Balls pulls it off

He had the spirit and confidence of a man who knows he is winning the argument.

Ed Balls's speech to Labour conference was perhaps the most confident and memorable he has ever given. His delivery was faltering at times but his well-honed message was as clear as ever: George Osborne's plan is hurting but it's not working. With growth down and unemployment up, Labour's Keynesian rottweiler had plenty to get his teeth into.

As an alternative, Balls offered his own five-point plan for growth, the most eye-catching part of which was a one-year National Insurance holiday for all firms that take on extra workers. In the most effective line of his speech, he declared: "Call it Plan A plus, call it Plan B, call it Plan C, I don't care what they call it. Britain just needs a plan that works".

The section on Labour's "new fiscal rules" was less detailed than some expected but Balls set out his intention to offer "fiscal responsibility in the national interest", a message we haven't heard from his party for some time. The next Labour government will, he promised, "get our country's current budget back to balance" and set "national debt on a downward path." The timeline for doing so, however, remains unspecified (rightly, Balls refuses to set arbitrary targets).

Sounding a note of contrition, he also offered a fulsome list of Labour's "mistakes", namely the 75p pension rise, the abolition of the 10p tax rate, the failure to get "all employers to train", and the weak controls on migration from eastern Europe. But he rightly refused to accept that Labour was "profligate" in office, reminding the hall that "we went into the crisis with lower national debt than we inherited in 1997 and lower than America, France, Germany and Japan." (As a percentage of GDP, debt fell from from 42.5 per cent of GDP in 1997 to 36.5 per cent in 2007.)

Not all of what Balls said went down well with the party faithful. There was silence as he insisted that Labour could not promise to reverse particular Tory spending cuts or tax rises, and as he warned that pensions strikes this autumn would play into George Osborne's hands. Significantly, he added that under Labour "contributions and the retirement age would be rising too." His pledge to use any windfall from the bank sell-off to reduce the deficit, not to cut taxes, won applause, although some on the left would prefer a radical commitment to mutualise the banks and turn them into engines of growth.

But he finished strongly with a rhetorical assault on Osborne's boast that Britain is a "safe haven". It might be a safe haven for David Cameron and George Osborne and Boris Johnson and their friends, he said, but it is not a safe haven "for the 16,000 companies that have gone out of business in the last year". Unlike Vince Cable (who spoke of "grey skies" in his conference speech), he ended on a positive note, promising to show that "there can be a better future". And rightly so. History shows that progressive parties don't win elections unless they offer a hopeful vision of the future.

Balls had the energy and spirit of a man who knows that he is winning the argument. With even the IMF now warning that Osborne may have to slow the pace of the cuts if growth continues to disappoint, the consensus is slowly turning against austerity. As the economic data continues to worsen, Balls will win further converts to his approach.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.