10 lessons for Labour from England’s hopeless World Cup.

1. Don’t blame external factors.

OK, so the Lampard goal that never was is damn irritating. But the truth is that England were ordinary at their very best throughout the tournament and no more. They were downright awful yesterday.

Equally, for Labour, its performance in the general election was very poor. It could have been worse; it could have ended up in third place. England could have failed to qualify for the second round. But to blame money, the media, the credit crunch for Labour’s defeat and then fail to face reality will be fatal for 2015.

2. Delusional cheerleading is self harm.

There was a chorus of positivity following England’s defeat of Slovenia in the third group game. It was not warranted. It was an utterly disjointed and unconvincing performance against weak opposition. The media coverage was replete with adjectives such as ‘outstanding.’ It was a lie but the team believed this hype and that added to the manager’s failure to change a side that was failing and the players’ complacent belief in the quality of their performance.

If Labour people applaud mediocrity in the party’s leadership and strategy then the party will similarly fail to achieve more next time around. Honestly adverse – though not destructive – criticism helps in this regard. It is not disloyalty. It will make Labour better.

3. Adaptable leadership is crucial.

Fabio Capello’s management was abysmal on two counts. Firstly, he failed to learn from the errors of the past: no-one watching England over the last decade could conclude that Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard should both be in the side. No-one. And when it was clear that the system wasn’t working – playing Steven Gerrard on the left killed his game, Ashley Cole’s game, and Wayne Rooney’s game – he failed to adapt and take tough decisions. Capello is a good manager who is too set in his ways and so when he needs to adapt, he fails to, and becomes a weak manager.

Labour’s next leader needs a strong strategy for renewal. However, the environment is changing almost weekly. Whoever is the next leader will need to show adaptability as well as grounded strategy. It’s a difficult combination but dogma will lead to disaster.

4. Look to the next battle rather than the last one.

Or to put it another way: look to the next battle rather than five or six battles ago. England play an utterly outdated brand of football (sorry but Franz Beckenbauer, though arrogant, was right.) This team may have done better in the 1978 World Cup (if they had qualified). The football world has moved on since then and now we are an average side at best. This is one reason why we have this trauma over Germany/ Argentina and penalty shoot-outs. Get over it.

Many of Labour’s leadership candidates have sounded like they either want to replay the 1979 election or the 1997 election. Both would end in disaster. And if we replay the 2010 election campaign but better, then that will end in disaster too. It’s about the next election. And that will be in 2015 – what will politics, the economy, public attitudes, culture be like then? It’s about the future; it’s not about settling the scores of the past. This is one reason that we have this trauma over pfi, academies, Iraq, ID cards. Get over it – the 2015 election won’t be about these things.

5. Your best players are not necessarily your best players

I’ve made the point about Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. It’s boring but true. The difference between a team like Spain and England is that Spain pick their best XI as a team, not a collection of individuals. So Cesc Fabregas who is the best midfielder in the best league in the world (forgive me), sits on the bench because Xavi and Alonso give the team something more in combination. Fernando Torres has had a poor tournament – he may be on the subs bench as a result.

Labour must accept that the smartest, most experienced players will not necessarily be the best people to make a new case for a Labour Government. Mix it up. Experiment. Demote underperformers in Parliament and outside. Be ruthless with it. Give youth a chance – it’s worked for Germany’s World Cup side and it worked for the Conservatives/ Liberal Democrats.

6. Passion is not a substitute for strategy and creativity.

It doesn’t matter how passionately you sing the national anthem if you don’t have a side that is right with a blend of quality, creativity, balance, and teamwork. I’m not saying passion doesn’t matter. It does. But it needs to be controlled and directed passion built on sound foundations. (Revert to 2. for more on this).

Labour’s message was wrong at the last election – people weren’t conditioned to hear the anti-cuts message because they were more concerned about the state of the public finances. It wasn’t that Labour was not loud enough because of lack of cash to amplify the message. It was the wrong message. Shouting louder will not change the outcome. Passion is important but in no way is it sufficient.

7. Your opponents matter. Watch them.

Frank Lampard, the man whose free kick resulted in Germany’s third goal, said after the match: “Nobody can stand here and tell me Germany were a lot better than us. They were not 4-1 better than us.” I agree with Frank on the second half of that. They weren’t 4-1 better. They were 6-1 better. Face reality. Realise your opponents’ strength and respond accordingly. Don’t dismiss them. They will hurt you if you do. If you approach it in this honest way then you may defeat them.

Labour has consistently underestimated David Cameron, George Osborne and the Conservatives. Similarly, it has underestimated Nick Clegg. They are now in control. The Conservatives are playing a blinder politically, which they are using to bludgeon the least fortunate. We have to realise this. And they have a long-term plan. Read James Forsyth in the Spectator this week if you don’t believe me.

The Lib Dems look like weak patsies now – and they are – but if the economy and public finances recover by 2015, will it look the same way? Don’t fear your opponents, but be honest about them. It is the only chance you have of adapting and in politics, unlike football, if they are in government, they control the agenda.

