Natalie Bennett's gaffes give Labour hope. Photo: Getty
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Natalie Bennett, Labour's secret weapon?

Labour think that Natalie Bennett's poor TV performances will hand them victory. Funnily enough, that's what the Conservatives think about them.

Get Natalie Bennett on the telly! That’s not the cry coming from the Green party’s press office, but from senior Labour strategists.

They think that, away from the spotlight, the Greens’ unlikely leader is dangerous because “she’s whatever voters want her to be”, as one puts it.  “There are people voting Green because Ed is anti-immigration” one organiser explains to me, “But there are just as many because they think he’d ruin the economy”.

When people imagine Bennett, she is free of the so-called ’3 Es’ that organisers say stop people voting Labour – “expenses, the economy, and Ed Miliband” – she can’t claim expenses because she’s not an MP, she won’t ruin the economy because she won’t win, and she’s not Ed Miliband. “But when she’s interviewed, she is actually even worse than  Ed,” the same organiser says. “I think if Caroline [Lucas] was still leader, we would be in the absolute ****.”

Bennett, in contrast, lacks passion,  and added to her dubious highlights reel this morning with an uncertain performance on the Today programme, when she once again failed to explain how the citizens’ income would work and threw some easy headlines to the right-wing press after favouring a less than steely response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

“Nicola [Sturgeon, leader of the SNP] is great and we wish she was on TV less,” an insider explains, “Leanne [Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru] is awful and is on TV a fair amount. Natalie Bennett is a joke but people don’t see enough of her.”

As Siraj Datoo writes this morning over at BuzzFeed, Labour will not attack the Greens directly – in fact,  staffers on the party’s anti-Green unit are at pains that it be described as anything but an “anti-Green unit” – but they’re perfectly happy for their left-wing rivals to be roughed up by other people.

That she can’t explain the basic income – an idea that has support from across the political spectrum, ranging from Philip Collins, a former Blair aide, in the centre, all the way out to Friedrich Hayek on the right – without sounding as if she’s been invited into the studio by accident strengthens that view.

It gives Labour two reasons to despair that it now looks highly unlikely that the TV debates will happen at all; firstly because it deprives that party of the opportunity to dispel perceptions that Ed Miliband is cut from an inferior cloth to David Cameron, but, perhaps more importantly considering the threat that the Greens play to Labour’s chances in the marginals, it will mean that voters see less of Natalie Bennett.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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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