A train ride with Millwall fans – and the hope it gave me for the EU debate
Posted on 17 April 2016 | 8:04am
The usual reaction of most people, when a boisterous group of beer-laden Millwall fans get on board your mid-morning train carriage, is to do as I did yesterday – sink a little lower into your seat, and stare even more intently into your iphone.
This does not always work, however, if you have a face and a name that is known to people you don’t know at all. It was one of the older members of the group, who I later discovered was nicknamed the Molekiller, who first spotted me, and shouted out ‘Al-as-tair-Camp-bell’ – just in case anyone in the carriage hadn’t already spotted me. He and his friends then decided it would be worth joining me in a ten pound first class upgrade to have a bit of ‘banter’, as they headed off for their game at Coventry on the same train that was taking me to Burnley’s game at Birmingham.
Now even putting to one side Millwall fans’ reputation in the hooliganism stakes, I felt particularly on the at risk register as a few years ago I wrote a piece in The Times about racist abuse received by one of Burnley’s old players, Mo Camara, and the next time I went to The New Den got a lot of abuse myself and a bit of jostling for my troubles.
But an hour and a half later, as they got off to be met by an army of police waiting at Coventry station, underlining the point they had made about them being over-policed because of past reputation not current behaviour, we had not only had a very good laugh, but an interesting discussion about the EU referendum. They were well informed about all sorts of things. When the Molekiller offered me a beer, for example, the others hushed him, said ‘he’s had issues, where have you been?’ to which his response was ‘it’s not alcohol, it’s only Foster’s.’
Now fair to say none of them had read the piece I wrote in yesterday’s FT on the importance of face to face campaigning by all of us in the EU referendum, and of not leaving it all to politicians and media (though the one called Paddy the Arab said he would buy the paper as soon as he got off the train.) But the discussion did rather encourage me in thinking my assessment had some merit, and that Remain need to adapt their campaign tactics accordingly.
These guys rarely read newspapers, and when they did, they didn’t believe them. They thought Boris Johnson was a chancer and had come out for Leave for his own ambitions not Britain’s. One said he was ‘terrified’ of Donald Trump becoming US President. They didn’t (with one very enthusiastic exception) think much of Jeremy Corbyn, but they did want to hear what he thought, and were aware of the speech he had made last week. They didn’t like David Cameron much and they felt he was being too negative in his campaigning. They thought the immigration issue was more complicated than people realised, said it was less of an issue in London, but, as one put it well I thought ‘where it is a problem is in all these little towns we are going through that nobody has heard of.’
But the general mood, one I keep coming across, was one of confusion. They all wanted someone, anyone, they trusted to set out both sides of the arguments in a fair and neutral way, but they accepted that was unlikely to come from politicians who had already decided, or newspapers with a vested interest. They were frustrated at the ‘on the one hand, on the other, this side says this, the other side says that’ coverage on the TV.
Now as it happens, having said in the FT I would try to persuade at least one undecided voter to come over to IN every day between now and June 23, I had in my back pocket the government leaflet that has gone to every home, which had arrived at my home on Friday morning, and here was my first attempt to use it. My Millwall fellow travellers were aware of the row over the government funding of it, but fairly unmoved by the fuss, and broadly accepted the government had to make its case, and that was not easy when newspapers were putting out millions of pounds worth of propaganda the other way.
But two of them read through. Both said it had given them a lot to think about, and definitely made them more positive. I had the same reaction from an undecided Burnley fan on the train back to London later.
If you go down four or five tweets in this link, you will see some of my new Millwall friends, Left to Right Paddy the Arab (he started unsure but ended as IN, and agreed to become my ‘REMAIN Ambassador to Millwall fans’ ), the Molekiller, still unsure but making good IN noises, and then behind me a guy whose name I didn’t get, and to my left a man who works in something to do with asbestos, was a big critic of neoliberalism, and scribbled the title of a book he wanted me to read by Michael Collins (not the Irish one) on the subject on the back of my ticket, and to his left the guy who likes Jeremy Corbyn and says it is not only because he has a beard.
Now maybe this was an unusual group of Millwall fans, though the language, the banter, the football chat, the annoyance with cops and stewards, all suggested not. Also there was another group at the next table and at one point I heard them having quite a heated argument about welfare reform and the economy.
But what it said to me was that this debate is really going live right now, and as I said in the FT, where it is going to matter is in the discussions between friends, families and workmates. And for all the criticism the £9m plus leaflet production attracted, it is a very effective piece of communication, and I urge the government to make sure there are plenty more to go around, and I urge all who want us to stay in to keep it in their pockets, purses and handbags, and when you hear someone say ‘I don’t have the information,’ whip it out and get them to read it.
I have also learned that such is the nature of the debate right now that it is perfectly OK to go up to complete strangers and say ‘In or Out?’ I recommend this too, especially if you have your leaflet and any other good arguments with you.
P.s. For the sake of completeness I should say that the train guard, Vishal, is definitely voting OUT, and so is the Spurs fan who was going to see his brother, and was complaining that first class was less comfortable than standard class.
Anyway I promised Paddy the Arab I would say something positive about Millwall fans, so I have kept my side of the bargain. Meanwhile Paddy (real name Samier), you get out there with your leaflet and your FT and convert a few of them Bushwackers.