Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI conference in London in 2012 - his decision not to guarantee an in/out referendum could help to drive a wedge between the Tories and business. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Miliband is right not to promise an EU referendum

Guaranteeing an in/out vote would have shifted the debate back onto Tory territory and could have wrecked a future Miliband premiership.

Ed Miliband has stood firm against the europhobes. As I revealed he would last month, the Labour leader has confirmed that he will not match David Cameron's guarantee of an in/out EU referendum in the next parliament. In an article in today's FT (to be followed by a speech at the London Business School at 10:45am), he announces that a public vote on the UK's membership will be held under Labour if new powers are transferred from Britain to Brussels (a tougher version of the coalition's referendum lock, which only mandates a vote on specific treaty changes). But crucially, he also makes it clear that he does not believe this condition will be met: "It is unlikely there will be any such proposal in the next parliament." In other words, don't expect a referendum under Labour. Miliband, who, as one shadow cabinet member told me, has always been "instinctively opposed" to a vote, has merely provided himself with some protective cover.

There are plenty who argue that his decision not to match Cameron's pledge is a profound misjudgement. They warn that it will allow the Tories to frame Labour as unwilling to "trust the people" and make it easier for them to lure back UKIP defectors (as the only main party committed to a referendum). But the truth is that Miliband's decision not to guarantee a vote is one of the wisest of his leadership. 

Far from being a clever ruse to wrongfoot the Tories, a referendum pledge would have shifted the debate back onto Conservative territory and enabled Cameron to claim that a "weak" Miliband was dancing to his tune. Aware of this, the Labour leader will maintain his laser-like focus on living standards, the issue which has defined the agenda since his conference speech and on which his party continues to enjoy a substantial lead over the Tories. As he has said before, "I think what we see is the Conservative Party talking to itself about Europe when actually what they should be doing is talking to the country about the most important issue that people are facing, which is the cost of living crisis. That’s what Labour’s talking about; that’s the right priority for the country." 

Amongst other things, the party's focus on growth, rather than a fantastical renegotiation plan, will help to drive a wedge between the Tories and business (it is no coincidence that Miliband's article was placed in the FT and that his speech is at the London Business School). As one Labour source told me, while many large firms disapprove of Labour's stance on energy and banking, they are far more troubled by the threat of EU withdrawal under a Conservative-led government. Martin Sorrell recently revealed that he and others had told Cameron that "if he were to drop the referendum he would be a shoo-in". That's almost certainly not the case (as Sorrell appeared to forget, most voters support a referendum) but it shows how desperate businesses are for Britain to remain in the EU. 

Cameron's charge that Labour is denying the people their say is one that some MPs fear will haunt the party during the general election campaign. Yet there is no evidence that the Tories' pledge will succeed in winning back significant numbers of voters from UKIP, most of whom have far wider grievances, or that it will define the 2015 contest in the way that some Conservatives hope. As polling by Ipsos MORI has consistently shown, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of voters' concerns (it is currently ranked 18th). Labour strategists would like nothing more than for the Tories to make one of their main dividing lines an issue that most voters do not care about. The more time the Conservatives spend "banging on" about Europe, the less time they spend talking about the issues - the economy, jobs, housing, public services - that might actually help them win the next election.

The public may favour an EU referendum but then they invariably support a vote on any issue if given the choice. The salient point remains that just 2 per cent regard it as "the most important issue" facing Britain (compared to 90 per cent of Conservative backbenchers)  and just 6 per cent regard it as "one of the most important issues". Lord Ashcroft's recent study of Tory-leaning voters found that even for them an EU referendum is "a sideshow". He wrote: "A surprising number of those we spoke to did not realise it was even on the agenda, and were nonplussed when they found out it was. Those for whom it is important know all about it (though they sometimes doubt it will come to pass even if the Tories win). But to make it a major theme of the campaign would be to miss the chance to talk about things that matter more to more people." If there is an electoral cost to Labour from refusing to match Cameron's promise, it will likely be too small to make a difference. 

Miliband has rightly judged that the dangers of a cast-iron guarantee far outweigh any potential benefits. This is not least because he recognises that he has a good chance of being in power after the next election and does not want the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by a referendum that a Labour government would find harder to win than a Tory one. A public vote to leave the EU in 2017, against Miliband's wishes, would shatter his authority. 

Those who claim that his referendum stance will harm Labour's election chances are the same who claimed that Cameron's pledge last year would unite the Tories, reverse UKIP's advance and even overturn the opposition's poll lead. It achieved none of these - and Miliband is right to reject their representations. 

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