The Last Word: Which of the big hitters will land knock-out blow?
Politicians have not given enough thought to sport despite its relevance to nation's health and finances
Sunday 02 May 2010
Ed Balls, one of our more appropriately named politicians, likened the last three-way party leaders' debate to a boxing match when he appeared on Thursday's
Question Time. Unfortunately his man suffered a points defeat but true to the spirit of the noble art, the Children's Minister declared: "We wuz robbed!"
A boxing analogy seems particularly appropriate for this election, with all the manufactured hype, head-to-head eyeballing and bad-mouthing in the build-up, with the TV debates merely preliminary bouts to Thursday's final showdown. Actually it has been rather like a Prizefighter series between the reigning heavyweight champion Gordie "Bruiser" Brown, reeling from a body blow sustained in sparring with a Labour-supporting grannie who threw a sucker punch in Rochdale; Nick "I wanna be a contender" Clegg and "Pretty Boy" Dave Cameron, the Fighting Toff. Who will be the last man standing?
Yet while the campaign seems to have had this distinct sporting flavour, none has paid more than lip service to sport itself. With only an occasional cursory nod in the direction of the 2012 Olympics, no political party has attempted to touch the important issue of how their policies socially, culturally and economically can be assisted by sport.
From what we have heard – or rather, not heard – from the three party leaders, you cannot help but get the impression they know little about sport and care even less. Yet if they stop to think, surely they would realise that in such a tight fight the substantial sporting electorate could sway Thursday's result.
Cameron, whom we have chased fruitlessly for weeks for a promised interview on his sporting interests, professes to be an Aston Villa fan, yet when asked did not know last week's result. It is true that Brown lost an eye playing rugby but his sporting lexicon rarely extends beyond the boundaries of Stark's Park in Pratt Street, Kirkaldy, home of Raith Rovers, while Clegg has never been heard to utter a word on the subject. In fact the only party leader who can claim any sort of sporting distinction is, I fear to say, the BNP's Nick Griffin, who has a boxing blue (light, not dark, of course).
Sport has never been particularly high on the political agenda – nor is it in the party manifestos – but surely it should be with all the international events ahead here including a possible football World Cup and, of course, the Olympics where security and finance will be of paramount political importance. Not to mention sport's contribution to the Exchequer, health and society.
So what of the nitty-gritty? In the three party manifestos Labour devotes more space to sport than its rivals, 550 words or some 1.8 per cent of the entire content. The Tories have just 123 words and the Lib-Dems 96.
Labour promises to work with governing authorities to ensure that "professional clubs" (ie. football clubs) are accountable to their stakeholders and are run transparently on sound financial principles with greater involvement of communities, supporter representation and the development of proposals to enable supporters to buy shares in their clubs. However, these are somewhat watered-down from pledges on club ownership given in the pre-election leaflet.
What the Lib-Dem manifesto promises is merely to "use cash in dominant betting accounts to set up a capital fund in improving local sports facilities and supporting sports clubs, and closing loopholes that allow playing fields to be built upon without going through the normal planning procedures." And, er, that's it, more or less.
Although the Tory manifesto's contribution takes up little more than a quarter of one page of its 131 pages, it does place emphasis on Olympic legacy, the restoration of the Lottery to its original four pillars and the promotion of a new national Olympic- style schools competition which presumably would replace the UK School Games, one of Brown's personal pet projects.
The election will pose fresh questions about the role of the sports ministry. If Labour are returned to office, some feel that the likeable but low-key sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, will have to raise not so much his game but his profile to keep riding shotgun with Olympics minister Tessa Jowell all the way through to 2012.
In any Conservative government Hugh Robertson, who has twice turned down offers of promotion to higher office on the Opposition front bench, would want to combine the jobs of Olympics and sports minister, which he has been effectively shadowing for five years. At 47, Robertson is understandably politically ambitious, and overseeing the delivery of the 2012 Games should surely make this a Cabinet position.
As a lifelong, but currently disaf-fected Labour supporter, I would not be averse to having Robertson as sports minister. For a Tory he's not a bad bloke, one of the most decent and fair-minded politicians I have encountered. The ex-Army major, who saw active service in Northern Ireland, the first Gulf War and Bosnia, has a good grasp of what sport is about at all levels and he certainly would not be kicked around by the footy fraternity.
Of course there is now a Third Man to consider. Clegg turned the opinion polls upside down with his virtuoso performances in the debates, bringing a strong possibility of a split decision. One of his bargaining chips could be that his sports spokesman, Don Foster, whom they see as the Vince Cable of sport, is given the job. Foster didn't exactly do a Clegg in a recent tri-party debate between sports spokesmen but he was engaging and well-informed.
We know that Government funding for sport is likely to be cut whichever political party is in power. But who is best to protect its interest? Outside of the three Government-funded and influenced bodies (UK Sport, Sport England and the Youth Sports Trust) most independent sports administrators I canvassed would seem to welcome a change of shirt and strategy.
So who has the x-factor in this party game of sports politics? A question worth considering alongside the issues of real politics before anyone's hand is held aloft on Friday morning after this bitter ballot-box fight.
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