8. Widen the pool of talent.

German football was facing crisis by the latter part of the 1990s. They had a strategy for recovery. The German side now looks very different to the German side of a decade ago. They have widened their pool of talent to give players like Ozil, Khedira, Podolski, and Boateng a shot. Capello had to chose from a narrow pool of talent because the price of premier league success is England’s weakness.

Labour introduced all women shortlists and stopped there. Instead, it should actively widen the pool of talent in all respects: gender, ethnicity, class, and professional background. Not only did it fail to do that, but it used its control over the late selection process to narrow the pool further. This instinct is a mistake and will cost the party in the long run. It is an approach that needs to be reversed urgently if the party is to have a bright future.

9. If you do the same things over and over again, you end up with similar results….only worse.

It is not only England’s coach that seems incapable of learning from past failures. The FA have yet again hired an expensive coach who has all the right experience, knowledge and instincts and yet proves to be a complete flop. It will now try the ‘English first’ strategy of hiring a Harry Redknapp. For Redknapp, read Steve McClaren. It will ignore the obvious choice, Martin O’Neill, just as it ignored his mentor, Brian Clough (and this would have the delicious added advantage of creating a club v country dilemma for both David Cameron and Prince William. Sorry Villa fans). But the FA is institutionally incapable of learning which is why its mistakes self-replicate over and over again.

If the Labour party doesn’t open up, loosen up, be prepared to experiment, and build a different type of party, then it will end up with a narrowing and ageing party, whatever eye-catching ‘movement’ initiatives it launches. Like the FA, the Labour party is a relic from another, more elitist time. Get with the times or fail.

And finally,

10. Learn from others

With all its money, football failed. English cricket, with fewer resources, has been a resounding success. Why? It pursues a horses for courses approach; it benefits from calm, steady and adaptable leadership; it has developed a range of players and talents fit for the versatile modern game; and it is ruthless, for example, leaving out the England captain from the resoundingly successful 20-20 side. The result? Ashes winners, 20-20 World Champions, and currently slaughtering Australia in the one day series. Who says the English don’t have a winning mentality?

Labour can look to the Greek PASOK, the US Democrats, and the French Socialist parties for examples of parties that have opened up and become more responsive as a result.

And the grassroots matter. England has failed because it has developed a generation of footballers who aren’t technically competent enough at the modern high pace, high control game. Labour too must nourish its grassroots so as to be effective at every level in modern politics.

Apply this lesson, along with the other nine and Labour can compete for power again in 2015 – whatever the circumstances. Ignore these hard truths and we’ll be having the same conversation again on May 8th 2015 as we are doing now about England’s hopeless World Cup performance.

Anthony Painter is the author of Barack Obama: the Movement for Change.

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8 Responses to “10 lessons for Labour from England’s hopeless World Cup.”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sion simon, David Singleton, Andy Bradshaw, Lucy Openshaw, Labour Uncut and others. Labour Uncut said: 10 lessons for Labour from England's hopeless world cup http://bit.ly/cuItch << brilliant + serious piece by @anthonypainter […]

  2. jay tee says:

    Don’t overlook the fact that nearly half of the on field team playing for England are only nominally English. I don’t mean Andrew Strauss, (he’s very English) but Kieswetter, Prior, Pietersen, Trott and Morgan’s accents don’t come from round these here parts. These guys make the team a winning one, no question.
    I have no idea how you can fit this into your analogy (at least perhaps we should buy in some foreign footballers for the national team) but I’m sure you can come up with something. Otherwise your analogy sort of fails.

  3. @jay tee.

    Widen the pool of talent….

    We can either find new English players or we can train those who are already English to be better. I’m comfortable with either/ both.

  4. Tom Bage says:

    This is very, very good. I agree with almost every point. A must-read!

  5. David says:

    Agreed that half the cricket team is non-UK born. Note that about half the German team lauded above is also non-German born. Watch Dragons Den – where was Paphitis born? James Caan? (I’m not suggesting bringing back Bryan Gould to supplement Peter Hain btw….)

    Why is that?

    Clearly we have a problem in this country of developing our native talent be it in sport, politics, entrepreneurship or the professions. We need to address why our systems across the board seem to prefer gallant failure (Dunkirk) to actually winning and encourage the 1930s/50s attitudes of gentleman amateurs leaving their game of bowls to smite the enemy. Even when we do succeed, we don’t shout it loud and proud but are somehow embarrassed by the success.

    In short we need to get professional – other are. If we don’t our economy will shrink in relative terms and we’ll find it harder to achieve the redistributive goals we all hold dear.

  6. AmberStar says:

    What do people expect when the both the game – & the Labour Party – became all about money & becoming ‘filthy rich’? 😎

  7. John Baxendale says:

    Brilliant post. But I’m not sure about point 6. I agree about the passion, but we didn’t oppose cuts out of passion, but because we thought it was economically wrong for the country – and still do. Your analogy breaks down when it tries to equate the conflict between Keynesianism and Thatcherism with the choice between 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 or whatever. Sounds like ‘these are our principles; if you don’t like them we have others’.

  8. Robert says:

    Football is entertainment not sport for god sake.

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