Don't underestimate Ed Balls

The shadow chancellor is repeating the trick that played so well before the 1997 election.

It's seldom a good idea to underestimate your opponent, so when I'd stopped hugging myself at what Twitter was telling me Ed Balls was saying over the weekend, I reasoned he isn't a fool and so there must be method to his apparent madness. Which of course, there is.

And so picture if you will the shadow chancellor luxuriating in a large armchair and stroking a white cat as I take you through his dastardly scheme...

There has of course been some misrepresentation of the facts. Ed Ball's speech actually positions him as the irritating local, replying to a request for directions with a lopsided grin and a sarcastic "I wouldn't have started from here'. This promise to map out a course from wherever he finds himself in 2015 conveniently saves him coming up with any solutions of his own for a while and at the same time allowing him all the wriggle room he needs over coming months.

And it's a trick he's seen pulled off before. It's from the Gordon Brown school of 'how to demonstrate economic competence if you're Labour' that played so well pre the 1997 election. Accept Osborne's sums, say you'll spend the money they leave you more wisely - spending is an area the electorate believes Labour does know something about -and you win. It's worked once before...

And it needs to work again. Because for all the distinctiveness of the shadow chancellor's Keynesian approach, the country seems more inclined to support the notion of belt tightening and austerity to dig us out of the economic mess we find ourselves mired in

There are also tactical advantages to all this. It's been Balls over the last few months who's been leading the doe-eyed flirting with us Lib Dems. What better way to lay the groundwork for a future potential pact, than to accept that all that has gone before cannot be undone? It's like the shadow chancellor is gearing himself up to come over, give us a big hug and say 'what's past is past'.

Of course, some people within the Labour movement are going to be upset by all this - especially the unions when they read about accepting the need for public sector pay freezes. But the unions weren't exactly supportive of Ed Balls during the leadership campaign were they? So not much to lose there. The only one who's going to suffer in that camp is poor Ed Miliband. As some idiot pointed out on Friday, Miliband is safe enough in the leadership while he's seen as playing the game by the rules of the party - but as soon as he starts going anywhere near the centre, the gloves are off, and he's in trouble. And that opens all sorts of doors.

Of course, I hear you cry, the man wielding the knife never gets to lead - Balls wouldn't be so obvious. Except of course, in the Balls household, it's not Ed's turn to go for the leadership - and Yvette is untouched by all this. Isn't it better when you sort out these potential family disputes about whose turn it is to be leader in a mature fashion behind closed doors? If only everyone took the same approach.

So all in all, the latest front in the battle for the economic high ground opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for the Balls camp.

He's not stupid, is he....

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.