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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage