Ed Balls interview: "I've no reason to doubt Nick Clegg's integrity"

The shadow chancellor on why he could go into coalition with Clegg, why airport expansion in the UK is essential for growth and why history will judge Gordon Brown kindly.

Christmas has been and gone, yet the festive spirit endures in Ed Balls’s Westminster office. The shadow chancellor greets me by offering a mince pie, and quickly devours one himself after a long day of political combat marked by George Osborne’s speech on austerity.

The weeks before the recess were a difficult time for Balls, with a mis-sent email from Ed Miliband’s aide Torsten Bell describing him as a “nightmare”, Conservative attacks over his acceptance in 2012 of a £50,000 donation from the Co-operative Group, and calls by some Labour MPs for his removal following his much-criticised response to Osborne’s Autumn Statement. But if Balls is rattled it doesn’t show. Accompanied by his long-serving head of communications, Alex Belardinelli, he seems relaxed, engagingly discussing the future of the media after I mention the recent growth of the New Statesman and straining to remember the name of the song by Sophie Ellis-Bextor he was listening to on YouTube. He will run in the London Marathon again this year, for the third time (“I’m the slowest MP by far, but I’ve been the best fundraiser”), and has re-entered for his grade three piano exam after it clashed with the Autumn Statement (“I’m desperately worried it will be Budget day”).

We eventually turn to the subject that has defined Balls’s career: the economy. After warning of a “lost decade of slow growth, high unemployment and stagnation” in his speech to the 2012 Labour conference, has he been surprised by how growth has quickened in recent months? “We’ve got so used to the economy flatlining that, for many people, and not just in the media but business, too, the return to any growth is such a relief,” he says. “It happened later than we all expected but the truth is that this is a recovery that has so far historically been very disappointing.”

Balls perceptively remarks of Osborne: “I think as a politician he’s decided that growth is better than no growth; that he’s going to bank the recovery and move on to the politics. I think, actually, the economic task for a chancellor at the moment is to think, ‘What can I do to deliver stronger, more balanced growth?’”

The biggest problem for the Tories, he says, is the enduring public belief that they are not committed to fairness. “I thought it was very interesting, the George Osborne interview this morning [on the BBC’s Today programme], because the word he kept using throughout was ‘values’ . . . He knows when it comes to values – whose side you’re on, fairness – he knows he’s got a huge problem . . . They will have to be totally negative because they know, [and] they’re going to try and neutralise it, but they can’t win on that basis.”

The most notable feature of the recovery has been the sharp drop in unemployment, which now stands at 7.4 per cent, within touching distance of the 7 per cent threshold at which the Bank of England will consider an interest-rate rise. How does he think Mark Carney should respond when joblessness falls to this level?

“I think he’ll be very cautious about wanting to use unemployment and the labour market as an indicator of underlying strength,” Balls tells me. “I know that they’ll [the Bank will] be very worried and concerned and focused on what’s happening to London house prices and wider house prices, but I hope that the Monetary Policy Committee will look across the piece, rather than at one indicator, before they decide to move on interest rates.” His message is clear: in current conditions, there should be no rate rise this year.

Throughout our conversation, Balls refers to the need for Osborne to do more to increase “underlying growth” through greater public investment. Having pledged not to borrow to meet day-to-day spending in 2015-2016, would he consider borrowing to fund new infrastructure projects?

“That’s something that we’re going to continue to look at,” he says. “I’m not going to rule it out, but I’m also not going to say now that it’s definitely the right thing to do. But I’d make a broader point, which is that if you want to have a stronger, sustained recovery, and if you want to get the housing benefit bill down, and if you’re trying to help people on to the housing ladder by supporting housing on the demand side, this is absolutely the time when you ought to be doing more to support investment in housing supply – in particular, but not entirely, affordable housing.”

The biggest infrastructure decision that the next government will take will be on whether, and where, to expand the UK’s airport capacity. When I ask Balls if he fav­ours expansion, he hesitates (“I think . . .”) and then concedes: “Yes, I always have. Yes, I do. I thought the Howard Davies report was a very informed first stage, which I think made the case for airport expansion . . . I think a modern, open British global economy needs effective aviation capacity.” Though he refuses to reaffirm his past support for a third runway at Heathrow, his position contrasts with that of Labour, which has yet even to commit to expansion.

