George Osborne looks on as David Cameron delivers a speech to business leaders in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne falls far short of £7 minimum wage target

The proposed figure of £6.70 fails to meet the Chancellor's aim of restoring the minimum wage to its pre-recession value. 

In a characteristically calculated intervention last year, George Osborne sought to compensate for the Tories' past opposition to the minimum wage by declaring that he hoped the main rate would rise to £7 by 2015-16. "If, for example, the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation it would be £7 by 2015-16, £6.31 at the moment, so that is an increase," he said, with an eye to his party's blue collar wing. "I think we can see an above inflation increase in the minimum wage and do it in a way that actually supports our economy precisely because the economy is recovering and many, many jobs are being created." The Treasury published an accompanying analysis modelling the impact of an increase to £7, lending further weight to the figure (which at the time would have restored the minimum wage to its pre-recession value). 

But it is now clear that Osborne was raising false hopes. The Low Pay Commission, the body that advises the government on the minimum wage, has today published its recommendations for 2015-16 - and they do not include an increase to £7. Instead, the LPC has called for a smaller rise to £6.70 (up from £6.50). The government is not obliged to accept its proposals but Vince Cable, who is formally responsible for this area as Business Secretary, has signalled that ministers will almost certainly not oppose the figure. He said: "I will now study these recommendations and consult my Cabinet colleagues with a view to announcing the final rates in the next few weeks. The Low Pay Commission strike a delicate balance between what is fair for workers and what is affordable for employers, without costing jobs. It does so impartially and without political interference. No government has ever rejected the main rates since it was established fifteen years ago. It is important that it is able to continue to do its work ten weeks before a general election."

Cable is known to have been angered when Osborne floated the figure of £7, believing that the LPC would never approve such a large rise. Indeed, Osborne pre-emptively retreated when the government failed to propose this rate in its final submission to the body. The Chancellor can point out that he maintained at the time that 'the exact figure has to be set by the Low Pay Commission'. But that does not alter the fact that he sought (and won) headlines on his support for a £7 rate. Through this careless act, he has handed Labour political ammunition with which to attack him and ensured that a 20p rise (3 per cent above inflation) will now disappoint expectations. 

Although inflation has fallen significantly, a rate of £6.77 would still fail to restore the minimum wage to its peak value. As the Resolution Foundation noted: "The minimum wage is set to rise by 3 per cent in October 2015, roughly the same percentage by which it rose in October 2014. Last year, the Low Pay Commission described its decision to recommend a 3 per cent increase last year – rising from £6.31 to £6.50 – as reflecting “a new phase” for the minimum wage, following a period in which it had suffered repeated falls relative to inflation. But that lost ground has yet to be fully made up. The Resolution Foundation estimates that an increase of 4.2 per cent to £6.77 would have been necessary to take the minimum wage back to its highest ever value in real-terms, which it held in 2008-09."

To be on track to meet Labour's promise of an £8 minimum wage by the end of the next parliament, the rate would need to rise to £6.78. That means the opposition faces some tough questions of its own: would it have become the first government to overrule the LPC? 

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