Sporting codes and political success: is it really the time of the ‘Workington Man’

It’s Saturday the second of the November, and today was meant to be the day that New Zealand won its third rugby world cup in a row. Instead, it will probably be England. So conventional wisdom is that if the All Blacks win the world cup the incumbent government goes on to win the next election. This is something that the National Party was convinced of here, which is why they spent so much time associating themselves with rugby union, the game that unites the provincial areas with the larger urban areas.

You would think that if England win the rugby union world cup then the Tories are a shoo-in for the December election, being only a month away. No doubt Mr Johnson and the other old Etonians will be crowing about the victory, rather than Brexit, for a good week or more. But will it unite the country like a football world cup win would? And if rugby union is so important to them, why are they trying to target the ‘Workington Man’, the latest caricature that the Tory think tanks believe is the quintessential Northern voter, and those that will desert the Labour Party. But the problem here is that the ‘Workington Man’ follows rugby league not the rugby union code.

I personally enjoy watching rugby league, rather than union. But to those not familiar with the two rugby codes there is not a lot of difference, other than the thing called a ‘Line-out’ is not used in league; and the game is stopped for each tackle until a team has had six, when they must kick the ball or just lose possession to the other team. As I understand the people who created rugby league, they were working class, and became professional players, whereas rugby union prided itself on being amateurs until relatively recently. Rugby league was an entirely Northern game, as the names of the clubs indicate: Wigan, St Helens, Bradford, Leeds, Hull; all in Lancashire or Yorkshire. Except for Workington, which is the North-West, in Cumbria, not so much Labour held.

All of the big clubs seem to be in Labour constitutencies, with Warrington South having returned to the fold in the 2017 general election. Just because these areas voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, it didn’t mean that the seats were lost the next year, so why do they think this will happen in the 2019 election. Maybe it’s just Workington, given that the adjacent seat of Copeland went to the Tories in 2017. It’s fair to say that rugby league is still the working class game there, as it is in New Zealand, and many Kiwi men have played or coached in England. Most of these players would be from the Auckland area, such as Henry and Robbie Paul, who were involved with the Bradford Bulls. Robbie is now manager; Henry actually went on to play rugby union for England (splitter).

But rugby league is also played in Christchurch, and on the West Coast of the South Island. And of the players from Christchurch, Gerard Stokes, went to play in Workington in the 1980s. He returned to Christchurch, but went back to Workington to coach the club. Gerard Stokes is better known as the father of Ben Stokes, the English cricketer who took the cricket world cup off the valiant New Zealand team earlier in the year. Though born in Christchurch, Ben Stokes obviously stayed in England after his parents returned home. The merciless English tabloids have recently exposed their family tragedy. But the English cricket team have returned to New Zealand to play T20 internationals, and again beat our side yesterday, in Christchurch, albeit without having Ben Stokes playing.

I wanted to just write a bit more about class and politics, using the example of rugby league. It is mostly played in New Zealand by Polynesian men, often from some of the poorest in the urban areas, particularly in South Auckland. This is the home of the professional team, the Auckland Warriors, which joined the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) competition in 1995. The first captain was Dean Bell, a Kiwi international that played for Wigan, I think, the most well known club to New Zealanders. But many Kiwis had already been playing in Australia, often going to England later in their careers. One of the other local league teams is based in Mt Albert, the central Auckland seat, which was held for Labour by Helen Clark. As Prime Minister Helen Clark had, of course, to attend the All Black games just to be seen there. But she also knew the role of rugby league in the working class communities, and was patron of the Mt Albert rugby league club. Jacinda Ardern is now the MP for Mt Albert, and Prime Minister, if not patron of the league club. But league is still Labour heartland, or vice versa.

So, what of the role of Workington Man in the British election. It is unlikely that the Labour Party will lose that seat, but not impossible, and it would signal a landslide. But for that to happen they would also have to lose other seats across the belt of rugby league towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The clusters of these seats was joined up by the two seats won in 2017: High Peak and Colne Valley. The former seat is also an area where the local council is now controlled by Labour, one of their few successes in this year’s municipal elections. The other question about the stereotype of the Workington Man is gender: even if the men are dead keen on Brexit, are the women going to desert Labour? Lisa Nandy in Wigan; Holly Lynch in Halifax; or Emma Hardy in Kingston-on-Hull West & Hessle? Don’t be daft.

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