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General election 2019: Are political clubs still political?

By David Pittam
BBC News


On a street in the Nottinghamshire town of Arnold, there is a Liberal club, a Labour club and a Conservative club, all within a five-minute walk of one another. But how much do the people who patronise these establishments actually care about politics?

There's an intense silence among the members of Arnold's Balfour Conservative Club as the president calls out numbers. That's because Wednesday night is bingo night - and bingo night is taken seriously. Certainly more seriously than politics.

In the lull between the rounds, 82-year-old Shirley Wilmot, who has always voted Labour, says she's never really thought about the club's Conservative connections.

"I'm a member of the Liberal club and the Labour club as well," she says. "But this is my favourite because it's so friendly.

"I go to the Liberal on a Saturday because they have two artists on, here on the Wednesday for the bingo and the Labour club on Sunday for the dinner. They're not political places."

image captionThe Labour club is seen by its regulars as a handy place to go for a cheap pint served by friendly staff

Just down the road at the Arnold Labour Club, president John Wood, 60, would agree with that sentiment.

He says its link to the party ended about 10 years ago and that the association had become "damaging". He is even looking to change the club's name.

Of the nine people asked at the Labour club, not one could say they would definitely vote for the Labour Party, and a few know they certainly will not.

Among them is Ann Rogers, 50, a member of a motorbike group which meets there weekly.

"I come for the friendly people and the amazing bar staff," she says. "I've been here for four years and never heard anyone talk about politics. It's just a name over the door. It doesn't matter if you support Labour or Conservative, you're welcome here.

General election 2017 result. Gedling parliamentary constituency.  .

"I used to be an avid Labour supporter and always voted for them. I voted for them last election. But not this time. It's hard for me but I feel they've let us down, and I don't like Jeremy Corbyn."

Mr Wood says the club and local party used to support one another financially and political meetings were once held here. But he understands they went their separate ways well before he took over two years ago.

He says some of his regulars refuse to become full club members because of the name and he has even been denied loans from banks and grants for renovation work because of the perceived political ties.

"I couldn't be tied to any party," Mr Wood says. "The only one I've ever supported is UKIP. But I don't get involved and we never talk politics."

Instead, they host events ranging from coffee mornings for the elderly and a Parkinson's support group, to weddings and weekly discos.

Inside are four rooms, each with its own bar. One room is dominated by a snooker table, and another has a skittles alley where members sometimes play against members of the Conservative club and the Liberal club - although the rivalry isn't fuelled by differing political allegiances.

image captionAlex Hunt says he has no idea who he will vote for on 12 December

One of the team members is 27-year-old handyman Alex Hunt. Snooker cue in hand, he says: "I love the company, all my friends are here, it's lively and you can drink.

"I used to be a member of the Liberal and Conservative club but they don't have the same atmosphere."

And what about politics?

"I've not got a clue who I'm voting for this election," he says. "I don't know anything about politics. It just doesn't matter to me."

The club's bar manager, Paula Martin, says she gets a call about twice a month from people asking to speak to the local Labour candidate. A man came in a couple of weeks ago asking why there were no pictures at the club of the candidate, she says.

"I told him it's just not like that any more."

image captionAt both the Labour and Conservative clubs, located either side of an Asda supermarket, members pay £10 to join in their first year and £5 every year after

In the Conservative club, there's also an absence of political chat and certainly no division along party lines.

Indeed, a number of the Labour club's members and some of its bar staff are here to play "sticky 13s", a form of card bingo popular in Nottingham pubs.

Unlike its Labour counterpart, the Balfour Conservative Club is still affiliated to the political party and pays an annual subscription to the Association of Conservative Clubs. Its rules state that every member should also be a member or supporter of the Conservative Party, but the secretary admits this is not something that is enforced these days.

The same rulebook's stated aim is to "promote the principles of Conservatism and the implementation of the Conservative Party's policies", although this does not seem to go much further than hosting a few party meetings and a Christmas meal.

The blue interior and a portrait of the early 20th Century prime minister Arthur Balfour suggest a Tory heritage - but one club member sitting below a picture of the Queen admits he now supports the Brexit Party.

Club president Rob Whalley, 66, says the strength of its association with the Conservatives has weakened in the five decades he has been coming here.

image captionClub president Rob Whalley in front of a portrait of Arthur Balfour

As he prepares to set up the bingo, he says: "I don't talk politics at the club. The days when you were a member of just one of the political clubs are done. If we said you had to be a Conservative Party member to join, we'd have no-one in."

For the members, the subsidised pints, the friendly atmosphere, the snooker and pool tables seem to be the main draw.

That's certainly the case for Labour supporter Andy Gallagher, who has come here for a game. "This is the most convenient pool table - I don't care what the place is called," he says. "I know I'm not the only Labour voter but we never discuss politics.

"If Boris Johnson walked in here I wouldn't talk to him but I'd not tell him to get out either."

image captionTony Barnsley: "I do have a political opinion - I don't think politics works"

Back at the Labour club, 37-year-old industrial truck driver Tony Barnsley says he's been a member for the past four years, because the staff "treat him well" and "pull a great pint of Stella".

But he has only voted once in his life, almost 20 years ago. "If anyone tries to talk politics they walk out because no-one is bothered; they won't even listen to it," he says.

"If Jeremy Corbyn walked in here I'd say 'get me a drink'."

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