Careful -- it would be a mistake to write off Ed Balls

The former schools secretary has a good chance of succeeding his ex-boss as Labour leader.

So Ed Balls has finally declared his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the media's preferred candidate. And some Labour MPs, too, accuse him of being a bully, a schemer and a behind-the-scenes briefer, lacking in charisma, divisive, too close to Gordon Brown and an unreconstructed tribalist. But as I wrote on the Guardian's Comment is Free site during the election campaign:

Perhaps Balls isn't the dyed-in-the-wool Labour tribalist he is so often assumed to be by the great and good in the Westminster village. As even Martin Kettle, one of his leading critics, acknowledged on Cif: "If Balls were to be the next Labour leader, he would not, I think, be quite as bone-headedly labourist as many assume. This is a man who has crossed from the centre right to the centre left of the Labour Party in double-quick time, after all." But Kettle adds: "The main charge that those in the know make about Balls is not that he is dogmatic but that he is purely tactical -- opportunist is the word one hears most often."

Is the Balls shift to the left an act of opportunism? Perhaps -- although he has long been a proponent of "dividing lines" between left and right. Will it be enough to secure the votes of the Labour left? If Jon Cruddas fails to throw his hat in the ring and his opponent is David Miliband, I suspect it will. The children's secretary is making all the right (or should that be left?) noises.

The same journalists, commentators and MPs who wrote off Gordon Brown for three years, and wrongly assumed GB would be toppled by a coup, or resign in shame, or be humiliated on 6 May in a landslide defeat, now write off Balls, claiming he has no chance.

There is no doubt that the former schools secretary faces an uphill struggle against the Miliband brothers -- especially David, the clear front-runner and highest-profile candidate. But as the Guardian's John Harris -- no fan of Balls -- points out today on Cif:

Thus far, he [Balls] seems to be positioning himself as the poster boy for the less-than-erogenous Labour zone where dog-whistle toughness of the John Reid/Hazel Blears variety meets union-friendly Labourism.

The chatterati may scoff, but to the people who kept their party cards while all around were tearing theirs up, that will have a real appeal.

Meanwhile, the new labour-uncut website makes this observation:

Balls is also the one who has done the most work over the last five years. He's the only one who's been assiduously traipsing round the Friday night rubber chicken circuit of local Labour parties since 2005.

He has made the most effort to court the unions, and starts ahead in that section of the electoral college. And he has worked harder than David Miliband, though perhaps not than Ed, at convincing his fellow Labour MPs to like him.

Oh yes, let's not forget the support of the unions -- in particular, Unite.

But Balls's first challenge will be to gather together the necessary 33 signatures from fellow MPs in order to stand next week. Some newspapers have claimed he is struggling to get above 15 MPs, but a source in the Balls camp claims "we're pretty much there already. We're just not putting them all into the public domain at once."

Interestingly, among Balls's declared supporters is the Blairite former defence minister Eric Joyce, who resigned from the Brown government over the handling of the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps, as I've written before, Balls isn't as divisive or tribal a figure as is often assumed in the Westminster village.

Either way, my message to the Miliband brothers and the media: you write him off at your peril.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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