Miliband steals a march on Cameron by promising crackdown on fixed-odds machines

The Labour leader's pledge to give councils the power to act against the "crack cocaine of gambling" will increase the pressure on the PM to intervene.

After doing battle with the banks, the energy companies, payday lenders and landhoarders, Ed Miliband is turning his attention to betting firms. For months, MPs of all parties, led by Tom Watson, have been pushing for action to curb fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), machines that allow people to gamble up to £300 a minute (leading them to be dubbed the "crack cocaine of gambling"), warning that they "take money away from those who can least afford it". 

In response, Miliband will commit Labour today to passing legislation to give local councils the power to revoke or reduce the number of FOBTs and to changing planning and licensing laws to allow councils to contol the number of betting shops in their area. Bookmakers, who make £1.5bn of their £3bn in-store revenues from the machines, will also be required to introduce longer time breaks between plays and pop-up warnings to gamblers.

Here's what Miliband will say in Kilburn today:

In town and cities across Britain today, you can see how the old bookies are being turned into mini casinos. In the poorest areas, these are spreading like an epidemic along high streets with the pawn shops and pay day lenders that are becoming symbols of Britain’s cost-of-living crisis.

In Newham there are 87 betting shops with an estimated 348 machines and across the five Liverpool constituencies there are 153 betting shops with around 559 FOBTs. This has huge consequences for our communities, causing debt and misery for families, and often acting as a magnet for crime and anti-social behaviour.

But currently, there is almost nothing that can be done to stop the spread of FOBTs. Laws passed restricting betting shops to a maximum of four of these betting machines has meant more betting shops in clusters sometimes open from 7.30am to 10pm at night.

The time has come to give local communities the right to pull the plug on these machines - the right to decide if they want their high streets to be the place for high stakes, high speed, high cost gambling. 

But he will stop short of meeting campaigners' demand for the maximum fixed-odds stake to be reduced from £100 to £2, telling the Mirror: "That’s something we should continue to look at and we will continue to assess the evidence as it comes in."

Miliband's intervention will, however, put greater pressure on the coalition to act. The Lib Dems have long supported action to restrict FOBTs and to reduce the maximum stake, with Nick Clegg photographed with campaigners at his party's conference. Having pledged at PMQs to take "a proper look" at the issue, David Cameron is currently awaiting the outcome of a study by the Responsible Gaming Trust into whether the machines are addictive before deciding whether to intervene.

There are some Tories who will undoubtedly advise Cameron not to follow Miliband's lead and to avoid playing on Labour's "turf", but on this occasion he would be wise to do so. As I noted, it is not just Labour MPs but Tories too (among them Peter Bottomley, Stewart Jackson, Zac Goldsmith and Charles Walker) who have been calling for action, alongside the Daily Mail, which takes a socially conservative line against the machines. If he is to avoid being seen as indifferent to the harm they are causing, Cameron can't afford to allow Miliband to own this issue. 

Betting firms make £1.5bn of their £3bn in-store revenues from fixed-odds machines. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder