Nigel Farage speaks during a television interview in Basildon. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Nigel Farage won’t run in Eastleigh

A year after almost winning the Eastleigh by-election, Ukip didn't gain any council seats there.

"Shock Result in Eastleigh" said one local newspaper. A year after beating the Conservatives into second place in the Eastleigh by-election, what had Ukip done now?

Not a lot. The story of the Eastleigh borough council results was not how well Ukip had done, but how badly. Of the 15 wards being contested, Ukip failed to win any.

Naturally the party saw things rather differently. "A concentration of near misses in wards," the party’s Director of Communications tweeted. "Strategic goal achieved." We have come to expect such bluster from Ukip. But in Eastleigh it was a night of not-so-glorious failure for Ukip. It was successfully only if distant second-placed finishes are successful - and Ukip were meant to have evolved beyond that stage. It came second in 10 of the 15 wards. But where were the "near misses"? Ukip only came within 247 votes of the top party in one ward. And this was in elections people care little for, with the average age of voters older (and so more Ukip friendly). For all their derisory poll rating, the Liberal Democrats, who controlled – and still do – 13 of the seats, were a force that Ukip came nowhere close to overcoming. Mr O’Flynn must be very confident to advise "stick a tenner on us to win the seat". If Nigel Farage is serious about becoming an MP, he won't be standing in Eastleigh next year.

Last February, Ukip won 27.8% of the vote in Eastleigh. It showed the power of the party’s by-election campaign: polling by Lord Ashcroft found that 31% of Ukip voters made up their minds in the last week of the campaign. Yet the party’s follow-up has been rather less impressive. Lib Dem sources in the seat privately say that Ukip activists have been almost silent since the by-election, and that they regard the Conservatives as the real threat in the general election. Swanning into a seat at by-election time is one thing; remaining a presence thereafter is quite another.

When I visited the seat recently, Ray Finch, Ukip’s candidate there in 2010 and now running for the European Parliament, described the council elections as “more important” than the European ones, and "the real stepping stone to getting MPs elected". If he’s right, that bodes ill for Ukip in Eastleigh next year.

In a sense Ukip’s failure to convert their promising position in Eastleigh is little surprise – the age demographic is younger, and the unemployment rate lower, than seats in which the party tends to do best in. But it is a reminder of Ukip’s difficulties converting solid support into the concentration necessary for electoral gain – and of the big strategic question Ukip will soon have to confront. Does the party want to maximise its vote share at the general election? Or would it rather focus its resources on perhaps 10 seats to maximise its chances of representation in Westminster? As Eastleigh reminds us, votes count for little when all they yield is copious second-placed finishes.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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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