For the good of himself, his family and the party, it’s time for Ed Balls to fall on his sword

It’s time the shadow chancellor fell on his sword, argues Anthony Seldon. Ed Miliband would be stronger for it, Labour would lose the taint of tax and spend, Yvette would be pleased . . . and even Balls might benefit.

The co-author of “Brown at 10” writes an open letter to the shadow chancellor:

Dear Ed,

I was not your headmaster, but as somebody who has written about you for many years it falls to me to say this: the time has come for you to fall on your sword.

After 20 unbroken years at the heart of politics, you need a rest. It was another age when in 1993 Geoff Mulgan, anxious to leave Gordon Brown’s side as chief adviser to found the think tank Demos, recruited you as his successor. After leaving Oxford, you had only the briefest time to work as an academic and a journalist on the Financial Times. You need to see more of life beyond the microworld of politics. Falling on one’s sword is never easy. However, quitting in the next few months until, say, 2017 would undoubtedly benefit your leader, your party, your wife and even yourself. Let me explain.

Ed Miliband would be a much stronger leader without you. He may think he cannot live without you, which is why he promoted you in January 2011 to shadow chancellor and recently pledged to stick with you. Yet he doesn’t need you, any more than Tony Blair needed Gordon Brown after a while: he merely couldn’t find it in himself to squeeze the trigger.

Forgive me, but you stop Ed breathing fresh air. With you close to him, his breath will always be stale and smell of a toxic brand. Without a prolonged period out of the public eye, neither you nor the party will ever rid yourselves of the opportunistic, negative and bullying image of the Gordon era. Yes, we both believe he was a better prime minister than the conventional wisdom says but it will take years for his achievements to be recognised properly and the stain of his modus operandi will never be eradicated.

Economic credibility would be more readily restored with your departure. Your critique of the government’s austerity strategy may never win back public trust and your proposals for the economy will never convince. Your credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches. On Europe, despite your recent about-turn, the party will find it easier to commit to holding a referendum with you gone. Your patrician attitude not to trust the people will always make any call for a referendum from you sound hollow. Think how strong the appeal would be if Miliband offered the referendum that neither Blair nor Brown dared.

Without you, Labour could present itself as a clean party, free of the factionalism and brutalism that so tarnished it when Brown was boss and you were his consigliere. I know that you think you were really a very nice person all along, vulnerable with your own insecurities. Yet you need to redeem yourself and the atonement will never happen unless you disappear and return to public life with a fresh persona. The party would be more inclusive without you.

You say you like David Miliband, but his followers are not doing well under Ed, are they? The party would be much stronger with David back in the frame. So, too, would it with Alistair Darling returning to the front bench. In the event of a hung parliament, Labour would stand a better chance of putting together a workable coalition with the Lib Dems without you. Remember how in 2010 the Lib Dems didn’t trust Gordon or you? Nothing has changed, Ed.

What might you do during your long sabbatical? You have extraordinary intellectual and personal gifts. You could write a book (not, please, a memoir), as your mentor Gordon Brown did in 1986, about the Scottish politician and leader of the Red Clydesiders James Maxton. What about a biography of Brown? Not Gordon, nor your friend Nick, but George: you would learn much more about how factionalism damaged Labour in the 1960s. How about returning to academic life or journalism? Your experience would richly inform students and readers. What about a stint at a school? You would turn up your nose at Wellington College because we are independent, but how about our academy, Wellington in Wiltshire, founded when you were schools secretary? You could even study for an MBA and learn, unlike many others who become ministers, how to run large organisations.

I wish you’d listened when you ran education and I suggested that your two great opportunities for a legacy were to embed well-being deeply into schools and transform the relationship between the public and private sectors. You did little on either and it’s rather hard to remember much that you achieved of enduring benefit for young people. So it would be good to learn how to run an organisation. You could even run or work for a charity, as John Profumo did after his involuntary retirement from politics 50 years ago.

Yvette would not say it to you but, like many women working in the same organi­sation as their husband, she would be freer to think and act without you in her hair. You would have more time, too, for your three children. As a headmaster, I know how hard it is for children who have just one parent in the public eye. Having two is harder still and your family would only benefit with you being more present and less preoccupied.

The greatest beneficiary would be you. You may not see it this way now but I know you will in hindsight. A mentor of mine, Robert Skidelsky, suggested to your mentor Gordon that he take a sabbatical before becoming prime minister. Had he followed that advice, his premiership would have benefited. He would have had time to think through what he wanted to do with the power he had so long craved. As it was, he came to No 10 with the cupboard largely bare. If Labour loses in 2015, you will be blamed and your career will be damaged beyond repair. If it wins, you would return to the front bench in 2017 a redeemed and respected figure. You might even one day become leader, your long-held ambition. Oh, and don’t believe that guff about “skipping a generation”. The public will tire of young leaders, though it doesn’t yet realise it.

Others, including Ed Miliband, share responsibility for the Brown errors: you will earn praise for taking the hit. You are 46 this month. Your best years could lie ahead of you.

Yours ever, Anthony

 

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls delivers his keynote speech to delegates at the Labour Party Conference at Manchester Central on October 1, 2012 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.