Reading Matt Hancock’s piece in the Sunday Times a couple of weekends ago previewing Onward’s interesting new publication, Generation Why, and watching a clip of his speech at the publication’s launch, reminded me why I gave up talking to people in politics about football nearly 20 years ago.
A weird link? Let me explain. There comes a time when, despite theoretically sharing an interest in the same subject, you have so little actual shared experience of that subject that it becomes impossible to have any sort of meaningful conversation about it. You might as well be talking to each other in a foreign language.
As a youth of 16 or 17, playing at the bottom of the non-league pyramid, my favourite place to play was Heanor Town. For those that don’t know the East Midlands, Heanor is a small town in the North of Derbyshire. The football pitch was located at the top of the slope of the cricket pitch. While badly sloped, the pitch was impeccably cut whatever the weather (usually cold or freezing), the floodlights worked, and the dressing rooms had the intense smell of deep heat. Most importantly, the locals absolutely loved football and sport in general. Heanor was a football town.
When you talked to the locals about football, they didn’t just talk about Man Utd or Derby or Forest; of course, they did talk about them, but they’d be as happy talking about the last game against Kimberley Town, or Jeff Astle’s last song on Fantasy Football, or how Notts County fans moaned all the time. In short, when talking about football there was a shared understanding that you were talking about the game as a whole. It was expected that everyone knew practically everything there was to know about the game since they were a child – about players, fans, grounds, songs, old kits and all the rest.
When I arrived in London politics, full as it was with privately educated, mostly Southern staff that hadn’t played much, that shared understanding was totally absent. While many professed a love of the game, their entire way of speaking about it was alien. They’d talk almost entirely about the top of the game over the last few years since they became interested or – increasingly and weirdly – about football statistics. Nobody knew what the Anglo-Italian Cup was, let alone the FA Vase. And because nobody had really played at school, nobody knew what it was like to get hit on the thigh with a Mitre Multiplex in January. The Fast Show’s “I love football” sketch was no longer an amusing parody, but reality. Talking about football was a bizarre and depressing experience. So I stopped.
Which takes me back to Hancock’s article and speech. In giving advice to the Conservatives in appealing to the young, he wrote: “First, we need to get our tone right. Sometimes Conservatives can sound, as Ruth Davidson succinctly put it, a bit ‘dour’. Of course, it’s our job to be the pragmatists, but nobody wants to hang out with the person always pointing out the problems, rather than the one hopeful about the solutions…” At the event, he said: “As well as delivering better economic prospects for people, we’ve got to sound like we actually like this country. We’ve got to patriots for the Britain of now, not the Britain of 1940. And enough about being just comfortable with modern Britain, we need to champions of modern Britain.”
Just as I found it increasingly difficult to relate to most of the privately-educated, metropolitan Conservatives talking about football, hearing this, I found myself similarly thinking that I have literally nothing in common with the same sorts of people’s views on politics. It’s as if we’ve grown up in entirely different worlds. Honestly, how can anyone think that the British people are collectively optimistic, happy-go-lucky, and modernity-obsessed? How can anyone seriously think that this is the best way to engage with people? How can they imagine themselves walking into the average pub, shopping centre or call centre canteen and connecting with ordinary people with such a case?
Ordinary people don’t want to hear about 1940 or about life before large-scale immigration; most are happy with the people they live amongst. But they also emphatically don’t want to hear politicians droning on about how great the future is going to be and how technology and 3D printing is going to change everything for the better. It’s just not how they think about the world and not how they talk about it.
Look at what most working class and lower middle class people really think about things – those that make up the bulk of electorate. They think: that the economy is, at best fine, but that they see little of the benefits of growth; that long-term careers are a relic of the past; that good pensions have gone and that a long retirement is just a dream; that home ownership is increasingly unattainable; that the cost of living is too high; that their town centres are boring; that the NHS is over-burdened and under-funded and might fail them when the time comes; that crime is rising and police numbers are falling; that their savings will get raided to pay for social care; that childcare is ruinously expensive; and they think that politicians are out of touch thieves. While this is more prevalent amongst the old in provincial England, it’s actually common everywhere.
Why get so worked up over one little speech and an article? Because it’s clear that the Conservative Party is preparing to return to its recent comfort zone – using claims of a broad appeal to the young, which would be reasonable, to justify an appeal to the tiny number of successful, highly affluent, urban voters who are basically like those at the top of the Party. It’s dressed up as daring and confrontational, but is in fact just about following a path of least-resistance in the Party, while making those that make the case feel good about themselves. If Hancock is so sure this plays well, Heanor are home to Gedling Miners Welfare on Saturday. I’m sure they’d love to hear from him.