Unlike the White Queen to Alice, I won’t be asking you to believe six impossible things before breakfast or indeed any other meal, but I will ask that you forgive my tenuous analogy. In hindsight, it would have been more appropriate if it were the Red Queen who imparted this nonsensical advice, as the two subjects of this contrast and comparison are closely associated with that hue.
I have an invested interest in, and have been closely following the fortunes of, two public figures and, in spite of there being few obvious connections between them, I decided to kill two birds with one badly considered article. They are Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liverpool FC manager Kenny Dalglish. Their red credentials are under no doubt – the former the younger son of a prominent Marxist theoretician, the latter an Anfield legend both on and off the pitch – but neither came into their jobs through a direct route and both have come under fire from sections of their supporters.
The former Energy and Climate Change Secretary ascended to his current position by the roundabout route of being the least offensive to his party members. His elder brother David, heir apparent, polled more first-choice votes, but due to the complicated AV form of polling Ed won through by being more people’s second choice. Not the most confidence inspiring way to become leader.
‘King’ Kenny took the reigns in a temporary capacity after the sacking of predecessor, new England manager Roy Hodgson, who had been a spectacular failure in charge, and hadn’t endeared himself to the Kop faithful. Dalgleish rode in on a tide of popular support, with his name being called out from the terraces.
For the first eighteen months in the position, if Ed Miliband’s record as leader of the opposition were expressed as a series of score lines, read from the old-school videprinter on a Saturday teatime BBC, they’d be a dirge of tedious no-score draws. Politically, he’s thus far squandered every gilt-edged chance he has been served up – and has been accused of bandwagon jumping when he did catch on – and missed more open goals than a blind, drunk, one-legged heifer (or, Andy Carroll, as his friends know him.)
Initially, his sporting counterpart in this shaky analysis, fared a little better. Dalglish stabilised the team, inspired confidence and invested in new and exciting talent. Results improved and the team crawled up the Premier League table.
But recently their fortunes have polarised somewhat. Where Liverpool and their popular figurehead had endured a run of poor form, the Labour leader has began to soar.
Up until the past few weeks, I got the impression when Ed Miliband was handed these golden opportunities to shine he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them, like the ape at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, picking up a bone and bashing the corpse until the light bulb above its head flickered into life. But, of late, the government has begun to resemble that corpse. Barely a day goes by without some new grief, some reason for embarrassment, so he isn’t short of material to thrash them with. There has been the débâcle that was the government’s handling of a potential fuel tanker drivers’ strike that caused chaos at the pumps; the resignation of party treasurer Peter Cruddas in the wake of the cash-for-access scandal; a budget that they could not even justify to their back benchers and included the memorable granny-tax, pasty-tax and caravan tax; the Leveson inquiry uncovering evidence of collusion between Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and News Corp in the takeover bid for BSkyB; and the devastating news that the UK economy experienced a so-called ‘double-dip’ recession, in spite of their claim to being the party with the correct formula to heal the country’s debt problem. An omnishambles, as Miliband catchingly described it. Not even Liverpool’s £35m Geordie statue, Carroll, could fail to hit a bullseye.
With each new mishap, Miliband has taken to the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s questions and has aggressively and effectively taken the Premier to task over them. David Cameron’s only defence, as it usually is, has been attack, rather than answering his opposite number’s questions. The mantra he repeats, regardless of the subject, is that the previous government got the country into these difficulties, and his government is taking difficult decisions to solve them. But how long will that wash?
The party’s defeat at the Bradford West bi-election was the only tarnish to this otherwise excellent purple patch. Labour lost the seat to one policy, professional agitator George Galloway, who was expelled from the party in 2003 and has oft come back to haunt them, like some embittered, shit-flinging, Scottish poltergeist.
