It’s the “squeeze”, not the “middle”, that matters

Labour needs to ignore definitions of the “middle” and focus on policies that address the “squeezed

The next election is going to be the "living standards" election. This week's forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the Tory election strategy will be to offer the public the chance to have back £6bn of its money in tax cuts. The figure echoes the £6bn in efficiency savings that the Tories made the centrepiece of their last election campaign, allowing them to pledge an end to "Labour's jobs tax". In the end, they cancelled the National Insurance rise for employers only, not employees, but they look likely to offer tax cuts at the next election, too.

Labour has to avoid fighting the last election again. In a speech to Demos this week, the party's last election co-ordinator expressed regret that the run-up to Labour's campaign was wasted on refusing to acknowledge the need for cuts and on using the "Mr 10 Per Cent" dividing line that worked in 2001 and 2005, but lacked credibility by the last election.

Douglas Alexander warned of a "jobless recovery" but was careful not to be seen to wish for one. The mistake the Tories made at the start of Labour's first term was to predict "a downturn made in Downing Street" that never came. So it is vital that Labour avoids rubbing its hands at every bit of bad news and being seen to be willing a double-dip recession.

In the past week, the right has sought to attack Ed Miliband's focus on "the squeezed middle" by attacking the definition of "middle". Labour needs to ignore this and focus on policies to address the "squeeze". There are many definitions of "the middle", from John Healey's essay for Demos back in the summer to Liam Byrne's article in the latest issue of Progress magazine. It really doesn't matter if voters are earning up to £50,000 and it really doesn't matter if voters earning up to £30,000 are suffering a "triple crunch" or a double whammy. It's the squeeze that matters, not the middle.

Across the country, there is a "squeezed generation": those people paying for the social care of their elderly relatives while also trying to help their children through university or on to the property ladder. This generation is represented at the "bottom", at the "top" and in the "middle".

Young families will be squeezed by cuts to childcare tax credits. Commuters will be squeezed by rising rail fares. And if there is a jobless recovery or if living standards for Britain's middle continue to stall, the squeezes will be cross-cutting and socially pervasive. Across the board, there is going to be a squeeze.

If the Tories go into the next election offering tax cuts, Labour should seriously consider matching at least some of these. For now, Labour needs to keep focused on framing the next election as "the living standards election", because it will connect with the contemporary reality that voters are going to live through. They must hope for a recovery that raises living standards and returns the country to full employment.

Only when it fails to happen should they blame the government. The squeeze is coming and every voter will experience it in a different way. What matters is whether Labour can convince voters that it understands their squeeze and has solutions to help them feel better under Labour.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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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