Isn’t it great to see Britain’s athletes bringing home the Olympic gold from Beijing? Heeding David Miliband’s call to ‘start winning the argument over our record’, Labour can take some credit for supporting our athletes to achieve their success. So far, three gold medals, and hope for more before the games close. Compare that to the solitary gold medal Britain won at the Olympic games in Atlanta in 1996 towards the fag-end of 18 years of Tory rule that had failed to invest in young people or in sport. Athletes at all levels need government investment in sport to help reach their potential.
Sport is not a trivial matter and it’s about much more than Olympic champions. All young people need positive opportunities to succeed. Many of them have a natural interest in sport and want places where they can work off excess energy. Sport keeps them fit, teaches them discipline and teamwork, engenders ideals of fair play and offers a positive alternative to hanging around on the streets. It can breed a sense of pride in yourself, your team, your community and your country. But none of this happens if the infrastructure isn’t there to support it. And since the foundation of national sporting excellence is grassroots sport, there’s a critical role for local government to play.
Two decades after the Tories cut back spending on youth services and sport, we’re seeing something of a renaissance. The London Olympics – now just four years away – are acting as a spur to this. Those Olympics wouldn’t be coming to London if it wasn’t for Labour restoring London-wide government and the personal intervention of Tony Blair, Ken Livingstone and Tessa Jowell helping to make the case for London across the world.
With fear of crime high up the political agenda, Labour knows that providing community-based sport helps cut youth crime. Local people understand that too, but it passes our political opponents by. In Kennington, just a mile south of the Houses of Parliament, there was no significant community sports provision just a few years back. So when Lilian Baylis School vacated their old site for a brand new school down the road in Vauxhall, community groups rushed to make use of the old school’s sports facilities. Hundreds of local people were getting involved in six-a-side soccer, athletics, gym and basketball. The old school was packed night after night. That didn’t stop the Lib Dem-Tory coalition that was running Lambeth from putting the site up for auction. The emerging local sports hub faced being concreted over to provide unwanted luxury flats.
Local outrage at that proposal contributed to the 30 per cent swing that saw the three local Lib Dem councillors ousted by Labour in 2006, and an immediate decision by the incoming Labour administration to save the old school for community sports use.
Bang in the middle of an estate with high levels of social deprivation, the old school offers a space for young people living in overcrowded flats to come and exercise. Today the Old Lilian Baylis School is home to a Sports Action Zone that is promoting sport across north Lambeth and Southwark. Its inspirational director, Brian Dickens, was awarded an MBE for what he’s achieved there. Boris Johnson was quick to come and associate himself with the popular facility just days after winning election as London Mayor – conveniently ignoring the fact that his party had tried to flog the site off. This summer, the site is home to many of the summer activities that are part of the expanded programme Labour’s launched, providing things for young people to do during their summer holidays.
This is just one example of how Labour councils can promote grassroots sports activities in areas with high levels of social deprivation. This year, we held the first ‘Lambeth World Cup’ borough-wide football tournament. Next year, we’re launching a wider-ranging annual sporting festival called ‘Lambeth Fit for 2012′ that aims to engage more people in healthy, sporting activity while at the same time equipping young people in our borough to take advantage of the job opportunities available thanks to the London Olympics. That festival will also allow us to showcase the new leisure centres that Labour’s building across our borough, with new facilities including three swimming pools and an ice rink due to open in Streatham, Clapham and Waterloo over the next few years.
The Lib Dems and Tories who left Lambeth with London’s worst-funded youth service were planning to bulldoze Brixton’s Recreation Centre before their encounter with the voters put paid to the idea. Instead, Labour invested £3m to give the Rec Europe’s most advanced children’s sport zone and gym. But the Lib Dems haven’t learnt their lesson. Barely a mile away, the Lib Dems and Tories running Southwark are planning to close down and sell off Camberwell leisure centre.
Young people deserve the chance to get involved in sport. It boosts their self-esteem and gives many of them the first opportunity in their lives to experience success and achievement. Young people living in overcrowded housing need the positive outlet sport gives them to work off their excess energy. Sport activities have an important place in the range of diversionary activities that can turn young offenders away from crime. There’s an electoral dividend for providing the facilities local communities want to see. Labour’s making a difference on sport because we understand the social justice case alongside the many other benefits that a strong sports infrastructure can bring.
While we’re cheering on Britain’s athletes in Beijing, let’s not forget the work Labour’s done to help our athletes win and the work we’re still doing to develop the Olympic champions who’ll win in London in 2012. But it’s not just about going for gold. It’s about giving every young person access to the enormous benefits that sport can bring.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.