Logger-Eds? Not quite.

The shadow chancellor is no dagger-wielding don.

Those who were there will remember the tension in the room. It was the New Statesman debate at the outset of Labour's arduous leadership election. As Balls interrupted his future leader, Miliband lashed out, "It's just like being back at the Treasury". Balls snapped backk, "Tell us the answer then, Ed, like you always do." The sarcasm hung thick in the air.

Much of the subtext in the final weeks was about how Balls would react to whichever Mili-brother was the victor. If David won, would we see a return to the TB/GBs? A younger Blair vs. Brown? If Mili-Ed won, how would Balls cope with being subservient to a man once his junior when the Treasury was his domain?

As it happened, the younger Miliband won. It was a squeaker. You know the rest. Balls was placed in the Shadow Home Office role, a heavy artillery weapon plonked on Theresa May's lawn. 

It wasn't the role that he wanted. He had too much time on his hands. He longed for the role he was born for. 

The role he had really been running for all the long.

Shadow Chancellor. 

He was publicly loyal, and got on with the job at hand, but few believed he was as happy with his new role as he professed to be.

And then, a twist of fate. Alan Johnson resigned (personal reasons). Balls assumed the role he had always coveted (personal triumph). Once again, Labour's economic policy was in the hands of a giant clunking fist. Johnson had joked of his need for an economic primer. Balls - as anyone who has spent time with the man will attest - has no need for such a rudimentary tome, peppering his conversations with "Ricardian Equivalence" and "Post Neo-Classical Endogenous Growth Theory". Pass the dictionary.

And yet the rumours of Balls-ite plots continued unabated. Yvette Cooper found herself pushed to the fore as Labour's presumptive leader-in-waiting during each one of Ed Miliband's leadership mini-crises. The line went out through the media that this was the work of Balls on behalf of his wife. 

What sexist tosh it was. Yvette Cooper is nothing if not someone who can look after herself. 

The rumours reached a crescendo with what became known as “Lasagne-gate”, where the Balls-Cooper clan reached out to their shadow teams by feeding them. To read the media write ups you'd think this were Labour's latest food-based coup (and they're always food based – always), but nothing came of it besides an opportunity for Balls to refer regularly in public to his 14-hour pulled pork.

The truth and the relationship between the pair of Eds has always been more mundane. 

Last year, around twelve months after that fiesty New Statesman exchange, I was speaking at an event in Parliament. Half way through, Ed Balls appeared at the back of the room, trying to catch the attention of an MP, before disappearing with an almost cartoonish grin on his face. Thirty seconds later, the door at the front of the room swung open. Laughter echoed in the corridor, and in came not only Balls, but Miliband too. Smiling, laughing, joking like friends. But with no cameras about, no need to put on a show.

Since then, this is a side to the “Two Eds” that has been seen more often and more publicly. They're a strong double act in front of both public and press. They seem comfortable in each other's company. They compliment each other. They look, it is possible to say, like a team.

And so it was surprising today to read Rachel Sylvester writing today in the Times that the relationship is strained. There is a “tension” between the two, we are told. There's more “reciprocated mistrust than mutual respect”. 

That's possible, perhaps, but it relies on us believing that both Balls and Miliband are great actors. For the avoidance of doubt, neither man is going to be winning a BAFTA any time soon. 

Similarly, Sylvester states that, “Mr Balls’s hint that the party might support a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU did not go down well with other Shadow Cabinet ministers.” The reality, again, is boringly mundane. Balls discussed Labour's EU referendum line with Miliband and Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander weeks ago. It was, as the parlance goes, “the line”. 

Yet it's not hard to see why these briefings against Balls are coming in. They are no doubt borne out of frustration with the iron grip that the Shadow Chancellor and his team have over public spending commitments. As I wrote back in December:

Nothing that could even notionally impinge on economic policy is put forward without the explicit say-so of the shadow chancellor – a cause for silent frustration for many seeking to make their mark around the shadow cabinet table.

That frustration, it would seem, is rather less silent than it once was. The weapon used for retribution is a blunt and well used implement – Balls-as-Brownite-bruiser with his “bovver boys” and “punishment beatings”. Perhaps this once rang true – heaven knows Balls is no angel – but it's no longer the powerful line of attack it once was. Balls is an operator, sure, but a dagger-wielding don? To what end?

But if Sylvester is right (which, for further avoidance of doubt, I don't think she is), then would it really be so bad if a leader and his key economic spokesperson were at loggerheads? Blair and Brown may have loathed each other, but the “creative tension” that threatened to crack the walls between Number 10 and Number 11 was responsible for a (perhaps never to be repeated) triplicate of election wins. By contrast, the current PM and his Chancellor are bosom-buddies, with Osborne preferring the role of Mandelsonian strategist to the position of economic Stakanovite. A part-time chancellor propping up a “chillaxed” PM.

Sometimes a little creative tension goes a long way.

Mark Ferguson is the editor of LabourList

Best of buds? Eds Miliband and Balls. Photo: Getty Images
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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