Liverpool’s form has also caused them to part company with employees. Director of football Damien Comolli, along with some backroom staff, were given the bullet when results took a negative turn. Frenchman Comolli was the architect behind all of the club’s overpriced and under performing acquisitions, and, as in politics, when dismissals begin the minor functionaries act as a firewall around the person in the hotseat. Although the men on the pitch must take their share of responsibility, Dalglish’s tactical failings must shoulder much blame. He spent a decade away from management, years in which the game has changed radically.
The man is so adored the dilemma for the owners is, by appointing him they have given the supporters exactly what they wanted, now how do you get rid of him? To fire him would be like walking into a nursery with a basket of puppies then, in front of the delighted children, taking out a shotgun and blasting the dogs in the face with both barrels.
But in spite of his good run, I can’t invest much faith in Ed Miliband. It’s only weak opposition making him look good. His father was a socialist poster boy, but so what? My dad used to work for Heinz, but that doesn’t make me a go-to man for baked beans. All my instincts and reason are against his long-term prospects. He is a competent junior minister, but can you see him as Prime Minister? Some have commented he has the look of a Nick Park creation – I’m sure not helped by being viewed as a puppet of the unions – and a personality as dull and lumpen as one of those plasticine figures. It’s sad that personality should matter so much in a politician, but in this day and age of 24 hour multi-platform media it’s a must. A lack of a likeable personality was the downfall of dour, boring accountant Gordon Brown, who, fifty years ago, may have made a fair PM, but under constant, intense scrutiny he lacked the necessary nous. David Cameron, in spite of any opinions you may have about his politics, is very media savvy, although some are finding the smug, posh boy persona becoming very wearing.
Likewise, I can’t see Dalglish staying in his position either. It has become apparent he isn’t the man to restore Liverpool to the lofty successes of the 1980s. For a man who, to the club’s fans, could do no wrong, his reputation has been tarnished a little and perhaps the best result for all parties would be for him to fall on his sword.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’ll be relieved to know the connections between the two men do tie together a little neater than this article has so far given the impression. Both face stern tests of their leadership this week that could make or break their careers.
On Thursday 3rd May 2012, up and down the country, those not too apathetic will vote in local council elections. Parties in government usually suffer badly in mid-term elections, and with this government experiencing what can only be described as a crisis anything less than a Labour whitewash will be seen as a failure and an indictment of Miliband’s leadership.
On Saturday, the men in red shorts will face the toughest test of Dalglish’s reign so far when they face a enlivened Chelsea in the FA Cup final. They have already won a trophy this year – the League Cup – but this will be a make-or-break moment.
Good form in politics, like football, is fickle and fleeting. You can be riding high one week and plummeting the next. Unlike in football, this form is not so easily chartable, with no league tables to express results. The closest indicators would be polls conducted by the likes of YouGov and Ipsos MORI, but these are to be used only as a general guide. People are more willing to make a decision with no consequences, but when it comes to an election they tend to vote truer to type, so polls do not necessarily accurately represent an election result. But most polls are currently agreed that Labour are well ahead, with trust in the government ebbing away. Liverpool’s eighth position in the league tells a different story. They have fallen well short of the expectations of the owners and the fans.
The fear is that should both individuals succeed this week, it will buy them time in positions they have already outstayed their welcome.
Another subject that seems to elicit responses disproportionate to the offence caused is racism, particularly very public racism, and so I approach this article with caution, aware it’s likely to garner a certain kind of unthinking response. It’s a sensitive area, so I’ll set out my stall now to avoid accusations of defending racism or racists. I am not, and will not.
I’ve so far avoided writing about the fate of Bolton’s Zaire-born footballer Fabrice Muamba lest I pre-empt his demise and as a result seem crass and unfeeling. Thankfully, due to the efforts of medical staff both on the scene of his collapse and later in the ambulance and hospital, he is making a remarkable recovery. Although considered the national game, and even though it made front page news for days after the event, there are sections of the public who couldn’t care less about a football related story. For those whom this passed by, here is a quick summary of events:
On 17 March 2012, during a game against Tottenham Hotspur, the 23 year old Fabrice Muamba suffered a heart attack on the pitch. After receiving lengthy medical attention with the game paused, and while tens of thousands of fans looked on concerned, he was transferred to hospital with his outlook not looking good. His heart had stopped for well over an hour and he was, effectively, dead. For me, I’m sure like many others, comparisons with Mark-Vivien Foe, who died during a game for Lyon in 2003, were inevitable. Muamba’s condition slowly improved in the following hours and days, and it now looks as though he will make an eventual recovery, although it is unlikely he will ever resume his sports career.
