PMQs review: Miliband needs to offer more than lists of statistics

The danger for Miliband is that his "cost-of-living" attack will be blunted as the economic recovery accelerates. Labour must offer a bigger vision.

In his final question at today's PMQs (the last of the year), Ed Miliband derided David Cameron for reeling off "lists of statistics" (1.2 million more people in work, 24 million people out of tax, a record 30 million people in employment and so on), rather than answering his questions. The line prompted jeers from Tory MPs because Miliband had spent much of the session highlighting his own stats of choice: energy bills up by £70, childcare costs up by £300, average wages down by £364.

All were designed to reinforce Labour's message that Cameron is presiding over a "cost-of-living crisis" but today's session highlighted the danger for Miliband in relying on this line of attack. With the economy growing at its fastest rate since the crisis and unemployment falling rapidly, Cameron will be able to point to ever more progress as the election draws closer. Wages will likely start rising faster than inflation next year, the UK economy will pass its pre-recession peak and employment will continue to surge.

The risk for Labour is that just as its "too far, too fast" critique of the cuts lost potency after growth returned (polls show that voters now believe cuts are good for the economy), so its "cost-of-living" attack will weaken as the public begin to feel the benefits of the recovery. Having been forced to retire his 'flatlining' hand gesture, Ed Balls may soon be forced to do the same with his new 'finger down' (in reference to the fall in living standards). Rather than trying to win a stats war with Cameron, Miliband need to focus on fleshing out his vision of a different kind of economy and a more equal society. It is this that will convince voters that Labour represents a genuine alternative, regardless of the progress Cameron can point to.

The session was also notable for a new attempt by Cameron to drive a wedge between Miliband and Balls. He declared at one point: "Ah – we’ve got a new hand gesture from the shadow chancellor! I’d have thought after today’s briefing in the papers the hand gesture from the shadow chancellor would be 'bye bye' – you don’t need it to be Christmas to know you’re sitting next to a turkey!" The political logic behind these constant attacks is that the more the Tories deride Balls, the harder it becomes for Miliband to move him should he decide that Labour needs a new messenger as well as a new message. But while Miliband is undoubtedly ruthless enough to move Balls, the odds are still on him remaining shadow chancellor until the election.

The other significant moment came when Cameron was asked about allegations that Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers broke the ministerial code while at Transport by meeting a lobbyist campaigning for a £400m railway depot in Hertfordshire. He replied by saying that he had seen a copy of the cabinet secretary's response and that it would be published "in the next few days". With parliament breaking up for recess tomorrow, Labour is now demanding that the findings are published "immediately".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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