Ken will be remembered as one of the great city leaders

If you seek his memorial, look around you.

It was around midnight on Friday night, when I heard Boris Johnson's plummy Etonian tones intone his acceptance speech, that it was finally brought home to me that Labour had indeed lost the 2012 mayoral election. I felt suddenly depressed and infinitely sad. The polls had said we would for weeks. But in the final cliff-hanging hours of Thursday night I wanted to believe that somehow, defying all reason, Ken could just inch ahead on second-preference votes.

No sooner had the returning officer announced the result than the airwaves and the blogosphere were flooded with people analysing why Ken lost. But much of this punditry says more about the undying enmity towards Ken in some sections of the Labour Party than about the facts. And the most popular analysis so far is that “It’s Ken wot lost it”

The people that would blame Ken, and Ken alone, for his defeat like to point to the allegedly huge gap between his vote and the vote for Labour GLA candidates. But this analysis shows that the average gap between the two was one per cent. What Ken’s detractors always forget is that he brings with him his own loyal vote, going back to his glory days at the GLC, which compensates for any missing Labour voters.

But Ken’s enemies also ignore the fact that the Tories fought a ruthless American style campaign designed to destroy Ken as a person. And they were aided and abetted by an Evening Standard which was more rabidly pro-Tory than ever. With the benefit of hindsight maybe Ken’s tax affairs could have been managed better or the rebuttal more effective. But the Tories, and their little helpers at the Standard, zeroed in on the issue. David Cameron raised it three separate times in one session of Prime Minister's Questions. They knew smearing Ken as some kind of money-hungry, tax dodging plutocrat went to the heart of Ken’s brand. In that way, the campaign on Ken’s tax affairs owed a lot to the equally unpleasant and dishonest 2004 Republican “swift boat” campaign against the Democratic nominee John Kerry. 

The allegations of anti-Semitism which dogged Ken’s campaign were also a smear. And, when challenged, the people hinting this always denied that they were making any such allegation. In fact the origins of the differences of opinion between Ken and some on the right were really about his long-standing support of justice for the Palestinians. But these political differences morphed into an allegation of anti-Semitism, which was all the harder to rebut because it was never spelt out. However it undoubtedly had an effect. Although the average difference between Ken’s vote and the Labour vote was only 1 per cent, in Barnet and Camden, covering a big Jewish community, it was 3 per cent.

But the main reason for the undying enmity between Ken and the Labour Party establishment was that on so many issues he was right and they were wrong. It was Ken who argued for troops out of Northern Ireland and he supported the cause of the Birmingham Six when the Labour Party front bench wanted nothing to do with the issue. Ken stood up for gay rights when you got abused for it. And as Mayor of London he introduced civil partnerships and proved to Tony Blair that he could bring them in nationally without risking the wrath of the Daily Mail-reading classes.. He argued the feminist case (and promoted women) long before it was a mainstream issue in the Labour Party. And he fought for racial justice and cases like the Stephen Lawrence campaign, when mainstream Labour Party figures would not touch these issues with a barge pole.

And there is no corner of the capital where you cannot see the consequences of Ken’s vision as a political leader in London. Too many people forget that was it the money and the new objectives Ken gave the South Bank arts complex that turned it into the hugely popular destination for ordinary people it is today. First as leader of the GLC and then as London mayor he masterminded huge waves of investment in public transport. Umpteen stations were upgraded, new bus routes were introduced and new lines built including the East London line.  Ken was passionate about bringing the Olympics to London. The congestion charge was his personal decision. On the environment and green issues he was genuinely forward thinking

In a long career in politics, Ken accumulated all too many enemies. And there is no doubt he had his faults. But on his worst days he was a better and braver politician than all the people currently pontificating on his character flaws. Ken he will go down in history as one of the great big city leaders like Fiorella La Guardia in New York.  As we move into the worst slump since the 1930s, London will soon have buyer's remorse about Boris Johnson. But, in a Latin tag that Boris would appreciate, you can say of Ken and his leadership in London “Si monumentum requiris circumspice” 

Diane Abbott is the shadow public health minister.

"On his worst days he was a better and braver politician than all the people currently pontificating on his character flaws." Photograph: Getty Images.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health. 

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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