The party’s Treasury team has begun a “zero-based” spending review, one that will scrutinise every area of public expenditure for possible cuts. But when I ask Balls if Labour will pledge to ring-fence NHS spending, he offers the clearest signal yet that it will. In an echo of Nye Bevan’s declaration that “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”, he says: “I always think in politics revealed preferences are a very powerful indicator of future actions and, at every stage, Labour has ring-fenced and supported ring fences for the National Health Service. I would be staggered if we are anywhere other than wanting to ring-fence the NHS going forward in 2015-2016 and in the future.”

Balls’s political godfather Gordon Brown has been more visible than usual of late, making a widely praised tribute to Nelson Mandela in the Commons and warning in the New York Times of the risk of another financial crisis. Does Balls still speak to the man he worked alongside for 16 years? “He actually emailed me today about a by-election coming up in the next couple of weeks,” Balls says, adding that “from time to time we exchange emails and from time to time we meet up”. When I ask whether it saddens him that Brown is now derided as the worst prime minister in recent British history, he argues that “when history is written for Gordon Brown, it will paint a different picture”.

He expands: “There is no doubt that, even now, around the world, the contribution he made to solving the global financial crisis and avoiding a depression is already, outside of Britain, very well understood. But I think the fact that the National Health Service is still so foundational a concept in British politics that David Cameron has to desperately try to persuade people that he supports it, even though we know he doesn’t really, is a positive tribute to Gordon Brown. The fact that we didn’t join the single currency is also extremely important . . . I think the credit for that will come, too.”

Shortly before Christmas, Nick Clegg said on his LBC radio show that he tries to avoid political arguments becoming personal but that he makes one exception: “for a man named Ed Balls”. When I put these remarks to the shadow chancellor, I expect him to respond by assailing Clegg as a “collaborator” in Conservative austerity, but he is unexpectedly warm. “I had a friendly chat with him a couple of hours ago in the House of Commons,” he reveals. “I’m not saying where, but the kind of place people pass in the House of Commons. We had a nice chat about how things were going. I think it was the first time I’d had a conversation with him for a really long time . . . I can say, with my hand on heart, the only conversation I’ve had with Nick Clegg in the last 18 months was very friendly and warm. I may disagree with some of the things he has supported but I have no reason to say anything nasty about him as a person.”

Even more strikingly, he adds: “I understand totally why Nick Clegg made the decision that he made to go into coalition with the Conservatives at the time. I may not have liked it at the time, but I understood it. I also understood totally his decision to support a credible deficit reduction plan, because it was necessary in 2010. I think the decision to accelerate deficit reduction, compared to the plans they inherited – which was clearly not what Vince Cable wanted – I think that was a mistake . . . I can disagree with Nick Clegg on some of the things he did but I’ve no reason to doubt his integrity.”

Would Balls be prepared to enter coalition with Clegg? “I think what you always have to do is deal with politics as you find it . . . I saw that subsequently he made a further statement to one of the newspapers that these things weren’t about personalities, and I think he’s right about that.”

This is markedly different in tone from what Balls said in September 2012, when he declared that Clegg’s departure would be a precondition of any coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats: “Clegg made his decisions and the way he’s gone about his politics, I think, makes things very difficult [to form a coalition with him].” With just 16 months to go to the next election, the shadow chancellor is shrewdly hedging his bets.

Yet, coalition or not, has Ed Miliband guaranteed that Balls will be shadow chancellor in 2015? “I’ve never had that conversation with him,” Balls tells me. “I’m just going to get on and do my job, because it’s really difficult and really important, and we’ve got to win, and anything I can do to help Ed to win, I’ll do.”


Now listen to George discussing his interview with Ed Balls and the possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition on the NS podcast:

Ed Balls: "I’m just going to get on and do my job, because it’s really difficult and really important". Sketch by Dan Murrell.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.