Ed Balls: "Boris is less of a statesman and more of a buffoon"

A sneak preview of my interview with the shadow chancellor for this week's magazine.

I've interviewed Ed Balls for this week's New Statesman -- out on the newsstands on Thursday.

Here are a few comments from the shadow chancellor that might not make it into the final piece:

1) On the TUC rally and Boris Johnson

The shadow chancellor seemed pretty annoyed with Boris Johnson's Telegraph column yesterday -- on the subject of Saturday's TUC march and the violent protests -- in which the Mayor of London claimed that "Balls and Miliband will feel quietly satisfied by the disorder":

I thought it was an outrageous thing to say. It was a deeply irresponsible thing to say. I was quite shocked. Boris's problem is he spends so much time attacking David Cameron that he probably thought he had to attack someone else for a change. He is less of a statesman and more of a buffoon and I think he should withdraw those comments.

Balls, who criticised Sky News for its alleged bias in an interview with me ahead of the 2010 general election, says that he understands the demands of the 24-hour news channels. He is, nonetheless, critical of the media coverage of Saturday's rally and the decision by the BBC and Sky News to cut away from Ed Miliband's speech in order to show the protests in Oxford Street:

The idea that a peaceful, broad-based demo of over a quarter of million people should be overshadowed by 200 or so immature idiots is wrong and very frustrating.

Asked if Labour been damaged by Miliband's decision to address the TUC rally in Hyde Park, Balls says:

You should give the public more credit -- the TUC, the marchers and the police were very clear in their public statements about the differences between the two groups.

As for the violent "anarchists" on Oxford Street, Balls says, "They probably hate me and Ed Miliband more than they hate David Cameron and George Osborne."

2) On Libya and the cost of military action:

Balls supports the military action against the Gaddafi regime but is critical of the Chancellor's decision to try to predict the costs in advance:

George Osborne was unwise when he said at Treasury questions that this operation would only cost tens of millions of pounds. It shows that he is obviously defensive about the cost. He can't possibly know that it will only cost tens of millions of pounds; it could turn out to cost much more and go on much longer than he thinks. The right thing to say is that we cannot know the cost. It's a little like him saying that the economy is "out of the danger zone".

And in a swipe at the Tories' analogy of the Budget deficit with a credit-card account, the shadow chancellor adds:

If, two years ago, the credit card had been maxed out, we wouldn't now be able to go to war in Libya. If the nation was trying to run this war on the basis of its credit card, then it would be in trouble. It just shows what vacuous tosh all that Conservative language is.

You'll have to wait till Thursday, however, and the publication of the print edition of the magazine to read Balls's views on Ed Miliband, Alan Johnson, Yvette Cooper and the structural deficit . . .

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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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

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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