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

Getty
Show Hide image

“It feels like a betrayal”: EU citizens react to Jeremy Corbyn’s migration stance

How do Labour-supporting European migrants in the UK feel about their leader wanting to control EU migration?

“This feels a bit different from the man I had campaigned for,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet. “It felt like he was on the side of the group that matters, regardless of whether they were actually going to make him gain voters or not. He was on the side of what seemed right.”

Blum-Dumontet is a 26-year-old EU citizen who has been in the UK for five years. She works as a researcher for a charity and lives in north-east London’s Walthamstow, where she is the local Labour party’s women’s officer.

She joined Labour just before the 2015 general election, and campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership bid that year. She spent one and a half months that summer involved in his campaign, either phone banking at its headquarters at the Unite union building, or at campaign events, every other evening.

“When he suddenly rose out of nowhere, that was a really inspiring moment,” she recalls. “They were really keen on involving people who had recently arrived, which was good.”

“Aside from the EU, I share all of his views”

Blum-Dumontet voted for Corbyn in both of Labour’s leadership elections, and she joined Momentum as soon as it was set up following Corbyn winning the first one in 2015. But she left the group two months ago.

She is one of the roughly three million EU citizens living in the UK today whose fate is precarious following the EU referendum result. And she doesn’t feel Corbyn is sticking up for her interests.

Over the weekend, the Labour leader gave an interview that has upset some Labour-supporting EU migrants like her.

Corbyn reiterated his opposition to staying in the single market – a longstanding left-wing stance against free market dominance. He added that his immigration policy “would be a managed thing on the basis of the work required” rather than free movement, and, in condemning agencies exploiting migrant workers, he said:

“What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry. You prevent agencies recruiting wholescale workforces like that; you advertise for jobs in the locality first.”

Corbyn also emphasised that Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain – including the right of family reunion – and that there would still be Europeans working here and vice versa. But, for some in his party who hail from Europe, the damage was done.

“I feel like he’s now trying to signal more and more that he’s not on all sides, he’s on the side of people who are just scared of migrants,” says Blum-Dumantet, who will nevertheless stay in the party to try and change the policy. “The idea that he is willing to engage in this whole dog-whistling immigration fear feeling is a bit disturbing.”

She stresses that, “aside from the EU, I share all of his views”, but adds:

“I feel like he’s chosen his socialist utopia – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I’m a socialist as well – over the reality of the concrete lives of three million people. For us, this is not about some abstract ideal, it’s about our lives, whether we can get jobs here, whether we can stay here. And for the sake of his ideal, he’s sacrificing that. That does feel like a betrayal.”

***

Other EU migrants who initially supported Corbyn also feel let down. Sabrina Huck, the London representative of Labour’s youth wing Young Labour, moved here from Germany in February 2014.

Having joined the party that year, she voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election, “particularly because of things like being an internationalist, talking about migrant solidarity”.

Huck, 26, who lives in south London and works in public affairs, began to change her mind about him she discovered his Eurosceptic views. “It’s kind of my fault because I didn’t really do the research properly on him, I guess!” she laughs.

“I understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some jobs”

Now, she feels “disappointed” in Corbyn’s comments about “wholesale importation” of workers. “The way he articulates himself – it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to hear from a Labour leader, particularly somebody who’s been a proud internationalist, proud migrant rights campaigner,” she tells me.

“I think the way he was making his point about wages was laying the blame way too much with workers and not with the bosses, basically.”

Huck notes that Corbyn is against the single market because of his socialist view of the EU as a “capitalist club”, rather than concern about borders. But she feels he’s using “the immigration argument” to sound mainstream:

“I feel like he’s using it as an opportunity to further his own ideological goal of leaving the single market by tying that to an argument that goes down well with the Leave-voting public.”

***

However, other Labour-leaning EU migrants I speak to do not feel Corbyn’s genuine motive is to bring immigration down – and are more understanding of his comments.

“I appreciate and understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some – particularly blue collar or poorer paid – jobs, that is the nature of mass migration,” says a 29-year-old Czech who works for the government (so wishes not to be named), and has lived here since 2014. She believes his comments were made to “appeal to the hard left and Ukip types”, and has left the Labour party. But she adds:

“I can understand how communities suffering through a decade of stagnant wage growth and austerity are looking for a scapegoat, easily found in the form of migrants – particularly in a country where minimum wage and labour protections are so weak legislatively, and so poorly enforced.”

She also is sceptical that a “mass deportation” of EU migrants from Britain is likely to happen. “The optics are too bad, at a minimum,” she says. “It would look too much like the 1930s. What would the government do? Put us all on boats back to Europe?”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively”

“I think they [Labour] are feeling their way around the issue [of Brexit] and are listening for public sentiment,” says Agnes Pinteaux, a Hungarian-born 48-year-old who moved to Britain in 1998. “But reconciling their hardcore Brexit support, those who just hate immigrants, those who want ‘sovereignty’, and those who want Brexit ditched altogether is going to be impossible.”

“I think the debate about the ethics of free movement of labour is a legitimate one, but it has to be rooted in human rights and dignity,” says Anna Chowrow, a 29-year-old third sector financial manager who moved from Poland to Scotland in 2007, adding:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, and I have admiration for his principled approach. [But] I am in disbelief that these comments – akin to ‘British jobs for British workers’ – were made by him. The dehumanising language of ‘importation’ and ‘destruction’ is beyond disappointing.”

***

Finding EU citizens in Britain who are entirely sympathetic to Corbyn’s comments is difficult. Forthcoming defenders of his stance are hard to come by, suggesting that it’s a minority view among Europeans living in Britain. But there are some who continue to back him.

“I like Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity. He comes across as genuine and honest, and I agree with most of his ideas. Contrary to the majority of politicians, he’s actually not afraid of coming across as a human being,” says Teresa Ellhotka, 24, who moved to the UK from Austria in 2016 and works in PR.

“His ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively,” she says of Corbyn’s stance on EU migrants. “My mind about Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed drastically as his ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive and I admire that he is dedicated to change but in a human way, and doesn’t suggest fighting fire with fire – as many other politicians, and people, seem to do.”

Ellhotka admits to being “a little surprised, as I did not expect this stance from him at all”, but feels there has been “so much back-and-forth” on the issue that she’s stopped worrying about what politicians say.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly is going to happen anyway.” The only thing, perhaps, that all politicians – and their voters – can agree on.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.