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

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.