News that the sport of rugby league will be singled out for a special treasury loan will be a handy election fillip for the newly elected Conservative MPs in the ‘Red Wall’. The £16m offer, requested by the Rugby Football League (RFL), is seen as an essential bailout to prevent the total collapse of the professional game in Britain.
For rugby league – a sport characterised by its popularity in the small towns of the ex-industrial north – the encroachment of the Conservative Party into its territory has been a surprising one
As the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, was keen to stress, it is a loan for the community as much as the clubs: ‘They are the beating heart of their towns and cities and their impact goes far beyond what happens on the pitch’.
For rugby league – a sport characterised by its popularity in the small towns of the ex-industrial north – the encroachment of the Conservative Party into its territory has been a surprising one. Historically, rugby league was part of a working class culture that was intrinsically Labour; played out across the coalfields of Lancashire and Yorkshire, in the weapon and shipbuilding plants of Cumbria, by the docks in Hull, and the heavy industries of Warrington, Widnes and St Helens. The sort of towns where it was often said ‘a monkey in a red rosette, could win here’.
Successful Labour leaders understood its importance to working class culture. It is why Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson were eager to be seen at the games showpiece event, the Challenge Cup Final, even though it was not their natural sport of choice. Likewise, Mrs Thatcher must have recognised its importance, when, after promising to win back the industrial north after securing the Conservative Party leadership in 1975, she accepted an offer to present the trophy at Wembley.
It was Thatcher’s government that further embedded Labour within league’s heartlands. In the early 1980s her reforms of industry hit the game harder than any other sport. Money was short amongst unemployed fans, as the governing body admitted in 1983: ‘the recession is biting deep and people have to think hard before parting with their money’. Unlike today, there was no chance of a government loan to help keep clubs and fans afloat.
As the country came out of recession, the sport was crippled by the 1984-85 miners’ strike. As the pits closed, the protests moved from the workplace to the terraces. Memories of the strike became etched into the ethos of the sport so that when the Douglas Hurd attended the 1992 World Cup Final, he was booed by all corners of the Wembley crowd. Similarly, when British Coal announced further cuts to the mining industry in the same year, Great Britain star Shaun Edwards taped over their logo on his shirt in protest.
So when, in 1995, Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB proposed to merge clubs in the former pit villages together (Wakefield, Castleford and Featherstone would have become Calder) many supporters saw it as a continuation of the political battle that began in 1979. Featherstone became a symbol of the resistance: ‘they ripped the heart out of the town when they closed the pit in 1985. Now they’re announcing the death of Rovers’ was how one protestor put it. Unlike the miners’ strike, the underdogs won that battle and the mergers were called off following fan protests.
In the years since, however, further deindustrialisation has loosened the natural bond between league and the Labour movement. The game has ventured into new markets – in the metropolitan areas of Toronto, London and Perpignan – which has left towns such as Workington, Featherstone and Batley in the shadows. Politically, voters in league towns became secondary electoral considerations to New Labour, in favour of the swing voters in Middle England.
For Blair’s Government, football came to symbolise their new attitude: as the entrepreneurial, fashionable and, perhaps most crucially of all, classless sport of modern Britain. It was left to John Prescott – the epitome of ‘Old Labour’ – to champion rugby league (later becoming a Director at Hull Kingston Rovers). When Blair finally engaged with the sport – attending the 2001 cup final – he was booed by the crowd – but still rewarded with a landslide election victory a few weeks later. No Labour leader since has been brave enough to follow him into the lion’s den.
In 2019, with memories of the miners’ strike fading, Conservative strategists calculated that rugby league towns were unthinkably up for grabs. With the majority of the towns voting Leave in the 2016 E.U referendum, ‘Workington Man’ – defined by the Onward thinktank as the league loving, male, blue-collar Brexiter – emerged as a surprise swing voter. Amongst a series of symbolic blows, Labour lost in Leigh, Wakefield, Warrington South, Keighley, Barrow, Dewsbury and Workington. More league towns may have fallen had the Brexit Party not split the vote.
Those Conservative MPs have quickly discovered how vital rugby league is to the communities they now represent. As the COVID-19 crisis has hit, clubs have been at the forefront of the organisational response – from co-ordinating welfare checks, running foodbanks to raising money for NHS services. But it remains a sport reliant on gate money to survive and with no prospect of fixtures returning soon, it has decided to cash in on its new found importance to the Johnson Government.
Politically, the bailout is the first signal that the Conservatives intend to defend the ‘Red Wall’ that was handed to them this Winter. Labour have woken up to the battle that now lies ahead and MPs such as Karl Turner, Lisa Nandy and Conor McGinn have been championing the importance of the clubs to their communities.
For Keir Starmer, there is a realisation that league towns now hold the keys to Downing Street. It is no surprise that he chose Leigh to launch his leadership campaign in December, in a bid to find out ‘why we lost the election’. It is a remarkably different political landscape than the one of four years ago, where the Warwickshire town of Nuneaton was seen as the bellwether seat in the party’s route back to power.
With the Rugby League World Cup being staged across the north in 2021, there will be ample opportunity for politicians of all stripes to flex their rugby league credentials. In doing so, they can hopefully give the sport the greater national profile that many feel it so richly deserves.
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