Given the annual sight of Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and other current Labour Party members of parliament playing soccer against a select XI drawn from the pool of journalists that attend Labour Party Conference, it is easy to see the playing of sport under the banner of the Labour Party as a one off piece of fun, the light entertainment before serious speechmaking in the conference chamber. It has not always been this way.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Labour Party has seriously engaged with sport both to critique it intellectually and to encompass its enormous popularity. As serious guardians of popular working-class sentiments, how could they not? Yet, it was not until the 1920s that they began providing sports teams under the Labour banner. In part this reflected a realisation that sport was a powerful agent in society but more importantly it reflected the quite large age gap between the young children who were now growing into young adulthood and the older men, neither of whom had gone off to war.
The Young Labour League, the precursor to the Labour Party League of Youth, was founded in London in 1920 and spread fairly quickly to other parts of the country including the Rhondda (1920) and Cardiff (1921). At Labour’s Annual Conference in 1924, it was agreed that ‘the work of the Young People’s Sections should be mainly recreational and educational’. This was to be a movement in which sport was able to flourish. It certainly did in Cardiff where, by 1922, the branches had arranged sports competitions in baseball, cricket, tennis and bowls and were offering a cup for the top-placed team. The Splott Labour Amateurs, one of the teams to emerge from this explosion in sporting activity, were successful in the Cardiff and District Soccer League and in the Valleys teams such as the Brynmawr Labourites won several cup competitions in the second half of the decade.
Sport teaches solidarity and camaraderie – values that the Labour Party holds dear – and so it is time to think again, amidst debates on how to get people to think more about politics and to engage more with branches, about the place of soccer and other sports in Party life. It was certainly the view of Ramsay MacDonald who wrote that ‘to initiate young folks into the love of the hills is as necessary as to initiate them into Marxian economics’. Perhaps he was right.