For the duration of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party the British press worked themselves up into a frenzy with rumours of “entryists” to the Labour party. These people were an anathema to the Party’s values and who the party existed to represent. In electing Jeremy Corbyn they had made the Labour Party unelectable and the party lurched to the left in a bid to resurrect a long-dead opposition to the policies of former leader Neil Kinnock. So the story goes anyway. Entryism is only a subject worthy of scrutiny by lobby journalists when it’s ordinary people paying £25 to vote in a leadership election won by a landslide in all membership categories. When it’s done via the corporate capture of the party, it’s not news. The gambling industry’s capture of the Labour party is very old news.
The country currently finds itself with high levels of gambling addiction and increased instances of problem gambling across the population. This is due to a combination of historic policy decisions, regulatory indifference, neglect, and the most well-oiled lobbying machine currently operating in British politics. It’s a costly blight but it wasn’t inevitable. The owners of betting companies, having profited to the point of being two of the top five tax contributors in the entire country, are desperate to maintain their position.
Problem gambling is now endemic within British society. This is in no small part because of the industry’s significant advertising spending. Behind this figure is also the fact that sixty percent of profits generated by gambling come from just five percent of customers. These customers are either problem gamblers or perceived as being ‘at risk’. The strategy of gambling firms is to get as many people through the door as possible and then to convert them into ‘whales’ (people who consistently bet vast sums of money).
If you spend an afternoon at or watching football at any level this ‘catch and grow’ strategy is evident. You will be bombarded by advertisements (the Football League is sponsored by Skybet) urging you to gamble as an essential part of the fan experience. At half time would-be punters are occasionally reminded by Ray Winstone or a similar sort of geezer (often a pundit or ex-player) to bet responsibly, but these are a drop in the ocean when compared to the sheer volume of the rest of the advertising spend. The reach and influence of the gambling industry on football extends so far that ex-footballer Steven Caulker was dropped as a pundit on a Bet365-sponsored series because of his previous “positive work” on gambling addiction.
The industry claims sponsorships have no impact on customer conversions or problem gambling, but if that were the case it’s hard to fathom why quite so much money is pumped into ensuring thirty-five percent of Premier League teams have a betting logo on their shirts.
This didn’t happen overnight of course, and much of the blame should be laid at the door of Tony Blair after his liberalisation of gambling laws in 2005. The Gambling Act did little to curtail the tax-dodging abilities of firms, and poorly equipped Parliament to be able to deal with consumer habits of the future. Subsequent administrations have had ample opportunity to update the legislation to reflect the fact that the Act predates the first iPhone. None have, instead preferring to deepen their relationships with these parasitic firms. For reference, in 2012 the CEO of Bet365 Denise Coates, one of the world’s best-paid executives, was awarded a CBE for “services to community and business”.
This relationship goes beyond the Government itself, with the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) investing significant time, money and energy in the lobbying of MPs of all parties to oppose stricter regulation via donations, shilling initiatives and corporate hospitality. Earlier this year Tory MP and bonehead Scott Benton was caught in a sting offering to undertake paid lobbying on behalf of fictitious gambling industry investors, which underscored the ease of access outlets like the BGC have to unscrupulous MPs.
Away from the Conservative Party and the cartoonish scandals of its MPs, the BGC itself is frequently the employer of last resort for disaffected former Labour MPs and staffers. With its CEO Michael Dugher returning to the world of corporate lobbying after his stints at UK Music and as Shadow Secretary of State for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which responsibility for the regulation of the gambling industry partly falls under. Dugher’s role is in essence to do the dirty work of the gambling industry. When he’s not spending his time lobbying on behalf of firms, he spends his days taunting recovering addicts or coming under fire for his comments on the suicide of a gambling addict.
But the BGC’s closeness to the Labour Party goes beyond personnel. The lobbying that it and other firms undertake is often geared specifically towards a Labour audience. In 2021, backbench Labour MP for South Shields Emma Lewell-Buck came under fire for advocating for casinos like Admiral as she was pictured beaming while sat at a betting machine touting the ‘cuppas and socialising’ that the casino offered to their regulars. Lewell-Buck, after responding to someone criticising her for failing to show the reality of casinos like Admiral said “Hi, I see you live down South…”, Buck then commented that “MPs can help gambling addiction by engaging with places like Admiral”.
