Ed Miliband speaks with radiotherapists, during his visit to University College hospital, on April 4, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour leads on health, but it has to be clear that money for the NHS will lead to cuts elsewhere

To achieve economic credibility, Miliband needs to speak the language of priorities. 

Scandal follows scandal in Westminster, but David Cameron continues to float above it all. For a period his government appeared dangerously inert in response to allegations of a child abuse cover-up. But the establishment of two inquiries and his vow to leave “no stone unturned” moved him into safer territory.

“Concrete Cameron” is the name some MPs have given the Prime Minister, in tribute to his strange resilience. In short succession, his party finished third in a national election for the first time in its history, his public campaign to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination as European Commission president was comprehensively defeated by EU leaders and his former director of communications Andy Coulson was imprisoned for phone-hacking. But none of these moments was accompanied by the kind of ritual humiliation that Cameron’s opponents hoped for.

It is the enduring strength of the Prime Minister’s brand (he outpolls his party by 7 points; Ed Miliband trails Labour by 13) that gives the Tories hope that they will win next May by framing the general election as a presidential contest. The recent improvement in Cameron’s ratings has surprised those who predicted his reputation would be tarnished irrevocably by now. When he pressed ahead with Andrew Lansley’s National Health Service reforms in 2012, commentators on left and right said that it would prove to be his “poll tax moment”. But the measures have inspired nothing close to that insurrection. Labour focus groups show that voters believe the NHS is struggling but also that they do not connect this with any particular government policy.

The opposition’s aim for the summer is to establish the Prime Minister as the guilty man. After last year’s “cost of living” offensive, it will devote the parliamentary recess to charting the “Cameron effect” on the health service. Leaflets in target seats will focus on the year-long failure to meet the four-hour A&E waiting time target, the lack of GP availability (four in ten people wait more than a week for an appointment) and the missed cancer treatment target. Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, and other MPs will join a re-creation of the Jarrow march organised by a group of mothers to protest against the creeping privatisation of the service.

Labour regards raising the salience of the NHS, the issue on which it enjoys its largest poll lead, as essential to its chances of victory next year. “After living standards, we need it [the NHS] to be voters’ priority,” a strategist says. At present, that place is taken by immigration, on which Labour trails the Conservatives by 9 points. To improve its odds, the party needs to force the Tories on to its preferred battleground.

Conservative ministers, who have been ordered by Lynton Crosby, the party’s campaign manager, to avoid mentioning the NHS, believe they can repel the opposition’s assault by deriding the state of the service in Labour-run Wales. But Miliband has adopted a new riposte to this attack: Cameron wants to talk about Wales because he cannot defend his record in England. The disparity in performance between the two countries has narrowed as the health service has deteriorated under the coalition.

But Labour will be able to dwell on this issue for only so long before it is forced to confront a funding gap of £30bn by the end of the next parliament. Stephen Dorrell, the former health secretary, Sarah Wollaston, the new chair of the health select committee, and Frank Field, the former social security minister, all warn that the NHS will not survive in its present form without a real-terms increase in spending. Demographic pressures, the rising cost of technology and the growth in chronic conditions are such that merely ring-fencing the service from cuts will not suffice.

To save the NHS from collapse, Field has proposed a 1 per cent rise in National Insurance, accompanied by the lifting of the floor on contributions and the removal of the ceiling. He told me: “It both deals with the health service and deals with the double Ed problem, which is: does anyone believe them on the fiscal side?”

The plan is partly modelled on Gordon Brown’s 1 per cent increase in NI in his 2002 Budget, a move that proved more popular than almost anyone expected. Miliband, who as a Treasury adviser helped to design the policy, later described this act of social-democratic statecraft as his proudest moment. Yet there is little prospect of a sequel. Shadow cabinet ministers, including Ed Balls, believe that is untenable for the party to speak of a “cost-of-living crisis” and then to argue for a rise in taxation on low- and middle-income earners. “It would be kamikaze politics,” one tells me.

Burnham has long signalled that he does not believe an increase in NHS funding can be justified until health and social care have been integrated and all potential savings have been achieved. He is focused on securing the money needed to support his scheme, potentially through a 10 per cent levy on all estates. But while the long-term savings from integration are estimated to be as high as £6bn, health professionals believe a short-term injection of funds is essential.

“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism,” declared Nye Bevan, the father of the NHS. The only way for Labour to square the fiscal circle may be finally to reveal the austerity it would impose elsewhere in order to release resources for the health service.

Few in Westminster fully comprehend the budgetary horrors that await the next government as ministers, having trimmed Whitehall of fat, are forced to cut into bone. If Miliband is to offer himself as the saviour of the NHS, it is the language of priorities that he will need to speak.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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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