The Tory left is in crisis - but no one in the party cares

Where are the successors to one nation giants like Michael Heseltine, George Young and Chris Patten?

As George Osborne announced huge cuts to benefits for the mentally ill and the disabled, Andrew Mitchell clung embarrassingly to power before resigning, and Iain Duncan Smith courted controversy with proposals to slash benefits for families of more than two children, we witnessed the Conservative Party unleash its pre-general election rallying cries. And yet, as party direction sharpened, giants of the Tory "one nation" tradition rose to remind us of an alternative Conservative vision. George Young arrived honourably back into cabinet, while Chris Patten brushed Maria Miller’s criticism of the BBC aside as ably as he once swept voters into his party’s fold. This week, Michael Heseltine went so far as to suggest that there is economic and civic potential in the regions and that it should be backed by a decentralised state entrepreneurialism. Are we witnessing a renewal of the Tory left or its last hurrah?

George Young, for example, was once Conservative minister for inner cities and, for 23 years, the MP for the ethnically diverse urban seat of Ealing Acton. He once served in the cabinet of Lambeth Council.  A Heseltine ally, in government he had a powerful sense of the need for policy to address poverty as much as unleash economic growth. His generation of Tories was as familiar with the great conurbations of our country as the modern Conservative Party has become unfamiliar with them. Indeed, among this cohort of parliamentarians was Virginia Bottomley who, as a qualified social worker, is the last Conservative frontbencher to have had a professional career in the caring or voluntary sectors. A Conservative government with social workers on its frontbench now seems utterly alien from the occasional summertime volunteering that passes as "a commitment to social action" for the party’s present parliamentary selection process. Like Young, Heseltine and Patten, Bottomley is a supporter of the moderate Tory Reform Group, the classic one nation ginger group.

But in the wider ministerial ranks, only Foreign Office minister Alastair Burt stands trenchantly in the tradition from which Young, Bottomley, Patten and Heseltine emerged.  Among younger Tories, perhaps only Swindon’s high church Robert Buckland MP and Richard Chalk, a former party CEO and sometime head of Ken Clarke’s leadership campaign, come close.  

Meanwhile, the very English "one nation" idea that state power can be used to back growth and build social inclusion is simply "Gaullist" according to Osborne devotee and FT journalist Janan Ganesh, "paternalistic" to some ministers and, in the view of the BBC’s Nick Robinson,  "not acceptable" to "Thatcher’s children", who now hold sway under Cameron. But "small tent" parties struggle to collect voters who have seen their neighbours break as factories close and community health provision evaporates. The centralising zeal of Duncan Smith’s apostles provokes mirth among  elected councillors of even his own party. There is hardly a Conservative local government leader that does not think they could get youngsters back into work faster than any scheme invented by the DWP or BIS in London. Tacking away to the right, Duncan Smith, Osborne and those like them , leave open huge swathes of popular opinion in marginal seats that are not affiliated  to any party but instinctively sense that more could be done, even at a time of fiscal rectitude, as things get tough.

For while Young, Heseltine and Patten remind us of a Conservative Party that was strong in the cities, in Scotland, among the rich and the poor they have lived an average of more than 70 years each. Despite their recent prominence, the fragments of their convictions are now unravelling as a new generation of Conservatives steps forward  beyond Cameron. While this sharpens the Conservative strategy in the run up to the next election, it perhaps explains why even the Prime Minister is now under so much pressure from within.  And why a young Labour leader has been so easily able to park his political tanks all over  the lawns of  the Tory one nation tradition. This is not, then, a moment of renewal  for the Tory left. It is in crisis, and no one in its own party cares.

Francis Davis served as a policy advisor at the Department for Communities and Local Government under both Labour and the coalition government. He is a fellow at ResPublica and previously taught at Oxford and Cambridge.

Michael Heseltine, who published his government-commissioned review of growth policy yesterday. Photograph: 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