The last football match I went to, forty years ago, was Coventry Reserves playing Preston North End Reserves (starring an ancient Nobby Styles) in 1974. I say this to demonstrate my lack of interest in football as a spectator sport rather than for any historic interest (other than the aforesaid young Nobby) in that game itself.
Oh, I have watched on tv the odd cup and grand final since then, read an occasional analytical piece on, say, “the future of rugby league” – I always aim to be able to hold my end up for two minutes in a discussion on any subject, part of being civilised. But no more than 2 minutes on sport.
So here is my two minute’s worth. When one team is successful in a season, more so in two, other teams strive to copy, and improve on, the reasons for their success. Aim to, say, handball long distances, flood defensive zones, work in pairs, whatever the tactical secret has been, but do it faster, stronger, more accurately. There is a limit, you see, to innovation, set by line markings, offside laws, restrictions on tackling style, and so on. Unless, like William Webb Ellis, you are going to catch a ball and then decide to run, changing a game forever, you are stuck with the limits placed upon you by the rules of the game. Indeed the beauty of football, as of any game, and arts such as music and poetry, is of maximum achievement within the limits of a framework.
But this tells you more than you want to know about football if I am any judge of my audience. It was a rather long-winded, and a little pretentious, introduction to yet another pensee on politics. But be fair, sporting metaphors are obligatory for any serious political pundit.
Political parties learn from each other just as footballers do. If one political party has success, a run of election wins, its rival will copy its tactics, try to do them better – more effective tv ads, more door-knocking, better slogans, bigger billboards. But there is a difference – in principle there are no sidelines, offside rules, tackle laws. Should be no reason why one player wouldn’t comment “only one team is playing football out there”. The other might be playing, oh, say cricket.
It is curious then that in practice the parties behave as if there were Hoyle’s Laws of Politics. More than curious. In politics, the best strategy would seem to be to NOT copy what your rival has done, but to try for something completely different. If your opponent is removing environmental protection you should restore and add to it; they support private schools, you support public ones; private medicine triumphing under one party, socialised medicine should look to triumph under the other.
But this isn’t what happens these days in Australia (or elsewhere) although once upon a time it did. Instead the managers, coaches, of the political teams strive for the tactic of me-too-ism. Anything you can do we can do better is the approach. Money for new babies? More money for new babies. Cheap power? Cheaper power. New roads? More new roads. And so on. The umpires, sorry, voters, are asked to decide on the winners of the political game when both teams are performing almost identically.
Why is it so? Well because there other interests at play in this sporting life. Interests that have come, in recent times (perhaps they always did!), to be the people who actually add guidelines, rules, to the political game. Both political teams these days are playing strong within constraints imposed by a third umpire upstairs. The rules are – taxes, especially for the rich, can only be cut, never increased; regulations must be removed not written; defence spending must always increase, American alliance must not be questioned; development always trumps environment; private always trumps public. And so on.
Curiously, perhaps, these laws of the political game just happen to suit the financial interests of the pool of people from whom the third umpires are provided.
Let is be clear here. The problem is not that there is a group of people with financial interests who are taking part in the political process in order to advance those interests in competition with other groups in society with other interests. That after all is the broad definition of politics. No the problem is that we have a situation as if one group of footballers on a field decided on the rules that all the others would play by, rules which favoured them.
Leaving sporting metaphor behind (at last!), the political reality we now have is that what was once a political spectrum all the way from far left to far right, from A to Z, is now a spectrum that runs only from far right to extreme right, from Y to Z.
The other day in Australia, after consternation about the order of the Labor Senate ticket in WA and its apparent lack of relationship to candidate ability, Bill Shorten called for some reform of the Labor Party he leads. The only thing he spoke of (as did others) was the link between party and unions. But the party actually needs to be recreated as a progressive social democrat party with Green links.
No one suggested this? Why not? Well, you know the answer. The party is constrained by the invented rules. If the Party attempted to return to its roots – to improve pay and conditions for workers, push public ownership, look after the disadvantaged, tax the rich more than the poor, and, in partnership with The Greens, protect the environment, support progressive social policies, culture, science. Whatever Mr Shorten’s personal beliefs and preferences, whatever those of some at least of his colleagues, any attempt to put distance between Labor and his conservative opponents, to give the public a genuine choice, would be met with a storm of booing, disqualifications, bookings, sending-offs, by the third umpire. The media will not permit any attempt to again expand the political spectrum, to suggest policies that will advantage any interests except those of the super rich.
Bill Shorten I think knows the rules of the game, knows how he must play the game, as well as Nobby Styles knew how to play football 40 years ago. So do all of us. No doubt who wins every political game these days.