Let’s step outside the Westminster bubble. What is really exercising people just now? A good way of judging this is to look at what petitions are being put into Parliament. And indeed, one petition has caught on this week like wildfire, with 358,000 signatures at the time of writing (10am on Saturday), comfortably the petition with the most signatories.
No, it’s not Marcus Rashford’s petition. It’s a politely-worded request to keep gyms open should Covid-19 cases spike. To set this in context, it has roughly twice as many signatories as a petition to offer more support to the arts through the Covid-19 crisis and 60% more than a petition to partially refund tuition fees this year because of Covid-19. Yet so far as I can see, none of the usual political journalists have focused on the question of gyms, though the crisis in the arts and the treatment of students has been extensively aired in the media.
MPs have done no better. Matt Hancock gave a statement on Thursday with a Covid-19 update. The only MP to mention gyms even tangentially in that debate was Caroline Johnson, and her question was really about how the public could be encouraged to exercise if gyms closed, not querying whether they should. Judith Cummins and Antony Higginbotham both raised concerns about the closure of gyms, but they are very much the exceptions.
I have identified only three politicians to run with this properly: the unlikely trio of Suzanne Evans, Joe Anderson and Steve Rotheram. Good for all of them. This is a subject which massively interests a section of the public and deserves to be engaged with properly. Gyms and fitness comprise, incidentally, a £5 billion industry (three fishing industries, if you like) and keep just under 200,000 in work. You’d have thought that might have mattered a bit to the politicians.
Meanwhile, armed police burst into a gym that remained open in Liverpool to close it down this week. The feeling of injustice is intense. The evidence that gyms spread Covid-19 is, perhaps surprisingly, absent.
The treatment of gyms, as the number signing the petition demonstrates, is of huge importance to many people, providing a focal point for their lives and the lifestyle giving not just physical exercise but mental support for them. The original petitioner is a bodybuilder and personal trainer and, so far as I can see, just very into his vocation. I encourage you to have a look at his instagram page (perhaps best not to do so on a work computer), so you can get an idea just how much the gym means to him. As you’ll see, it’s almost a spiritual matter for him. In that regard, he’s not that unusual.
So why has this topic been largely ignored? I suspect the answer is that the people to whom this is especially important are disproportionately drawn from groups who are usually disengaged from politics, particularly young working-class men. (Compare and contrast this with the people who go to restaurants and bars.) Matt Goodwin was presenting to the Education Select Committee in Parliament this week on how white working class boys were falling behind in school. He’s got an important point here. And this is another instance of how politicians are failing those who do not have the same life experiences as them.
You don’t have to agree with the premise of the petition. But as with the arts and ,as with students, gymgoersPTs and gym owners are entitled to have their treatment properly aired in Parliament and in political discussions. It hasn’t been, and that lack of an airing to date is a disgrace.
There are indications that this particular concern is finally percolating through. MPs should debate this petition, given that it has exceeded 100,000 signatures. And gyms were carved out of the Tier 3 restrictions imposed on Lancashire, having previously been included in the Liverpool Tier 3 restrictions. This suggests a belated realisation about its importance.
There is, however, a broader point. Politics is being dominated by the concerns of a particular slice of society with ready access to articulate middle class lobbyists. Next time you hear someone complain about so many people not caring about politics, remember the way in which the interests of gymgoers have been ignored by the political classes. If you want more people to engage, you have to engage with their concerns. In future, politicians and opinion-formers really need to do better.