Nick Clegg attends a press statement in German Ministry of Economy on November 26, 2014 in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the TV debates would hurt the Lib Dems

Without a distinctive message to offer, Nick Clegg's party could be left looking irrelevant. 

For the Lib Dems, the 2010 TV debates were a boon. Although they couldn't sustain the dizzy heights of "Cleggmania", the party won a million more votes than in 2005, despite the fading of the Iraq factor and the close contest between the Conservatives and Labour (making it theoretically easier for the big two to squeeze them). True, the Lib Dems won five fewer seats but they would likely have performed even worse in the absence of the debates. 

Should the face-offs be repeated, however (and David Cameron remains notably equivocal), the Lib Dems will now likely be among the losers, rather than the winners. The proposed 7-7-2 format is perhaps the worst outcome they could have hoped for. As Cameron somewhat cruelly noted during a recent session of PMQs, the Lib Dems, despite their role in government, are now being treated as a "minor party". Rather than taking his place alongside the PM and Ed Miliband in a repeat of 2010's three-way (as he hoped), Nick Clegg will now be one among many in the two proposed seven-ways (featuring the three main parties, Ukip, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru).

For the Lib Dem leader, this is a baleful fate. His party's election pitch has been defined by splitting the difference between Labour and the Tories, vowing to gift the former a "spine" (through greater fiscal conservatism) and the latter a "heart" (through greater social justice) in the event of another hung parliament. Had Clegg won a place in the proposed three-way, that moderating message may well have resonated with voters who don't trust Labour with their money, or trust the Tories with public services. 

But it is far harder to deliver on a stage crowded with seven participants. Next to Ukip, the Greens (currently eating into the party's base) and assorted nationalists, the Lib Dems will struggle to stand out. It is precisely this lack of distinction that has troubled figures on the party's left, such as Tim Farron, and on its right, such as Jeremy Browne, both of whom, in different ways, have called for a more radical affirmation of liberal values. As Browne told me when I interviewed him last year: "I don’t think you want to stand up and say, 'Vote for us, we’ll split the difference between the two parties. Vote for us, we’ll modify them.' I don’t think that is a compelling pitch ... If you go to church, you might be happy to hear a bit about the fundraising appeal to mend the roof but you go to church because you want to hear about God."

Sidelined in the seven-way, and locked out of the two-way, the danger for the Lib Dems is that the debates would leave them looking more irrelevant than ever. 

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