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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.