Is Alan Johnson the right man for the job of shadow chancellor?

The coalition, and the cuts consensus, have to be challenged, not indulged.

I was on Radio 4's World Tonight and BBC2's Newsnight yesterday discussing the appointment of the former home secretary Alan Johnson as the new shadow chancellor. I don't think any of us saw that coming -- in fact, I don't think Alan Johnson saw it coming! When I spoke to him at the Labour party conference in Manchester, he seemed keen to shadow the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and hold the coalition government's constitutional and electoral reform agenda to account. He has never served in the Treasury before and is not an expert on the economy.

Nick Robinson tells the following anecdote on his blog:

I once told Alan Johnson that some in the cabinet were arguing that he should replace Alastair Darling as chancellor. His communication skills, wry good humour and common sense were regarded by many as making him the perfect foil to Gordon Brown and more likely to cheer up the nation up than Darling himself.

I well recall his reaction – he looked like he'd swallowed a wasp. Unlike the other obvious candidate back then – Ed Balls – he had no economic training and was not desperate to do the job.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I was hoping Ed Balls would be made shadow chancellor. I believe he was the best-qualified person for the job – and he deserved it, too, having delivered a scathing critique of Osbornomics at Bloomberg in August, and having harried and humiliated Michael Gove at the despatch box again and again over the summer. I also think it is odd that the two most formidable economists on the Labour front bench should be confined to home affairs (Balls) and foreign affairs (Yvette Cooper), where their impressive grasp of macroconomics will not be needed and where Cooper, in particular, might be wasted.

But what do I know? I'm just a hack. Ed Miliband is the leader and I'm guessing he has a plan. Plus, Johnson is an experienced and able politician, a great communicator with a fantastic sense of humour, as well as a fascinating backstory that contrasts with George Osborne's privileged upbringing.

Now, there has been much debate over the past 24 hours as to whether the Johnson appointment and the decision to deny Balls the post he so craved is a sign of strength or weakness on the part of Miliband. I was on BBC Radio Wales with the former Blair adviser John McTernan this morning: McTernan thinks the new Labour leader showed "strength" in giving Balls the home affairs, rather than the Treasury, brief. Indeed, the narrative emerging from the Blairites is "Ed Mili faced down Ed Balls".

But there is another view that says that Miliband the Younger capitulated to the Blairites and the right-wing press, who like to refer to him as "Red Ed" and to Ed Balls as a "deficit denier", by going with the safe option of Alan Johnson, a supporter of the candidate (Mili-D) who was backed by more Labour MPs than Mili-E was. Kevin Maguire, for example, says:

Ed Miliband's fluffed his first big call. Appointing Alan Johnson as Labour shadow chancellor is to stick with the Alistair Darling line on halving the deficit when Labour lost the election. The bold move was to put Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper in the job and shift the Labour position to slower cuts to keep the economy recovering.

I'm not sure where I stand on this. Perhaps, as I noted in a CIF piece yesterday, the personnel issue is irrelevant and we should all wait to see what Labour's policy response is to George Osborne's Spending Review on 20 October.

Ed Miliband has repeatedly referred to the Alistair Darling plan for deficit reduction (that is to say, halving the deficit over four years) as a "starting point" and told Channel 4 News the day after his conference speech that he'd like to do more with taxation, and less with spending cuts, than Darling had allowed for. Johnson's appointment might be part of a deliberate strategy by Miliband to take charge of the party's economic and, specifically, fiscal policy rather than outsource it to the shadow chancellor/chancellor (as Tony Blair did in the Nineties and Noughties).

It is worth remembering that Miliband taught economics at Harvard during his sabbatical in 2003-2004 and chaired the Treasury's Council of Economic Advisers between 2004 and 2005. Unlike Blair, and perhaps Johnson, he understands economics.

Meanwhile, the coalition's fiscal and welfare policies are in disarray – at the Conservative conference, a cut in child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers to save £1bn was followed by a transferable tax allowance for married couples which will cost £500m! In today's Daily Telegraph, Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem Energy Secretary, says that the proposed spending cuts are not "lashed to the mast" and that it "may be appropriate" to alter the plans in the event of a serious economic downturn. Like Ken Clarke, the Tory Justice Secretary, Huhne also admits that a double-dip recession is a possibility.

So now is not the time for Ed Miliband to go wobbly on deficit reduction. The opposition has to make clear that deep and immediate cuts will make the deficit get bigger, not smaller. And Alan Johnson needs to understand the Keynesian argument, and the "moral" argument – as his preferred leadership candidate, David Miliband, put it during the Compass hustings in June – for running deficits in downturns.

Here are some people Johnson should perhaps try to speak to for advice this week, ahead of the SR on 20 October:

* Paul Krugman

* David Blanchflower

* Anne Pettifor

* Martin Wolf

* Ed Balls :-)

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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle