The Search for Space
How a theory of political polling explains why New Labour was like Dennis Bergkamp
New Labour had a difficult, unstable relationship with football. In the early days, there was a clear attempt to embrace the game. One of Tony Blair's most memorable media moments in opposition was a bizarre photo-shoot with the then-Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan. For Blair, not a football fan by any means (despite occasional attempts to suggest otherwise) 27 consecutive headers between the two was rather impressive. Labour swept to power on the coattails of the Cool Britannia mood of the mid 1990s, perhaps best epitomised culturally by Euro 96.
In office, it was a more complex story. Labour quickly formed the Football Task Force, which had a huge remit but was summed up best by Roger Titford in When SaturdayComes: "If it were a match, it would be a 0-0 stalemate." To come were the Football Offences and Disorder Act 1999 and the Football Disorder Act 2000, both of which prompted dismay from supporter groups. Even Gordon Brown, a genuine football fan, couldn't repair the relationship as Prime Minister, despite going out of his way to do so as demonstrated, for instance, by his interview with the England captain Rio Ferdinand in Observer Sports Monthly. Quite what occurred to prompt Benedict Brogan, the deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, to write upon David Cameron's arrival at No 10 this year, "New Labour did many things to our politics, but one of the worst was to elevate football and its most tiresome aspects into a quasi-religion" is unclear. There is a link between New Labour and football, however, in the form of strategy.
The relationship between football and politics is often considered in blatant, structural terms — Silvio Berlusconi's ownership of AC Milan, or the political importance of Barcelona, for example. There have occasionally been broader links between football style and political ideology. "There's a right-wing football and a left-wing football," said César Luis Menotti, the philosopher prince of Argentine football, who led them to success at the 1978 World Cup. "Right-wing football wants to suggest that life is struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become of steel and win by any method… obey and function, that's what those with power want from the players." It's impossible to ignore certain patterns here — the stereotypical Dutch liberalism tallies with the Total Football system of the 1970s, for example. David Winner, in his history of Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, discusses Liberation Day in 1965 (and the 'total architecture' concept in Amsterdam) before he feels able to go in-depth about Total Football itself. In one way or another, political ideology is linked to footballing ideology.
There is a much simpler similarity, however, when one considers political strategy, particularly the strand of 'spatial' voting theories. The most famous spatial theorist was Anthony Downs, whose 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy remains one of the most influential works of voting theory. He drew heavily upon the work of Harold Hotelling, a mathematical statistician and economic theorist, and put forward a set of ideas that is now most commonly referred to as the 'median voter theory'.
The theory requires some explanation. In basic terms, Downs believed that voters were heavily aware of the classic left-right political paradigm. However, rather than seeing themselves as simply 'left wing' or 'right wing', Downs believed in a left-right scale running from 0-100, and voters would see themselves at a point on that scale. Equally, political parties (or political candidates) would be seen by the electorate as somewhere on the scale, and voters would simply vote for the party closest to them. So, if the centre-left party was at point 25, the centre party was at point 50 and the centre-right party at point 75, and a voter considered himself at point 65, he would vote for the centre-right party.
As Downs himself admitted, his ideas are incredibly simple. Nevertheless, he insisted that his theory should not be judged by its limitations, but by its predictive capacity. The theory essentially recommended that in two-party systems a party should move towards the centre ground (to voter 50, the median voter) whilst being sure of still capturing its 'side' of the ideological spectrum, and therefore win the majority of votes. Bill Clinton's triumph in 1992 was cast as a victory for the median voter theory, and Blair's 1997 win gave the theory more credibility in Britain.
Experts on New Labour gave a large amount of credit to Phillip Gould, New Labour's chief pollster, for Labour's tactics. He was described by Philip Norton, considered one of the UK's foremost political writers, as "a phenomenon… there has been no figure like him in British political history." Norton's tireless polling meant Labour understood where the 'median voter' was, and therefore they were able to pinpoint the exact 'space' in the ideological spectrum to occupy. In Pippa Norris's review of the 1997 General Election, through extensive surveying of the electorate she found that the median voter was at point '50', and that Labour were seen as being at point '45', whilst the Conservatives were at '74'. Labour had positioned themselves correctly, and their majority of 179 was the highest in the Commons since universal suffrage for adults over 21 was introduced in 1928.
