Rosena Allin-Khan: Gareth Southgate's England have helped reclaim the St George cross from the far-right
Rosena Allin-Khan scored some notable political goals during the World Cup, securing outdoor screenings and campaigning to 'reclaim' the St George’s flag from the far right. The Shadow Sports Minister is forging a reputation as one of Labour’s star players and, she tells James Millar, she’s ready to put on her general election jersey
A little-fancied team, led by an untested leader, doing much better than anyone expected but failing to actually win. England’s run at the World Cup bore striking resemblances to Labour’s general election campaign last year.
Labour’s shadow sports minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan of course had a vested interest in both. And she’s convinced next time round the result will be better for both teams.
But while Gareth Southgate and his players must wait four years for another shot at ultimate glory, she reckons Corbyn might get a crack at the big time much sooner.
“I think it’s highly possible we may have a general election mid-autumn,” she predicts. “I look forward to another general election soon when we shall see a Labour government.”
Don’t put too much store in her predictions, she was also enthusiastically joining in the cry of “It’s coming home!” before Croatia ensured it wasn’t.
But perhaps it was Corbyn not Croatia to blame for the result – it’s one of the oldest adages in football that England only win the World Cup when there’s a Labour government.
Allin-Khan is keen, then, to do what she can to give England the best chance in 2022 by getting a Corbyn administration in place as soon as possible. She’s up for another election despite having fought five in a row over the last five years, either campaigning or as a candidate, including her byelection win in Tooting in 2016 and defending her seat at a general election less than a year later.
“I’m ready; I was born ready for an election,” she laughs. “I’ve selected my general election jumper already. It’s a very cool one – wins me votes.”
Presumably it was too hot for wearing her winning jumper when England crashed out of the World Cup in Russia.
But she paid tribute to the team. “I applaud our incredible team for getting so far, no one expected them to get as far as they did. For such a young team to get to the semi-finals for the first time in a generation is testament to their incredible hard work and perseverance.”
Like England, Allin-Khan clocked up some wins during the World Cup. She led calls for that semi-final to be shown on big screens around the country and the authorities quickly agreed, including a hastily arranged event in Hyde Park.
“I made it my role as shadow minister for sport to push for the whole country to be able to watch England perform; in public spaces in a way they can enjoy and we can be proud of being English. “I don’t think our national team is a matter of party politics. It’s something that should be supported by everyone. I’m glad we got agreement.”
And she garnered positive attention with her campaign to reclaim the St George’s cross from the far right, even cajoling many of her Labour colleagues into a photo op in which they all literally flew the flag. That was particularly impressive given it’s an issue that’s caused the party problems before, most notably when Emily Thornberry was accused of sneering at the flag and those who fly it during the Rochester byelection in 2014 and consequently sacked as a shadow minister.
Allin-Khan – Muslim, Polish and Pakistani heritage, as English as they come – is keen to embrace the flag.
“I do feel this time, particularly given how well we did, there was a significant lack of St George’s crosses. I think that many people feel that flying a St George’s cross is synonymous with far-right ideology and that sometimes prevents them from doing so because they don’t want to be perceived as such.
“During previous World Cups between 2000-2010 you could walk 20 metres and see flags in windows, flags on cars, flags on shops. Despite more sprouting up as the tournament went on, there’s been a noticeable difference.
"I think there is a reluctance to do so because shops may not want to feel they’re not being welcoming to members of the community, and perhaps Brexit has a part to play in that.”
Brexit certainly had a role to play in the latest reshuffle that saw Jeremy Wright – who isn’t on Twitter and hasn’t shown much public interest in football, for example – surprisingly put in charge of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. “I’m sure he’s very pleased to have the job,” says Allin-Khan. “It’s not my role to snake him, it’s to work with him and his team to bring about changes that are best for England.”
One area she’ll be pushing for progress is safe standing at top-flight football grounds. Labour adopting safe standing has been welcomed by supporters’ groups. Having initially rejected the idea, the government has now said it will look again at the evidence.
Explains Allin-Khan: “This is about moving football spectating forward into a new era, making it accessible for all, whether you want to go with young children, whether you’re a wheelchair user, whether you have sight impairment, audio impairment, whether you are old and can’t jump up and stand. It’s about making it accessible and safe for everybody.”
She insists the policy is not about bringing back the terraces of the 1980s but making the game safe, and she’s hopeful Tory opposite number and fellow football fan Tracey Crouch will, ahem, play ball. “She has an open goal here, she can put fans first or she can choose not to listen. I hope she won’t kick it into the long grass, I’m hoping she’ll work with me to deliver this.”
Other Labour sports policies include working on getting more fans on football club boards, and earlier in the summer Jeremy Corbyn promised an extra bank holiday had England won the World Cup.
Allin-Khan concedes there might have been some logistical issues in just giving everyone Monday off (even if it’s unlikely much work actually got done in Paris that day, with or without official sanction). But she reckons the policy could yet be resurrected next summer when the Lionesses, England’s women’s football team, travel to France for their World Cup. Allin-Khan is clear: “I feel strongly there should be a bank holiday if the Lionesses win the World Cup.”
She has two cubs of her own. “I have two incredible, feisty little girls who are brilliant and who are my whole reason for living.” So feisty that one of them smacked her in the face that morning, creating a bump she’s keen to shield from the photographer’s lens (“I’m not a diva!” she insists). She says it was an accidental whack but given her own favoured game is boxing, it bodes well for her daughters to follow her into the ring. Though they’ve not been introduced to the sport yet. “I will do when they’re old enough,” she smiles.
It’s a fine choice of hobby for those who like headlines that involve Allin-Khan and her Labour colleagues delivering a knockout blow to the Tories, perhaps sooner rather than later if her prediction is correct.
But the World Cup is so wildly popular because football reflects life and so it provides the best analogy again.
Relatively unknown before the tournament began, yet delivering results – around the big screens and the England flag – as it went on and now being talked about as potentially a star player of the future. Rosena Allin-Khan is surely Labour’s answer to Kieran Trippier.
The question now is was the last campaign as close as her team is ever going to get to glory? Or they can go that bit further next time and win the thing.