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Why Miliband is sticking to his "cost-of-living" attack

A few months of wage rises won't be enough to repair the severed link between growth and earnings for most. 

For months, Ed Miliband's focus on living standards has allowed Labour to dominate the political agenda. But with wages soon likely to outstrip prices (average wage increases currently stand at 1.4 per cent against inflation of 1.7 per cent), many outside and some inside of the party argue that he will have to change tack. Just as the return of growth forced the abandonment of Labour's "too far, too fast" attack on the cuts, so, they argue, the return of pay rises will repel its "cost-of-living" offensive. 

But in an article in today's Independent, the day before what sources suggest will be a major speech on the economy, Miliband outlines why he's not about to stop banging on about living standards. While wages may finally be about to creep above inflation, after falling for five consecutive years, he warns that this won't be enough to repair the severed link between growth and earnings: 

Until the 1990s, for every percentage point increase in economic growth, wages for middle-income Britain grew by an almost identical amount. That no longer holds true because the link between growth and the living standards of middle Britain has been broken.

Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for the next four years published at the Budget predict that real earnings will on average increase at only half the level of economic growth in 2015 and will still lag behind, even in 2018.

And even these figures mask the truth of what is happening to middle-income Britain. It is expected that wage rises will disproportionately benefit those at the top while some major costs, such as housing, which hits working families hardest, are not included in the official statistics. So any gains middle-income Britain gets as the economy picks up will be nothing compared with the scale of the crisis that remains or the assault on family finances of recent years.

Miliband’s team points to the pre-crash period, when incomes for millions of low-and middle-income earners stagnated even in times of strong growth, as evidence that the market can no longer be relied upon to deliver for the majority. In an economy as unequal as Britain’s, any gains quickly flow to the top. Based on the RPI measure of inflation (which includes housing costs), the OBR forecasts that wages will be flat until 2019; there will be plenty of people who feel no better off in the next decade, let alone in the next year. 

In a riposte to George Osborne, who last week committed the Tories to seeking "full employment" (confusingly defined by Osborne as having more working age people in employment than any other G7 country), Miliband warns that this won't be enough if it merely means more low-paid, low-skilled, insecure jobs.

He writes: "The Chancellor is not only 70 years too late; he is also at least a decade out-of-date. Today, full employment – and getting people back to work – remains an absolutely necessary ambition but one that has become insufficient. People know that work no longer guarantees the better future for their families they used to expect. They are asking: what kind of work, what kind of wages – and what kind of prospects?" And warns: "This Government cannot deal with these problems because lying beneath its claims of being converted to full employment is an economic ideology built on low pay, low skills, low prospects and  low productivity."

The challenge for Miliband remains to convince voters not just that they're worse off under the Tories, but that they'd be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan's famous line - "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" - but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and they doubted Romney could do any better. The Tories hope and expect UK voters will take the same view of Labour in 2015. 

In his article, Miliband cites his plans to reduce youth unemployment and increase skills (through the party's compulsory jobs guarantee), to crack down on exploitative zero-hour contracts, to spread use of the living wage, to cut business rates and to reform the banking sector to increase lending to SMEs. He also promises that Andrew Adonis's forthcoming growth review will outline how Labour will devolve power from Whitehall to cities and towns so that they become engines of growth, a line that will reassure those on the Cruddasite wing of the party seeking a firmer commitment to localism. 

What the piece lacks is the kind of retail offer that worked so well in the case of his energy price freeze. But that, one expects, may well come in tomorrow's speech. 

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