Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson find common ground on Europe

The Shadow Chancellor and former Business Secretary agree on how coalition policy is failing and wha

There is much chatter in Westminster today about an op-ed in today’s Guardian jointly penned by Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson. 

Predictably, the content of the article – arguing for a more balanced European economic agenda to stimulate growth in parallel with fiscal responsibility – attracted far less comment than the fact that its authors represent an unusual coupling. The two famously disagreed about Briatin’s prospects for euro entry when it was on the agenda in Tony Blair’s first term in government. More generally, they occupied opposing trenches for most of the long Blair-Brown civil war.

They have, it seems, patched up their differences for at least long enough to agree a position on European policy and even to share a platform at a conference this afternoon. The two Labour bigwigs sat alongside European Competition Commissioner Joaguin Almunia and former CBI Director General Richard Lambert on a discussion panel at an event hosted by the Centre for European Reform.

Predictably, Balls was asked at one point if he agreed with Lord Mandelson on the proposition (set out by the former European trade commissioner in a lecture last week) that Britain was heading for a referendum on its membership of a newly configured European Union. The shadow chancellor conceded that such an outcome might indeed by inevitable, but insisted it was not a matter of policy urgency for now. He then turned the question around to attack the government and the Tories for being unable to engage effectively in EU affairs. Ministerial fear of fanatical euroscpticism on the back benches is, said Balls, damaging British interests: “I don’t remember a time when British political leaders were less influential on decisions that have such a big impact.” David Cameron’s decision to walk away from a Brussels summit last December – the famous veto of a pan-EU fiscal stability treaty – was “catastrophic short-termism.”

Mandelson agreed, adding with more than a hint of mischief, that the government was, he believed, much more engaged and pro-European in private talks than it dared let on in public. He suggested the coalition’s real European policy was being conducted “privately, almost secretly.”

Perhaps just as interesting from a policy point of view, Ed Balls, in the discussion of how the eurozone ought to evolve in response to the current crisis, backed the idea of a unified single currency bond. He said: “There must be mutualisation of debt obligations” – which effectively means a eurobond and, by extension, a much more substantial level of financial integration among euro member states. I’m not sure the shadow chancellor has come out so explicitly on this issue before.

Also, even deeper into EU Kremlinology: Almunia was extraordinarily vocal in his criticism of the way the political process of eurozone crisis management turned into a bilateral negotiation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. The Commissioner referred to this as a “duopoly” and expressed the hope that the next stage of the crisis might be characterised by a “return to intergovernmental” ways of doing things. This might not sound like much, but in terms of Brussels protocol it is pretty unusual for a Commissioner to slam national heads of government so explicitly. There is clearly a lot of relief on the Commission that the “Merkozy” alliance has been disbanded. 

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

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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. 

0800 7318496