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

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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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