Miliband distances himself from the Balls strategy

Labour leader says the party should have spoken “openly and clearly” about the need for cuts.

It would be easy to dismiss Ed Miliband's admission that Labour was too slow to talk "openly and clearly" about the need for cuts as another piece of detail-free rhetoric. But, with Labour's internal politics in mind, it's a highly significant intervention.

Miliband's announcement puts more clear blue water between himself and Ed Balls, who, as Paul Waugh recently noted, still longs for the shadow chancellorship. It was Balls who used the Labour leadership election to make the argument that, had the party persisted with the Brownite mantra of "investment versus cuts", it could have won a fourth term. Faced with a choice between Labour cuts and Tory cuts, Balls argues, it was no surprise that voters opted for the real thing.

But others point to polling evidence that Labour's stance on cuts cost it votes as, in the public's view, state spending breached acceptable limits. Miliband isn't planning to look again at his proposed 60:40 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises, but he is suggesting that Labour's rhetoric on cuts left it open to the charge of "deficit denial".

What makes Miliband's intervention particularly significant is the increasing uncertainty around Alan Johnson's position. After yesterday's PMQs, during which David Cameron repeatedly joked that the shadow chancellor "can't count", it is clear that the Tories view Johnson as the weak link in Labour's armoury. And, after Sky News tripped him up on the employers' rate of National Insurance, Johnson can expect every broadcaster to pull a similar trick.

In the meantime, there is growing pressure from the left for Miliband to replace Johnson with either the popular Yvette Cooper (who topped Labour's shadow cabinet poll) or Ed Balls at some point in the near future. Yet the Labour leader's latest strategic move suggests Balls may have to wait a while longer for that promotion.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.