Will The Man In the Street Become Ed's Friend?

Ed Miliband needs to find the centre ground and make moves towards it

Jon Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, was once asked by an interviewer if he had ever looked to "the man in the street" for inspiration for his songs. "Nah", he replied, "I met the man in the street once. He was a c***".

If Ed Miliband is ever asked a similar question he'll probably offer a more generous appraisal of his fellow citizens. Hopefully he'll also point out he's the leader of the Labour party, not anarchic front man for a revolutionary new teenage sub-culture, though these day's you can never be quite sure. But Ed Miliband likes the man in the street. And in tomorrow's speech to Labour party conference he's going to endeavour to make him his friend.

The leders annual conference address , currently being reworked by Ed Miliband himself, and feverishly polished by Greg Beales and half a dozen assorted aides, is always a closely guarded secret. And as such details of it have already been leaking like a sieve. Aside from the beatification of Tom Watson, and efforts to shamelessly bask in the reflective glory of the exposure of the phone-hacking scandal, two themes are set to dominate. The requirement for Labour to occupy the political middle-ground, and the need for Labour to seize control of the "responsibility agenda" in order to do so.

Both are potentially productive strategies. The idea of planting Labour's red flag in the electoral centre is hardly new. But given Ed Miliband's early fixation with constructing a "progressive majority", his decision to at least attempt to embrace a more orthodox constituency is a sign of progress.

As is his focus on responsibility. Miliband's June speech to London community activists, in which he grasped the nettle of welfare reform, and had harsh words for those at the bottom of the income scale who abuse the benefits system, was his best to date. It took him out of his comfort zone, demonstrated he was prepared to challenge prevailing wisdom within his own party, and showed he had the confidence to confront the Tories on territory they believed was theirs by right.

All sorted then. Quick tour of the middle ground. Short lecture on responsibility. Bash the bankers, Rupert Murdoch and Nick Clegg. Toynbee salivating, Mirror cheering, Man in the Street swooning. Job done.

If only. Gone are the days when the leader of the Labour party could seduce us all with an easy blend of self-deprecating humour, faux sincerity and estuary English. Whilst Tony Blair had his finger the pulse of the nation, Ed Miliband has been struggling to even find his stethoscope.

Take that ambition to secure a long-term lease on the centre ground. A great idea in concept. But does he actually know where the middle ground is?

We had something of an insight a few weeks ago with the leaking/briefing of the Shaun Wooward memo. According to that analysis the Man in the Street is blasé about the deficit; "My credit card's maxed out", he says, "but lets whack a bit more on till the trouble passes". He's also opposed to immigration capping; "let 'em in", is his liberal attitude, "plenty of room for more where they came from". On welfare he takes an equally progressive view; "a hand out, not a hand up. That's what those poor blighters need".

Ed Miliband's team moved quickly to point out Woodward was merely providing an analysis of the Tory party's direction of travel, rather than a blueprint for Labour's own. But it was still telling that tough stances on deficit reduction, immigration and crime were perceived to represent a move away from the political mainstream. Many observers would argue they sit slap bang in the middle of it.

Which begs another question. Even if Ed Miliband does identify where the middle ground is, does he have the will and means to move towards it? As one shadow cabinet source said, "You can't just keep saying you want to occupy the centre ground. You have to actively travel towards it".

Travel towards it. Or build it around you? There are some within Ed Miliband's circle who argue that running around trying to divine public opinion is a mugs game. They believe the political centre is shifting, and it's moving in their direction; "I'm absolutely a leader placing my party firmly in the centre ground but there's a new centre ground in our politics", Miliband said back in June, "The new centre ground, for example, that means you speak out on these issues of press responsibility, a new centre ground that says that responsibility in the banking system - which we didn't talk about enough when we were in government - is relevant, a new centre ground that says people are worried about concentrations of private power in this country when it leads to abuses". In the same way the rules of the game are seemingly being re-written in Labour's favour, so the terrain is perceived to be naturally gravitating leftwards.

But not everyone is so comfortable with this analysis. The political centre, "Is not a place that the party gets to pick", Liam Byrne pointedly told delegates in his speech yesterday. ?"The centre-ground is where voters say it is. Our challenge now is to change and move in and say once more the centre-ground is our home-ground, and this is where we fight". There are a number of others in the shadow cabinet who would also like a little less conversation about occupying the middle-ground and a little more action.

Sadly, Miliband's speech writers keep falling foul of their own unique brand of realpolitik. An insider cites a debate over a particular passage referring to a "covenant with the British people". It was included in an early draft, but was then deemed to have too many quasi-religious overtones. Then someone else thought it sounded too Blairite, which killed the "covenant" off for good. A "contract" was then muted. But that was thought too corporate. Bankers have contracts. And so "the Labour Deal" was born. "Are we a party or a supermarket chain", once source moaned.

Similar issues surrounded another key theme, the impending assault on Britain's "vested interests". Would this be extended to include, for example, those who view the benefits system as a vested interest, Miliband was asked by one his shadow cabinet colleagues. "No" was the response. They were to stick to people at the top of the income ladder.

The middle-ground. The responsibility agenda. The Labour Deal. These will be Ed Miliband's key offerings to the man in the street. Whether he will accept this kind offer is another matter. He may not be a c***. But he can certainly be an awkward bugger.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era