Meanwhile in April of this year, Shadow DCMS Minister Alex Davies-Jones MP, faced criticism after she took up the BGC’s offer for a £50 charity bet on the Grand National. Her winnings from this year’s particularly gore-filled race were promptly donated to a food bank in her Pontypridd constituency. The grim irony of course, should not need to be spelled out.
In addition to this, the BGC paid for an ‘advertorial’ in the New Statesman. It was penned by former MP, and current Labour candidate for Redcar, Anna Turley, ahead of the 2021 Hartlepool by-election in her capacity as a “sports consultant” for the BGC and apparent red-wall-understander. In it she argues, according to research (handily commissioned by the BGC) “focus groups found that betting is an integral part of British culture and society. People bet for fun and enjoyment, and working-class audiences see it as a cultural pursuit”. Turley also warned MPs against the necessity of affordability checks proposed by the Gambling Commission due to the supposed low prevalence of problem gambling. Not only is Turley and the BGC’s argument patronising nonsense of the highest order and eerily reminiscent of the sort of lines the tobacco industry deployed in response to the first wave of regulation in the 1950s, but it is also instructive as part of the reason why Labour is so susceptible to corporate capture on this issue.
Since the 2019 General Election, Labour has been hyper-focused and terrified of the opinions of the so-called “hero voters” in the red wall, with the Leader of the Opposition’s Office viewing them as the keystone demographic to win the next election. The narratives and importance of this group are problematic and often overstated for a number of reasons, but in this instance the caricature essentially provides those like Michael Dugher a custom-made angle to push the BGC’s agenda by playing on the insecurities of MPs.
That’s before even considering that aside from the gambling industry’s role as a post-Parliament pay packet, organisations like the BGC and other firms commit significant financial resources to buying corporate hospitality spots for MPs at various sporting events up and down the country. Freebies that MPs of all levels of seniority, including Keir Starmer are known to take up. Where from the view of a private box an MP, typically easily flattered, untrained and often clueless, finds themselves a captive audience ready to be miraculously won over to the view of the person that paid for their ticket. And that’s only counting the events that meet the declaration threshold, as many companies have been known to specifically tailor their various gifts, events and dinners to be just inexpensive enough to not require entry into the public register of Member’s interests.
It is worth noting however that this is not an entirely uncontested issue within the Labour Party, and many have been clear-eyed enough to recognise the scale of the rot that the prevalence of problem gambling is causing. Gordon Brown’s 2007 scrapping of super-casinos, labelled as “the worst form of puritanism” by Tony Blair in his memoir due to the loss of potential jobs created by it, probably represents the last major defeat the industry as a whole has encountered since liberalisation. A decision that has undoubtedly only aged better as the current crisis deepens.
While Carolyn Harris’ campaign to neuter Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals, machines that allowed users to lose £100 every twenty seconds, has surely saved hundreds, if not many thousands of people from immediate gambling-related harm. The eventual cull of FOBTs and the accompanying job losses were described as “devastating” by former Labour MP and Community Union Operations Director Tom Blenkinsop.
In each instance, Blair and other Labour MPs cannot not see the moral and practical hazard of a giant industry that produces nothing whose every pound in profit is drawn from the losses of its customers. Appeals to the nostalgia of dog tracks and a hackneyed vision of the flat-capped working class have meant that parasitic gambling firms can continue to have unfettered exploitation rights to plunder the pockets of the very people the Labour party claim to exist to serve.
The likely-incoming Labour majority government will be as much of a friend to the gambling industry as the Conservatives and New Labour before them. The corporate capture of the party seems an insurmountable hurdle for those few MPs who genuinely want Labour to change. The real exploitation of working class people is no match for the grievances of imaginary working class people whose views coincidentally align with the billionaire vulture capitalists of the gambling industry.
As was often repeated by many of the self-styled moderates worried about entryism during the Corbyn years, the British Labour Party does actually owe more to Methodism than it does to Marxism. Disdain for gambling and the harm it causes should become a core principle of the Labour party again.
John Fitzgerald is a pseudonym.