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.

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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