Public sector workers striking. Photo: Getty
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Frozen out of the recovery: 2,245 reasons why public sector workers are on strike today

The TUC’s calculation that public sector workers are on average £2,245 worse off in real terms since this government came to power is timely, and explains today's strikes.

The TUC’s calculation that public sector workers are on average £2,245 worse off in real terms since this government came to power is timely, published yesterday, a day ahead of the largest strike action to take place since 2010. The TUC highlights how the people affected by continued pay restraint – the home helps, refuse collectors, teachers and firefighters, among others – are often the public servants on whom we depend on most. These people are currently facing the prospect of another four years with pay rises significantly lower than the increase in the cost of living.

Just under half a million public sector workers are paid below the living wage. It was pointed out to me recently that some of these lowest paid workers might effectively lose more than the equivalent of the 1 per cent pay rise being offered if they go on strike. The implicit argument was that it would be better to put up with, what by 2018 will be over a decade of falling wages, than fight back. There comes a point, however, when gratitude that you have a job is outweighed by a sense that fairness ought also to be included in the mix. This is unsustainable. There is a limit to how long people can make do, juggling bills and food costs and getting by with rising rents and the threat of increased mortgage rates. Industrial action among unionised workers is sometimes an almost inevitable and entirely justified last resort.

A government that tells us "we are all in it together" when we can all accept things are truly tough needs to recognise the implied contract that everyone will benefit when things – as they tell us they are – start to improve. This is not happening. Public sector workers are being frozen out of the recovery in a high-handed manner that understandably breeds frustration and disillusionment.

This government has done little to help those on low pay. In work poverty is on the increase and we know many of those who resort to emergency aid from food banks are from working households. The voluntary approach to the living wage is currently failing and will only work if ministers and Mayors literally put their money where their mouths are. The Brixton Ritzy cinema workers, who will also be on strike tomorrow, are a case in point. If employees are told that if their employer can afford to pay a living wage, they should, will at some point stop asking politely. Equally, if Scotland and Northern Ireland can negotiate to resolve their fire pensions dispute, it is hardly surprising that the Fire Brigades Union believes the Westminster government should follow suit, and therefore escalate their action accordingly when it refuses.

At the other end of the scale, high paid executives apparently need to be rewarded to ensure they do their jobs, and we are not seeing the kind of restraint that Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has urged banks to adopt. The High Pay Centre, an independent think tank on pay inequality, calculate that today the average salary of a FTSE 100 chief executive so far this year is £2,208,829 and that a CEO at this level will take home more in three days than an employee earns in a year. To these people – and seemingly to the government – £2,245 is neither here nor there.

Strikes are always a last resort and, with individual strikes getting limited publicity, it is hardly surprising that trade unions are choosing to call co-ordinated action. Trade unions are there to defend their members and there are 2,245 reasons for a strike to take place now.

Fiona Twycross is the London Assembly Labour Group economy spokesperson

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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