Rugby, the North, and the Conservatives
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Last month Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, attended an event in St. Helen’s for the Rugby League World Cup. She spoke at the event and mentioned her fondness for the sport: “I’ve always quite liked the idea of rugby league. My longstanding memory is that 2003 drop goal.” For many, the anecdote marked a harmless attempt to present a politician’s relatable side. However, for rugby fans, the comment sparked a range of responses that ranged from disappointment to anger and disillusionment. Shared among all responses was ridicule because Dorries – the Secretary of State for Sport – had mixed rugby league up with rugby union.
At first, this article was going to argue, with equal parts of condemnation and derision, that Boris Johnson’s chief attack dog’s faux pas was emblematic of her frankly pitiful time in office. However, on reflection, I realised that Dorries’ mistake actually demonstrates a much broader, much more serious pattern of Tory contempt and exploitation of the North.
To understand how Dorries’ ‘knock-on’ fits into the trend identified above, knowledge of rugby league’s history is critical. Unlike most sports, the history of rugby league can be traced to a single day – 29th August 1895 – because it formed as a result of a breakaway from rugby union. Prior to the split, debates about professionalism had been raging in rugby for at least three years, as players of clubs located in Northern industrial towns wanted to be compensated for playing rugby due to time spent away from work. Despite precedent for players receiving payment from the sport’s governing body, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), predominantly formed by representatives of the more affluent southern clubs, refused. This was the central factor that caused 22 clubs in the North to break away and form the Northern Union. By 1907, after a series of rule changes, the teams of the Northern Union were playing a new sport: rugby league.
As a result, to this day— in England at least— there exists a significant North/South class divide between the two codes. Hence, of the 26 teams across rugby league’s top two divisions, 23 are located in the North. In the respective rugby union divisions, only 4 of 25 teams are in the North.
When discussing the split, Professor Tony Collins claims: "For the RFU it was not payments to players which were at issue, but payments to working-class players. ‘Amateurism’ as a concept developed as the ideological expression of middle-class attempts to subordinate working-class players to their leadership.” Thus, although rugby union is more popular in some Northern areas, the breakaway of the Northern Union to form rugby league represents the marginalisation and exploitation of the North.
From outside the M62 corridor, then, confusing rugby league with rugby union may seem like an honest mistake. From within, however, the mistake is seen as a continuation of a legacy chiefly comprised of disregard and disrespect for people from working-class towns such as Batley, Featherstone, and Whitehaven. Feeling ignored and insulted, the Northern Union’s revolutionary break away was an early consequence of this trend, a trend that Dorries’ blunder perpetuates by undermining the identity of those already involuntarily estranged from influence due to geography.
Of course, for these individuals, a feeling of marginalisation by the political elite is far from new. When Wakefield elected Simon Robert Lightwood as its new MP in the recent by-election, it marked the potential beginning of the swing of the ‘Workington Man’ – a crude label termed by a pro-Conservative thinktank referring to “an archetypal swing voter who … [was] a leave-voting, rugby league-loving, white, working-class, jaded Labour supporter aged over 45” – back to Labour.
One of the key reasons for this is the Conservative indifference and inaction toward the North in their policies. Like how Professor Collins argues that amateurism became an ideological expression of middle-class power, terms such as ‘Levelling Up’ have become discursive elements of the Tories’ weaponising of Northern votes. The Red Wall votes were won based on grandiose promises that have manifested as little other than a series of unfulfilled anti-climaxes. Whether it be ‘Getting Brexit Done’, delivering on the as-originally-promised HS2, or formulating a coherent plan for ‘Levelling Up’, the Conservative’s Red Wall strategy has been a botched damp squib, leading to disillusionment, disenchantment and dismay in the North that has been reflected in the Wakefield polls.
Dorries’ comment is ultimately harmful because it points toward the long history of the North’s absence of the national political landscape. Though the absence is currently silent, at the next general election, it may become deafening to the Conservatives who have for too long dismissed Northern voters.