Whilst not obviously pertaining to football, there's a clear emphasis upon the concept of 'space' when considering political strategy. There is the salient link to football tactics: in Inverting the Pyramid Jonathan Wilson wrote that "the history of tactics is the history of the manipulation of space. Space is created — or emerges — for one player, and he begins to have a disproportionate influence on the game. Then a way is found to block him, and in turn space will appear somewhere else on the pitch." As football is a game with multiple actors, there's more similarity to a multi-party system — where parties are constantly competing for space on the spectrum and each individual party has pressure from either side. Just as a newly-formed political party would be best off finding the point on the ideological spectrum where it can find the biggest 'space' (assuming this party has absolutely no ideological principles and is solely concerned with the pursuit of power), an intelligent playmaker given a free role will venture to the position in the pitch where he can find the most space.
English football has traditionally struggled with players who exploit space intelligently, particularly withdrawn forwards who play between the lines. At roughly the same time as New Labour was challenging the traditional British spatial establishment in politics, a group of foreign forwards were doing the same in English football. A list of the greatest foreign imports to Britain in the May 2008 issue of FourFourTwo magazine had a top five of Eric Cantona, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Henrik Larsson and Gianfranco Zola. Ignoring Larsson, who played in Scotland, and Henry, who similarly exploited space in an inventive way by moving out to the left flank when playing as a striker, the other three were all at their peak in the mid-late 1990s, and all played as withdrawn forwards. Their place near the top of that list confirms their enduring legacy, and how revered they were at the time. Their use of space was not as calculated as Labour's, but was no less intelligent and equally devastating to opponents. Labour ditched the traditional left and moved towards the centre; these forwards abandoned a position up against the opposition centre-backs, and moved towards the midfield.
Bergkamp, for example, made such an impact at Arsenal because he seemed innovative, almost a different concept: defences didn't know how to mark him. A centre-back moving up the pitch left his partner exposed, whilst a central midfielder dropping deep conceded the midfield ground to the opposition.
Labour's movement also caused opponents positional problems. The Conservative Party started both the 1997-2001 and 2001-2005 periods with new leaders pledging to take the party back into the centre ground, before lurching back to the right with a 'core vote' strategy for the subsequent elections, when they barely improved their share of the vote. They didn't know where to turn. The Liberal Democrats, formed from a merger of the Social Democratic Party and the Liberals, continues to be split into two wings — those broadly on the left supporting tax-raising agenda, and those on the right favouring a free-market agenda. They've picked up votes and seats since 1997, but more through disaffection among Labour voters than any great strategic response to Labour's positioning.
The most common approach to dealing with Bergkamp was to not mark him with any specific player, but instead attempt to 'keep it tight between the lines' and therefore try to deny him space to work in. Arsène Wenger's system in the late 1990s (which was widely referred to as simply a 4-4-2, but with two holding midfielders, two wingers pushing on and a forward moving deep, might have been viewed as a 4-2-3-1 ten years later) made this more difficult, forcing the opposition lines apart. Bergkamp was fielded alongside a pacey central striker — first Ian Wright, briefly Nicolas Anelka, then Thierry Henry — which forced the opposition back four to defend deep. On the other hand, the use of two holders (Patrick Vieira and one other, most famously Emmanuel Petit) drew the opposing central midfielders up the pitch into battle. The gap between the lines was maximised, increasing the space Bergkamp had to work in.
New Labour's strategy was similar. Andrew Hindmoor, a prominent academic focusing on New Labour, often discussed how the party didn't just occupy the centre ground, they constructed the centre ground through language and rhetoric, making both the right and far-left seem outdated to the electorate. Blair used the phrase "neither old left, nor new right" to describe the party during speeches before 1997, and a particular habit of his was to demonstrate that he supported a feature of the Left and a feature of the Right; two previously contrasting and apparently incompatible policy aspects. Frequent uses of the words 'yet' and 'and' were notable here: Labour pledged to "cut corporation tax to help business, yet introduce a minimum wage to help the poor", to put "huge extra resources into health and education, yet still keep to tough overall spending ceilings" and supported "both social justice and economic dynamism". In so doing, New Labour made the left seem far-left and the right seem far-right (in that they only favoured one factor in each dilemma) opening a greater space for the party to dominate.
Perhaps political strategy and football tactics will have similar futures. A frequent complaint from the British electorate is the homogeneity of the three main parties in recent years: that all are battling for the centre ground with minimal differences in ideology or policy terms. Meanwhile, football seems to be moving towards a system with increasingly little difference between positions. Attackers are expected to help defend, defenders must help attack. Just as Anthony Downs predicted parties would desert their true positions on the extremes in favour of a congested centre, Arrigo Sacchi predicted universality amongst footballers. Downs's forecast came true with the fight for the centre ground, Sacchi's may come true as the entire football pitch becomes one large midfield zone.
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