The past is never where you left it: Labour's "big four" of Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Tony Blair and Robin Cook in 1995. Photo:Getty
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From the Archive: Blair Triumphant

On the 20th anniversary of the passing of the new Clause Four, we republish our leader from that fateful week.

This weekend, the Labour Party’s special conference in London will give a ringing endorsement to Tony Blair’s new statement of aims and values to replace Cluase Four of the party constitution.

That much has been certain since long before the Labour leader unveiled the new statement last month.

Indeed, the only real question ever since Blair announced his intention of replacing Clause Four at Labour conference last year has been the margin of his eventual victory. Even before anyone, apart from Blair, had an inkling of the contents of the new statement, the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members at every level knew that defeat for the leader would be the sort of humiliation that could lose Labour the next election. If few would have predicted that the most substantial opposition to change would come not from the constituency Labour parties, but from the executive committees of trade unions, few believed that the outcome was in doubt.

Despite this predictability, it would be wrong to play down the significance of the exercise. Getting rid of Clause Four is extraordinarily important symbolically. Although it has never accurately described Labour’s programme for government – even in 1945 the party stood for a mixed economy – for most of its life it has represented the long-term aspirations of many if not most Labour members. After Hugh Gaitskell’s botched attempt to get shot of it in 1959-60, moreover, Clause Four became a symbol of the party rank-and-file’s ability to resist the attempts of opportunistic leaders to ditch principles in the pursuit of power. It was accepted as untouchable by both leaders and led. Right up to last autumn, the received wisdom in Labour’s upper echelons was that meddling with Clause Four was guaranteed to stir up a hornet’s nest. Hence the sharp intakes of breath when Blair announced his plan for change – even from those who, as they inhaled, realized that the received wisdom was nonsense and that Blair would get his way simply because the alternative was too dreadful to contemplate.

Seven months on from Blair’s declaration that the emperor has no clothes, his transgression of Labour’s unwritten law that no one touches Clause Four has been completely vindicated. No matter, as the NS said after the publication of his new draft, that the new wording is inelegant and uninspiring: some 85 per cent of Labour Party members prefer it to the old. There’s no arguing with the results of the constituency ballots: those on the left who reckon that the absence of the old clause from the ballot papers made any significant difference to the result are insulting the intelligence of the electorate. Everyone who voted knew what was at stake – and the brutal reality is that the scale of support for Blair in the constituencies is a massive humiliation for the hard left, worse even than the defeat of Tony Benn and Eric Heffer when they challenged Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley for the leadership and deputy leadership in 1988.

Then at least the hard left had the consolation of being on the winning side at party conference, as the leadership’s plans to ditch unilateral nuclear disarmament were unceremoniously dumped by the party. Now, the hard left has nothing. It has been stuffed by Blair, who can now argue, with reason, that his modernising project has complete democratic legitimacy in the Labour Party. He can do just about what he likes. No Labour leader before has ever had the authority that Blair now has.

Of course, this does not mean that Blair ought to behave as dictator, riding roughshod over all criticism: it would make more sense for him to be magnanimous in victory – and indeed he insists that he intends to encourage debate and pluralism inside Labour. But it does mean that he can simply ignore the left if it responds to defeat by moping in a corner, waiting sullenly for its chance to get its own back. If the left is to have any influence at all, it must engage constructively with the modernisers who are now in command. That does imply stinting on criticism when criticism is justified, nor does it necessitate hero-worship. Still less does it mean embracing the strategy of caution, inherited from John Smith, to which Blair clings when it comes to specific policies. After Clause Four, however, anyone in the Labour Party who refuses to recognise that, for the foreseeable future, Blair is the only show in town, is living in a dream world.

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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