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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change