PMQs sketch: Ed launches class war

Dave on the ropes after Miliband goes for Tory jugular.

After 18 months in the doldrums Ed Miliband at last came up with a successful strategy today for taking on the Government -- munching on millionaires.

It may seem odd that the leader of the Labour Party has taken so long to remember its history but that only goes to show how deep Lord Mandelson's "relaxation" with the filthy rich had sunk its roots.

But having successfully snacked on Stephen Hester over the weekend and gorged on Fred Goodwin yesterday, Ed clearly had the taste as he popped into the House of Commons for what turned out to be a lunchtime feast at Prime Ministers Questions.

Having stared at them across the Chamber since the General Election, Ed finally came up with the collective noun for the Coalition Cabinet that has been escaping him for months: millionaires.

Someone somewhere on the Labour team had remembered a fascinating fact which appeared and then disappeared after the election -- that almost everyone sitting around the Cabinet table has more than a Hester-sized slice in the bank.

Standing up to face the head millionaire, otherwise known as the Prime Minister, Ed, buoyed up by giving Dave a good kicking in the loose change over the banks and Europe, was cheered so loudly by his side that he looked around to see who else had come in.

But he was the hero as he demanded Dave follow up on his pre-election pledge to name all those in the banks who would be trousering at least a million despite collapsing share prices and the continuing crisis. As this could be a list that could take several hours to spell out, Dave could only adopt the historical precedent at PMQs and remember there is nothing in its title about answers.

Having failed to get millionaire Dave to answer, Ed then named his millionaire buddy Chancellor George as someone else who said names should be named.

Talking about money always makes the well off uncomfortable and the Tory side of the House seemed uncharacteristically quiet as Ed deployed both hands to make his point.

With Labour members now beside themselves with unexpected elation, Ed introduced a charge not heard since Tony and his pals seized the commanding heights of the Labour Party twenty years ago and delivered it directly to Dave.

"The class war," he said, "is being led by him and his Cabinet of millionaires." It was impossible to tell if all the Front Bench had heard what he said over the noise from Ed's new fan base, but Dave recoiled on their behalf from phraseology he and they must have thought would only ever be heard from Denis Skinner (who himself could be forgiven for thinking he'd woken up in the wrong place).

It remains to be seen if class war is taken out again from its glass case in the Museum of Labour History, and it is hard to avoid the glee with which it will be received at the Daily Mail, but it certainly did the business today.

The Prime Minister, now clearly unnerved by the drubbing he was getting, tried to bounce back with a charge of "hypocrisy" against Ed -- but when your luck is out, it really is out.

Quick as a flash, Speaker Bercow, whose own relationship with Dave is less than warm, was out of his seat to announce that the word was unparliamentary and must be withdrawn.

With their man floundering on the ropes the usual suspects on the Tory benches desperately tried to come to his aid with a series of fixed questions on the benefits cap due for debate later.

Labour is much less sure-footed in this area but Ed quite happily ignored the Prime Minister's increasingly frustrated attempts to draw him in. Chancellor George meanwhile sat silent as both counted down the minutes to the final bell setting them free from the nightmare.

But Ed was not finished and popped up again to list everyone in the NHS who had now come out against the Government's non-reorganisation plan to re-organise the health service.

If millionaires are Dave's latest nightmare, the cock-up over the NHS has been keeping him awake for months, and Ed's reminder only served to push his above-the-collar hue right off the colour charts. It was the Prime Minister who famously said: "We are all in this together." All of a sudden, we are not.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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