Left and right agree: Ed Balls shouldn't fall on his sword

Anthony Seldon's New Statesman column provokes debate.

Anthony Seldon’s column in today’s New Statesman, calling for Ed Balls to resign, has provided plenty for the chattering classes to chew on.

Responding to Seldon’s piece, the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland defends Balls’s record and highlights his prescience in predicting a double-dip recession.

Balls is one of the very few people in politics able to utter those golden words: I told you so... Asking a politician to resign when they get things wrong is one thing. Demanding they quit when they get things right is a kind of madness.

Freedland also doubts whether the shadow chancellor stepping down would benefit Labour in the way the co-author of Brown at 10 envisages.

David Cameron turns a shade of puce every time he finds himself facing Balls. Why is it the Tories hate him so? In politics, such loathing is a compliment. It suggests Balls is one of the few Labour figures they fear. The same goes for the right-leaning commentariat's regular demand that Balls go, a chorus Seldon has now joined.

And he warns that, rather than ending factionalism in the Labour Party, Balls's departure would reignite it: "there will be a sizable group that believes it lacks a voice. Resentments will grow. Call it a team of rivals, pissing out of the tent or keeping your enemies closer – the idea is the same. It's best for Ed M to have Ed B on board."

LabourList editor Mark Ferguson is similarly unconvinced, describing Seldon’s article as "a piece that is character assassination just about dressed up in the faux-niceties of "advice". Ferguson also defends Balls’s economic credentials, praising his August 2010 Bloomberg lecture as "written by someone who understands the global economy – which should be the first thing Labour is looking for in terms of potential Chancellors." Although Balls "needs to articulate how he’d make Ed Miliband’s vision of a radically different type of economy a reality", Ferguson says he has been vindicated "on the fundamental call of the day." And he implores his party to "stop pretending that there are an array of alternative to Balls as Shadow Chancellor".

This view was echoed by the tweet that it "would be madness to dump either of the Eds. Please don't. Please, please, please." But given that the author was ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie, perhaps that isn’t the support Balls needs.

The story was also covered by Guido Fawkes, Guardian politics and ConservativeHome

Update: Elsewhere, Iain Dale says he was "incredulous" when he read Seldon's piece and describes Balls as a politician "respected and feared by the Conservatives".

Dale writes: "They [the Conservatives] try to pretend that he is their biggest asset. Some may really believe that, but for most it is pure bravado. He knows how to needle Tories, he knows which buttons to press to rile them and his attacks invariably hit home."

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls speaks on the second day of the annual Labour Party Conference in Manchester on October 1, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.