The most worrying thing about the Balls-Miliband story for Labour

The key point about the email by a Miliband adviser describing Balls as "a nightmare" is that it was leaked in the first place.

Update: I've now learned how the email was really leaked.

The Tories have leapt gleefully on today's Mail on Sunday story revealing that Miliband staffer Torsten Bell, Labour's director of policy and rebuttal, referred to Ed Balls as a "nightmare" in a private email. After Balls's special adviser Alex Belardinelli wrote in a group email on the shadow chancellor's planned response to the Bank of England's upgraded growth forecasts, "Could we get this out pls? cleared at this end and essentially the same script as we had on GDP day the other week", Bell (a former special adviser to Alistair Darling during his time as Chancellor) wrote to fellow Miliband adviser Greg Beales: "As an example of why we're having problems on EB messaging-this is his current three part argument: cost of living, recovery built to last, economy works for working people. Nightmare." Beales replied: "When did built to last become a part of our thing?"

That there are tensions between Miliband and Balls has long been an open secret in Westminster. The Labour leader's team have privately accused the shadow chancellor, who was not Miliband's first choice for the job, of being insufficiently committed to his responsible capitalism agenda and too focused on defending the record of the last Labour government. There also differences between the pair over HS2 and the proposed third runway at Heathrow, with Balls openly favouring the latter over the former, the reverse of Miliband's position.

What is peculiar about the disagreement revealed by the emails is that it is so minor. Miliband himself has regularly used the phrase "built to last" (a key part of Barack Obama's 2012 campaign) and even the most dedicated Labour Kremlinologist would struggle to spot any difference between Balls's three-part argument and Miliband's. Indeed, I'm told the pair met before the publication of the recent GDP figures to discuss and agree on Labour's response, which last Wednesday's quote from Balls (on the BoE's growth forecasts) was almost identical to.

A Miliband spokesman has responded by effectively stating that Bell was wrong: "Ed Balls was entirely right. After three damaging years of flatlining, there is no recovery for millions of families. Prices are rising faster than wages, and figures this week showed that people are on average £1,600 a year worse off since David Cameron came to office."

That this apparently trivial disagreement (what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences") led Bell to refer to Balls as a "nightmare" is evidence of how great the mistrust is. The mutual suspicion will be compounded by the key point of the story: that the emails were leaked in the first place. Assuming that the leak was intentional (and not the result of a lost phone or misplaced documents), this is a red-on-red attack, delivered via a hostile newspaper. If history is not to repeat itself, both sides would be wise to ensure it is the last.

And as Balls comes under increasing attack, largely prompted by the false belief that he has been proved wrong by the return of economic growth, it's worth remembering that there is no one better qualified to perform the job of Chancellor.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Brighton in September. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.