren’t able to fulfil their massive potential because they were let down by a system that didn’t encourage them to aspire. That’s why education reform is necessary and this radical education reform, from the pupil premium to free schools and social enterprise schools should be focused on improving outcomes in poorer areas.
Other reforms can also give back power and control to people who have felt disempowered for decades. Measures to devolve power to local communities and create city mayors could help empower local people, as will reforms to give local people more of a say over the planning system – helping to create thriving towns rather than run down high streets.
I’m going to be following the match as fervently as any Sunderland fan. I’ll be ecstatic if we win and gutted if we lose. I’m also proud of what working class communities and working class people have contributed to the country. Football clubs are, rightly, sources of great pride and identity for working class communities. Policy makers need to ensure that these communities have other sources of pride in years to come.