The response from the wider community of professionals and fans within football was warm and supportive, with cross-club expressions of good will. One of my favourite moments was the placing of a Manchester United scarf – an object I, as a Liverpool fan, might normally be expected to spit on – with the message “one game, one family” outside the Bolton ground. It summed up much of my feelings about the incident.
Inevitably, as the world isn’t lacking in mean-spirited idiots, not everybody echoed those sentiments. Liam Stacey, a student from Pontypridd, took a different view. He used Twitter to post messages of a racist, vulgar and threatening nature to Muamba and to those who expressed their understandable revolt. This is where I risk the greatest chance of being mistaken. I only read his exact words second hand, as no decent publication (the only kind I read), or this website, would repeat them, and they appall me. But, I can’t help but feel some of the resulting public outcry far outstrips the seriousness of the crime.
When charged at Swansea Magistrates’ Court, Stacey pleaded guilty to posting the abusive comments and was sentenced to 56 days imprisonment. It seems, on the surface, a fair judgement, but part of the magistrate’s closing statement set me thinking. “I have no choice,” he said, “but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done.” Since when has the legal system paid heed to the degree of public opinion of a crime? If it did, the lynch mobs would be out to hang all paedophiles and child murderers. Justice should be even-handed, regardless of what the public think.
In addition, the University of Swansea, where he was studying biology with the aim of becoming a forensic scientist, have suspended his studies, saying he was “not welcome” on campus, and that his attendance may be a disruptive influence on other students.
A quick opinion poll I conducted amongst friends turned up a variety of opinions on the subject. Some thought it lenient, or at least not extreme. Others thought he was being made an example of, and that it would make others think twice about committing a similar crime – a common misconception of how criminal justice works, hence why countries with the death penalty, such as the US, actually have high murder rates, rather than it acting as a deterrent as you would expect.
The short prison stay, eight weeks of low security incarceration, probably with Sky TV and other home comforts, seems inconsequential to me. Far more damaging, and by far the best punishment for this kind of idiotic crime, is the permanent stain to his reputation. A very public humiliation, using the same media tools he used to spread racial hatred and abuse, is the key to dealing with racist morons. Embarrassment is a powerful tool.
In regards to his seclusion from university, I have my reservations. Rehabilitation is necessary for any criminal, and lack of employment opportunities after a prison sentence is one of the major factors in reoffending. This action by his alma mater risks seriously stunting his entire future – a potentially longer and more severe punishment for what is, when you get down to it, a small and twatty crime.
It would be nice to think this was an isolated incident, perpetrated by a single moron, but apparently this kind of behaviour is catching. Manchester United fanzine, Red Issue, sparked further controversy with a cover which could easily be taken as mocking the Muamba situation, with the headline “Grief Junkies Run Riot” and tasteless comments such as “I’ve tweeted my condolences just in case,” and “Is he dead yet?”
Are we, as a society, becoming overly sensitive to public outrage, or is it just a matter of having the means – via social networking and 24-hour news access – to express our opinions? Either way, these incidents seem to occur with tedious regularity. They make me just want to grab the whole internet community, shake some sense into them while telling them to calm the fuck down and get some perspective. I’ve never believed the idiom sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Words can hurt, deeply, and they usually take longer to heal than many wounds. That’s why the correct response to hurtful, or incendiary words, is to use words in response.
Let’s start with first principles: I abhor racism in all its ugly, vulgar forms. Don’t mistake me, this isn’t a Sepp Blatter ‘I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black’ preamble. I genuinely loathe it, and this article isn’t in any way intended to defend racist behavior or language. But the ruling by the FA in the racism row between Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Manchester United’s Patrice Evra has triggered off my incredulity circuits, and I have to point out the illogicality of it.
A reiteration of the facts, for those unaware of them: the alleged incident took place in the hotly contested game between the teams at the beginning of October at Anfield. Evra claimed that Suarez used a racial term ‘at least ten times.’ Suarez has consistently denied this. Other than Evra’s personal assignations, no other witness or evidence has come to the public knowledge.
The FA ruled that Suarez had racially abused Evra, and the applied punishment was an 8-game ban and a fine of £40,000. This was despite Evra’s written statement that he did not consider Suarez racist, and the FA accepted, in their opening remarks, that Suarez was not racist. Also in the balance was Evra’s history for claims of abuse of this kind. In 2008 he received a four game ban after an altercation with a groundsman at Stamford Bridge after it was alleged he had made a racist remark.
Despite the tightly closed doors, the information that has come to light is that Suarez used the word ‘negro’ or one very similar. The FA has taken its time ruling on the case due to the unusual cultural angle that, in his native language of Spanish, similar sounding words are common, such as negrito, which are not racially offensive.
The 2003 edition of Collins English Dictionary defines racism as:
1. (Sociology) the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others
2. (Sociology) abusive or aggressive behaviour towards members of another race on the basis of such a belief.
Evra, in the process of the hearing, has freely admitted to abusing Suarez in Spanish and, according to some reports, when Suarez tried to put his hand on Evra, said ‘Don’t touch me, you South American.’ By doing so, he has himself admitted to a form of racism. It’s a serious social misconception to presume racism can only flow in one direction: from white to black (for the record, Suarez is of mixed race – his grandfather was a man of colour.) Racism in this context is the use of terms with the intent of belittling another based on their racial background. Referring therefore to his South American origins is no better than referring to Evra’s African origins. Just because Suarez has paler skin doesn’t make it less racist, like some kind of politically correct Top Trumps. It’s either racist or it isn’t. If so, a punishment no less harsh than the one handed to Suarez should also be doled out to Evra.
There is a taboo around the ‘N-word’ like a police cordon with a ‘do not cross’ tape, but it’s just a word. Context is important. You would not expunge all uses of the word from literature prior to the time it became an unacceptable term, just because social attitudes have changed. It would be acceptable to use the word in the context of a discourse on language use and change, where you might be quoting or discussing the use of the word. If Suarez had actually used the word, it would be acceptable to use the word in this piece about it, although I probably still wouldn’t as out of good taste I decide not to do so. But whether or not he said it and meant it in the context of intending racial abuse is what is under debate.
Racism is a cooperative concept. The first part comes from the express intent of the user, and if they mean offence by their use. The second is in the degree others take offence to it.
The problem is that the FA cannot be seen as soft on the issue of racism. A few weeks ago, FIFA President Sepp Blatter caused uproar when he seemed to suggest in an interview on Fox Soccer, that racism was not a problem within football, and all issues should be settled with a handshake. The FA was quick to denounce Blatter’s remarks as wrong and unrepresentative of their opinions. This is the first case to come under review since then and the degree of punishment is undoubtedly designed to reflect this difference to FIFA.
Not long after the judgement was made, England Captain and Chelsea man John Terry was officially charged by the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) with using racist language during a game. Because the initial complaint was made by a member of the public rather than the player whom he is accused of abusing – QPR’s Anton Ferdinand – the case first goes before the courts rather than the FA. The maximum penalty should he be found guilty is a fine of £2,500. A pittance to a man who earns a reported £150,000 a week, but it would also reflect badly on his reputation. Could the FA, if they want to be seen as harsh but fair, then allow him to represent his country as Captain with that kind of black mark on record? If they do, then fair is not what they are and Luis Suarez is being used as a scapegoat.