How important is it to Britons that a politician likes football?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
June 14, 2024, 1:44 PM GMT+0

The overwhelming majority say it is not important to them – but a third say senior politicians should be expected to watch the national side if they make it to the final

Political advisers sure seem to think that it is important that politicians like – or at least, appear to like – football.

Keir Starmer had, in the weeks prior to the election being called, been touring non-league football grounds, while Rishi Sunak was swiftly spotted on the front pages shortly after the campaign began at a photo opp at a football academy.

Further back, David Cameron famously got in a muddle over whether his favourite team was Aston Villa or West Ham United – two teams comparable only in the colour of their kits.

This year’s general election campaign period coincides with the group stages of Euro 2024 – which both England and Scotland have qualified for ­– and we can be sure to see photo evidence of senior politicians cheering in front of a TV screen when one of our teams finds the net.

But do the public care? The answer seems to be: no.

Just 4% of Britons say that it is very or fairly important to them that senior politicians be football fans. Even among those who say that they themselves are “very interested” in football, this figure only rises to 9%.

Nor do the public think anyone else cares. Only 11% of Britons think the wider public cares much about whether senior politicians are football fans (including 12% of those who are very interested in football themselves).

We also included a more practical test of attitudes – whether senior politicians should be expected to watch the national team(s) at international football tournaments. When it comes to the group stages, again only 12% of Britons think the likes of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer should be required to watch. This figure is twice as high among those who are very interested in football (23%).

It is a slightly different story were one of the home nations to make it all the way through to the finals. At this point, one in three Britons (32%) say senior politicians should be expected to watch and lend their support – although 44% still say they should not. By this point football fans tend to think that viewing the match is mandatory, at 48% compared to 41% who disagree.

A separate YouGov survey has also found that if a party leaders’ debate were to take place at the same time as an England or Scotland game at the Euros, 24% would be more likely to watch the debate, 35% the football – and 37% neither.

Which senior politicians do the public think are football fans?

So for their attempts to show their football fandom, how many Britons actually recognise senior politicians’ soccer support? We asked the public, from what they’d ever seen and heard, whether they thought seven current and former party leaders are football fans.

Among the wider public the most common answer for each politician is “don’t know” by some margin, although football fans are more likely to give a view one way or the other.

Of the seven leaders, Keir Starmer is the only one that people are notably more likely to say seems like a football fan than not. More than a quarter of Britons (28%) think Starmer – who is an Arsenal season ticket holder – is a football fan, compared to 18% who think he is not a fan. Among football fans specifically, 41% believe Starmer is a football fan, compared to 25% who do not.

People are more divided on Rishi Sunak. The prime minister, who has labelled himself “a massive Saints fan”, is seen as a football fan by 23% of Britons and not a fan by 28%. Football fans specifically are closely tied, with 39% saying Sunak is a fan and 36% thinking he is not.

Nigel Farage – who has re-become a party leader since this poll was conducted – has previously spoken on Matt Le Tissier’s podcast about how he spends a few hours a week following football, particularly Crystal Palace (although he is a bigger cricket fan).

Nevertheless, he does not tend to come across as a football fan to the public or fans themselves.

A similar story plays out with Jeremy Corbyn, a vociferous Arsenal fan. The public in general, and football fans, are both twice as likely to think Corbyn is not a football fan as they are to think he is.

The public likewise tend not to be convinced that any of Liz Truss (Norwich City), David Cameron (West Ham United Aston Villa), and Boris Johnson (who has self-described as a football fan, but has not committed to any one team) are football fans.

See the full results here

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