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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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