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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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