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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser