Miliband should sack Ed Balls

Labour cannot hope to rebuild its economic credibility while Balls remains shadow chancellor.

In his upcoming reshuffle, Ed Miliband should replace Ed Balls as shadow chancellor.

The Labour party is currently becalmed, and with it Miliband's leadership. In the 12 months since he replaced Gordon Brown, Labour's poll rating has risen one per cent according to the most recent Populous poll, two points according to MORI. Despite riots, war and economic stagnation Labour's leader cannot break beyond the margin of error.

Those wondering whether phone hacking would be a game changer have their answer. It has changed nothing. Despite his deft response to the crisis almost half of Labour supporters cannot picture Ed Miliband as prime minister, and his general approval ratings are plumbing new depths.

But it's not only Ed Miliband the polling furies have chosen to mock. Unemployment is rising. Business confidence declining. Growth estimates are being frantically revised down. Yet unbelievably, the Conservative party has now opened up a ten point lead over Labour on the issue of who has the best economic policies for the country. Even more staggering, their lead has actually increased since March. The worst things get for the economy, the better things seem to get for George Osborne and his party.

There is a simple reason for this paradox. Labour's own economic policy has no clothes. The deficit is the defining issue in British politics. And Tory attempts to brand Labour as deficit deniers have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. In fact, they have not so much branded shadow ministers as embalmed them, placed them in a glass case and erected a sign "Deficit Denier, official exhibit, 2010 - present".

No one within the Labour party is prepared to even glance at, never mind acknowledge, this elephant in the shadow cabinet room. Nor are they prepared to acknowledge the even larger elephant balancing upon its shoulders. The person who must take responsibility for this parlous state of affairs is Ed Balls.

Labour's shadow chancellor is one of the few political heavyweights on the front bench. But in this specific brief he is an albatross around his party's neck. All the opinion polls indicate the public blames the economic policies of the previous Labour government for the cuts to thier services, along with the hardship they are experiencing, more than the coalition. And Ed Balls is the individual in the shadow cabinet more closely associated with those policies than any other.

Ed Miliband is acutely aware of the toxic legacy of the Brown premiership. Hence his reluctance to even raise the issue of the economy in the wake of the publication of the Darling memoirs. But if he is wary of discussing economics when David Cameron has a copy of Back from the Brinksitting on his lap, how can he hope to make a case whilst he has Ed Balls sitting on his own?

Nor is this just an issue of legacy. Ed Balls was instrumental in rebuilding Labour's economic credibility from the rubble of the 1992 election defeat. He did it by adhering to a simple golden rule. If Labour couldn't ditch their tax and spend image they were unelectable. Prudence became the watch word. Shadow ministers were banned form making any commitments on spending. Gordon Brown, at Ball's urging, pledged to stick to Tory spending limits, and did so even after Labour's landslide 1997 election victory.

Yet as shadow chancellor Ed Balls seems intent on unlearning every rule he once imposed with iron, and occasionally brutal, discipline on others. Labour's policy has not just regressed to tax and spend. It's now cut tax and spend. New expenditure commitments are tossed around like confetti. Tax cuts bounced out with no internal consultation. Prudence has been ditched, replaced by that leather clad vixen, Ms Pump Primer.

What is Ed Balls thinking? It's not just that he's trying to get the voters to embrace an economic agenda they rejected decisively at the 2010 election. They're being asked to endorse economic policies they rejected at the 1979 election. The perception of fiscal profligacy isn't a dead end for the Labour party. It's political hemlock. We know this because Ed Balls told us it was. And he was right.

Labour's economic policy is no longer grounded in political reality, but in a combination of misguided loyalty, stubbornness and Keynesian economic orthodoxy. Ed Balls seems to believe distancing himself from the policies of Gordon Brown would represent a form of betrayal. It would not. It's just the price of doing business for a new party of opposition. He also seems to equate dogma with strength. Yet by sticking unflinchingly to the failed strategy of a failed manifesto he is reinforcing every negative stereotype his enemies have ever sought to construct around him. "The reckless thing to do is plough on regardless", he told Tribune this week. Too right.

Ed Balls is shadow chancellor. His is not chancellor. His prescriptions for the nation's ills may be economically sound. But they are politically unsustainable. Saying 'I was right, you were wrong' to your political opponents, is one thing. Saying it to the voters is a different matter entirely.

He seems unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge this. A destructive combination of loyalty, stubbornness and pride have locked him into a strategy from which he cannot escape. Which is why, at the next shadow cabinet reshuffle, Ed Miliband needs to set Ed Balls and his party free.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit