Why I think Ed Balls “gets it”

We need a robust leader who can defend Labour’s legacy, and I think Ed is that leader.

When Gordon Brown announced he was standing down I was genuinely open-minded about who to support in the Labour leadership contest. I'd not given the matter of his successor much thought; I wanted Gordon to win the election for Labour, and stay as our leader and our prime minister, and all my energies were focused on helping him achieve that end. Neither did I have strong feelings of antipathy towards any of the likely candidates. Indeed, I liked and respected them all. (Still do, for the avoidance of doubt!)

So I was starting from a clean slate. But then I read an article by Ed Balls in the Guardian which set out why we had lost the election and how he felt we'd lost touch with our voters over the years. "They thought we weren't on their side any more," he wrote. And I thought, to use a phrase that is already becoming well worn: "He gets it."

I then met with Ed, for a long chat, and that same phrase kept coming into my mind. He gets it. He "gets" what people were saying to me on the doorstep in the election campaign. He understands why the aspirational working class, who we fought hard to win back from the clutches of Thatcher in the early days of New Labour, had started deserting us in droves, and, more importantly, he understands why and how we need to win them back.

I also liked his focus on bread-and-butter issues, and his ability to communicate like a "normal" person. He didn't talk in vague buzzwords, or as if he was addressing a Fabian seminar (or Progress or Compass, to keep things even-handed!). He talked about real issues, and real people, and real communities, not an abstracted version of those things. And his instincts on many of those issues were right.

And, of course, he's intelligent and experienced and decisive and strong. All the qualities we need in a leader. Some say he's too combative, and it's clear that of all the shadow ministers he is going to thrive in opposition. He's been the first to take the fight to the Tories.

Yes, he gets far more flak from them than other leading Labour politicians, but I think he should wear that as a badge of honour. We need a leader who is robust in defence of Labour's legacy, and strong in his challenge to those who seek to destroy it with their cuts.

But we also need someone who will lead Labour back into government. Someone who has learned the right lessons from the past 13 years and from really listening, properly listening, to what voters are saying. Ed has already started on that journey.

He fought a tough campaign in his new constituency, and has had hundreds if not thousands of those "on the doorstep" conversations. It's why he gets it -- because he gets them: his people, his voters. He's tough enough not to pander to people if he thinks they're wrong. He's principled enough not to take up false positions in the hope of personal advantage. But at the same time he realises that the ordinary voter matters.

It would be very easy in opposition to embark on a period of navel-gazing, to turn inwards, to publish pamplets and hold seminars, to talk about the voters instead of talking to them. But it would be wrong to do that. We need to start the fightback now: to expose the new government with vigour and determination; to present a coherent alternative; and to reconnect with our lost voters. And I think Ed's the person to do that.

Kerry McCarthy is MP for Bristol East. She blogs here,and can be found on twitter as @KerryMP

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt