Come on, you reds! Why football tribalism won’t work for Corbyn this election | Alastair Campbell

15 May

Some years ago, I was having breakfast with Alex Ferguson. A newspaper had carried a story that the then- Tory minister David Mellor, a Chelsea fan, had once supported Fulham. “There are two things you can never change in life,” said Fergie. “The football team you support, and the way you walk.” I leave you to experiment on the second. But on the first, he is spot on.

Of course those who work in football have to support the team that pays them. But Ferguson would be as appalled as I am by the words I am about to inflict upon you, from someone called Damian Reilly, writing in last week’s Spectator.

Reilly, a Manchester United fan for 20 years, he explained, had switched to supporting Arsenal chiefly out of admiration for that team’s “dignified and daring” manager Arsène Wenger.

“So I stopped supporting United and started following Arsenal,” Reilly wrote. That, surely, must be one of the most dreadful sentences ever to be published in any publication, anywhere, ever. I share his admiration of Wenger. But such a switch is like me, a Burnley fan, deciding to support Blackburn. It would be akin to asking me to swap my partner or kids, or change the colour of my eyes. It’s why my respect rose a little for Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, a Blackburn supporter, when he said that if his kids voted Tory or Labour he could live with it, but if they supported Burnley that was quite another matter altogether.

Politics needs tribalism too, but it can and must be of a different sort. If we apply this rigid football tribalism to politics, it means that change comes largely through the coming of age of young voters, and the death of old ones; otherwise we all vote the same way for ever. Football tribalism and political tribalism are very different animals, and require different approaches.

Take two issues close to my heart, Europe and the Labour party. If we are to prevent the country careering over the cliff-edge to which Theresa May is leading it, taking with her our living standards and public services, then people who currently think her approach is a good one, and people who voted leave, are going to have to be persuaded to change their minds (as she did, remember). If Labour is ever to win a general election again, then people currently minded not to vote Labour are going to have to change their minds. That means on both, the tribalists have to go out and persuade the non-tribalists. The true believers have to persuade the non-true believers. We have to get them to switch sides, change allegiance, support a “different team”.

I am tribal in my politics, though finding that tribalism challenged: by the Labour leadership’s dreadful performance in the referendum and its refusal to stand up for the record of the last Labour government, seeking instead to define it negatively. Also by a lack of professionalism, of which Diane Abbott’s car crash interview on policing became a symbol; by the leadership’s level of ambition, which now seems to be matching Ed Miliband’s losing share of the vote in 2015. It’s challenged by a leader who seems to want to talk about anything but Brexit, even though that is the reason the election was called, and by the focus on policies and personalities that deliberately narrow Labour’s appeal rather than broaden it to the voters not already part of the tribe.

I don’t have a big enough hypocrisy gene in my DNA to say I can support Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party with the same conviction with which I’ve supported Labour for all of my adult life, and I have some understanding for those fellow Labour tribalists, including party members, who tell me they are voting Lib Dem, either because that is the best way to stop a Tory where they live, or because they do not feel Labour has earned its support, especially on Brexit. But I will be voting Labour, not least because Keir Starmer is my local MP and I am campaigning for good Labour MPs and candidates, but also because May does not deserve, and the country will not benefit from, the kind of landslide she wants and, if the polls are remotely right, she is set to get.

Philip May on the One Show: ‘I take the bins out’ – video

May is not a football fan. Indeed, having watched the toe-curling BBC-shaming One Show interview with her and her husband, I doubt she has any interests outside hard Brexit, saying “strong and stable leadership” and claiming fancifully that every Tory vote strengthens her hand in the Brexit negotiations. Corbyn is a football fan, and one who stands by his team, Arsenal. But for the election, he needs to get less football-style tribal and more into the anti-tribal approach needed to broaden support in politics. As Neil Kinnock once said: “Between elections, politics can be a pounding exchange of slogans which enthuse the armies of left and right. But elections are won or lost on the centre ground and Labour must win that with slogging, practical, principled persuasion. Failure to do that betrays the people we exist to serve.”

Corbyn’s message is aimed very squarely at his tribe, and even within the tribe, at a narrow band of it. He needs to reach out and find new support, not merely strengthen the feelings of those already backing him. May has rolled her tanks all over Ukip, and is now marching on to what was once deemed rock-solid Labour ground.

“No one likes us, we don’t care,” works well on what used to be called the terraces. It is not however the basis for an effective electoral strategy, especially not when May is singing another chant that dates back to the height of the hooligan era: “Come on in, come on in, come on in”, even as her policies are set to do more damage than any football fan ever did.

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