Chuka Umunna and Ed Balls listen to the speeches at the Policy Network Conference held in the Science Museum on July 3, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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It’s Labour, not the Tories, that has a “long-term plan” for the economy – but who knows that?

The party needs to aggressively contest Cameron’s ownership of the politics of growth. 

An assertion that is repeated often enough becomes the truth. In the election campaign, the Conservatives’ “long-term economic plan” is proof of this. The head of the British Chambers of Commerce, John Longworth, exposed the vacuity of this mantra when he observed: “Do you know what it is? No? Exactly. Neither do I.”

The voters, though, are less disdainful. One Tory strategist says that he knows of no slogan that polls better among focus groups. The confidence with which Conservative MPs deploy their message both reflects and reinforces their advantage on the economy. Their poll lead on that issue stands at 15 points; David Cameron and George Osborne lead Ed Miliband and Ed Balls by 22. Aides say that the Chancellor, a man who was booed at the Paralympics in 2012, is congratulated by the public on “sticking to the plan” during his hard-hat tours.

The truth is that he has done anything but. Having vowed nearly to eliminate the deficit, Osborne is now only able to boast of having halved it – the target he once derided as hopelessly profligate. But as Margaret Thatcher understood, the appearance of consistency is more important than the reality. When Labour MPs refer ironically to the Tories’ “long-term economic plan”, they risk merely reinforcing their opponents’ ownership of this issue.

Their incredulity is forgivable. There is nothing in the Tories’ programme to justify the claim that they possess an elixir for the British disease of short-termism. They have pledged to achieve an absolute Budget surplus by the end of the next parliament but, as Longworth noted, “That is not a plan for growth and enterprise.” Indeed, by precluding borrowing for investment, it is a plan for the reverse. The promise of an EU referendum is so long-termist that Cameron voted against the policy in 2011. “This is not the time to argue about walking away,” he warned then. “Not just for their sakes but for ours. Legislating now for a referendum, including on whether Britain should leave the EU, could cause great uncertainty and could actually damage our prospects of growth.” His subsequent pledge was made only to stave off regicide.

The Tories’ reputation for solidity is perhaps their greatest electoral asset. By impugning Labour’s economic credibility, they aim to cast it as a party whose good intentions lead inexorably to bad outcomes. Their rejoinder to Miliband’s pledge to outspend them on health and education is that high-quality public services ultimately depend on a “strong economy”. Labour’s problem, they suggest, is that it always runs out of other people’s money. Miliband’s complaint of depressed real wages is met with a similar retort: living standards will rise only if GDP rises. To this, the opposition protests: if growth has returned, why have earnings remained so feeble?

It is this accusation that explains Cameron’s belated appropriation of a slogan previously used by the TUC: “It’s time Britain had a pay rise”. Miliband, with satisfaction, regards this rhetorical shift as evidence that the Prime Minister is “playing on our pitch”. He is encouraged by Barack Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012, when the US president, like Labour, trailed on economic management and on deficit reduction but led on living standards. If Cameron wants a fight on the latter, Miliband believes there will be only one winner.

But the 2012 US election, one studied obsessively by strategists on both sides, also offers a cautionary tale for Labour. Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan’s question from 1980 – “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 it doubted his Republican rival could do any better. The Tories’ belief is that British voters will eventually reach the same conclusion about Labour.

To counter this danger, the party must aggressively contest Cameron’s ownership of the politics of growth. As the Prime Minister encroaches on Labour’s territory, it should respond with raids on his. The danger is that the party’s preoccupation with living standards has allowed it to be too easily cast as a socialist troglodyte that knows only how to cap, freeze and tax.

The irony is that in areas such as appren­ticeships, infrastructure, banking and the EU, the opposition has the most pro-growth policies. A study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research published on 9 February found that owing to its looser fiscal stance, the economy would grow faster under Labour than the Conservatives: a fact entirely lost in the current debate.

The message that Labour could support business better than the Tories was delivered by Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna at the British Chambers of Commerce conference. In an echo of Michael Heseltine’s promise to “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner” to promote British industry, Umunna declared, “We will work every day, strain every sinew, to make your lives that bit easier: easier to do business; easier to export; easier to create jobs; easier to succeed.”

The Labour leader has made no shortage of “pro-business” speeches but the perception that he is hostile to wealth creation has become ingrained. In his days as an adviser to Gordon Brown, he was known by Blairites as “the emissary from Planet F***”. One MP complains he has left Balls and Umunna playing an equivalent role for business.

There is still time for him to remedy this impression. In his next speech on the subject he should unhesitatingly echo Umunna’s assertion: “Any debate on building a fairer society is academic unless there are businesses creating wealth.” If he does so with enough conviction, he may just start to be believed. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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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