What motivates Ed Balls? He needs to tell us

The shadow chancellor must answer the question, "what made you want to do this in the first place?"

Ed Balls is caught in a pincer movement, although not a very coordinated one. The left pince is applied by trade union leaders, appalled by the shadow chancellor’s increasingly assertive commitment to budget discipline. Paul Kenny was on the radio yesterday mocking Balls’s acceptance of the need for public sector pay restraint. “He would give an aspirin a headache,” the head of the GMB union said.

Ed Miliband has communicated exactly the same austerity-lite message and, although he comes in for similar criticism, dissenters on the left are not quite despairing or self-destructive enough to go all out for the Labour leader. (Perhaps the really wanton sabotage is being saved for closer to an election). Besides, the major unions backed Miliband for leader. Their bosses now need to think of reasons why the candidate they plugged isn’t speaking the language they want to hear. Identifying villains who might be steering the Labour leader away from the path of righteousness is safer than admitting to union members that they were (from a staunch left perspective) ill-advised by their chiefs.

Then there is the right pince. This consists of shadow cabinet ministers and MPs who are frustrated with what they see as Balls’s small “c” conservatism on economic policy and, especially, public sector reform. The criticism is that the shadow chancellor, while suitably diligent in signalling future spending restraint, will not permit any specific policy discussion of how Labour’s ambitions for effecting social progress can be achieved when splashing cash isn’t on the menu.

In fact, this complaint divides into three sub-gripes. First, there is the way Balls insists on vetting shadow cabinet announcements for any hint of fiscal profligacy. The stated intention is to avoid surrendering political hostages to the Tories, in the form of uncosted spending pledges. But Balls’s message-discipline gatekeeper function also serves as a device for exerting control over colleagues and for stifling policy initiatives generated by underlings. (Interestingly, in that respect a certain generation of Conservatives voice private sympathy for their shadow cabinet peers, remembering how George Osborne used the same device in opposition.) 

The second sub-gripe is that Balls is cautious in his attitude towards the City and the financial services sector. He is pointedly reluctant to throw his political weight behind the Miliband theme of “responsible capitalism” and to engage with the project to “rebalance the economy.” This is partly the natural and reasonable response to a professional lifetime spent in and around the Treasury, where grandiose ambitions for UK plc to find something new to do for a living rub up against the practical obligation to nurture and protect the few things we are good at already – and on a global scale. Balls will also have noticed that the Tories are not as popular with the business community as they would like to be. When that support – and the economic credibility that it brings - is up for grabs, why risk frightening everyone with loose  talk of re-engineering the whole of capitalism?

Balls’s wariness of the new economic vision leads to the third sub-gripe. This is the fear that the shadow chancellor is too closely associated in the public imagination with the last Labour government and with Gordon Brown in particular. Miliband was as much at Brown’s side as Balls, but was a lesser known figure. He has also made more effort to distance himself from the whole New Labour operation, speaking (somewhat implausibly) as if he is a maverick outsider, thrust into leadership despite his earnest and modest demeanour. He seems to picture himself as Moses confronted by the burning bush; the prophet onto whose shoulders unexpectedly falls the burden of leadership to a brighter future. He would like to be seen as the flag-bearer for a new generation, opening a new chapter in Labour history. It is an optimistic pitch; a fantasy some would say. Miliband loyalists worry that the whole page-turning, paradigm-shifting portrait of the leader is spoiled when Balls keeps popping up in the frame.

Up against all of that there is the indisputable fact that Balls is one of the most intelligent, financially literate, motivated, effective and substantial figures in British politics. He also made one of the toughest economic calls of recent times – that the economy would double-dip - and got it right. (That he gets little credit for this outside the party could either be because the public mood hasn’t fully turned against the coalition, or because too many voters, seeing him as an emblem of the bad old days, just don’t want him to be right.) Balls is also powerful and influential within the party, having built up a network over many years working in the engine room of the Labour machine. But that kind of loyalty is based on patronage and power. It is a different kind of political glue to the shared set of ideas or vision that binds followers to effective leaders.

One of the lessons of Gordon Brown’s bungled transition from Chancellor to Prime Minister was the way that his support base melted away once the going got tough. There were plenty of people cheering him on and when he looked certain to be leader. He managed to get himself anointed unopposed. But as soon as he looked weak and the power started draining away, the loyalty evaporated. He was left friendless. There was no consolidating mission of Brownism around which a wounded party could rally. There was no shared purpose; just Gordon.

Balls is in danger of falling victim to a similar dynamic. He is formidable and powerful and, in person, engaging and impressive. Those characteristics all sustain each other in a feedback loop. The vulnerability lies in questions that probe what really drives this political phenomenon forwards, aside from raw ambition. Why did Ed Balls become an MP, join up with Gordon Brown, stand for leader, stick around in Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet?

Miliband is justifiably coming under pressure this week to tell the Labour party a bit more about who he is and what he believes. That, as I wrote in my column last week, is an essential step towards making people more comfortable with the idea of him their Prime Minister. By all accounts, filling in those gaps is the explicit ambition of his speech to Labour conference later this week. It is one of the most penetrating questions in politics: What made you want to do this in the first place? What is it all for? David Cameron and George Osborne have never found an adequate answer. Ed Miliband is making a start, filling in some of the blanks. Perhaps it is time Ed Balls had a go too.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls plays in the Labour Party vs media football match. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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