The return of Darling as shadow chancellor would be a gift to the Tories

The appointment of the man who was Chancellor at the time of the crash would make it even easier for the Tories to warn "don't give the keys back".

Ed Balls's much-panned response to George Osborne's Autumn Statement has restarted the speculation about whether he will be replaced as shadow chancellor before the general election. Among commentators, Alistair Darling is again being touted as the ideal replacement. He's done the job before and has indicated that he'd be open to a frontbench role once he's finished saving the Union in September 2014. 

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne makes the standard case for Darling this morning: "He would bring unrivalled goodwill as the man credited with saving the British financial system in 2010 and then saving the union in 2014. The arrival of Alastair Darling just nine months before the general election would do wonders for Labour’s chances...because no British politician is held in as much respect as Mr Darling is today." 

But while the replacement of Balls with Darling would win plaudits from the commentariat (who revere him for his battles with Brown), it is less certain that it would improve Labour's election prospects. Borrowing a line from Barack Obama, the Tories' message at the next election will be "Britain is on the right track. Don't give the keys to the guys who crashed the car in the first place", one that could persuade nervous voters to stick with the status quo.

In this regard, the appointment of the man who was Chancellor at the time of the financial crisis would be a political gift to the Tories. Osborne and Cameron make much of Balls's Treasury past, but how many outside of Westminster know that he was City minister from 2006-07, or that he previously served as Brown's special adviser? Voters are more likely to remember him for his time as Schools Secretary than his time as Brown's brain. 

Darling's supporters will point out that he was the man who stopped the banks from going under, not the man responsible for the system of light-touch regulation that created the crisis. Others will note that he urged Brown to be more open about the cuts that Labour would have to make in an attempt to prevent the Tories from claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility for themselves. (Although it's worth recalling that it was also Darling who vetoed Balls's smart call for Labour to rule out a post-election VAT rise.)

But all of this detail will be lost on voters. To them, Darling is the man with "the weird eyebrows" (yes, as any pollster will tell you, voters are shallow) who was at the helm of the ship when it hit the iceberg. Are they really going to trust him with the economy again? Labour would undoubtedly benefit from the return of a politician as experienced and as shrewd as Darling but the shadow chancellorship is not the job for him. 

I suspect that Ed Miliband, who has notably avoided returning "greybeards" to the frontbench in favour of promoting the "new generation", recognises as much. Balls, who remains the best qualified figure for the job, is still more likely than not to be in his post come May 2015. 

Ed Miliband with Alistair Darling at the Labour conference in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.