Why Miliband hasn't guaranteed that Balls will be Chancellor

It would look presumptive to start naming his cabinet before the election and would put him under pressure to guarantee others their jobs.

In his interview on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Ed Miliband again guaranteed that Ed Balls would be shadow chancellor at the time of the general election. Asked "is Ed Balls safe in his job at the moment?" he replied: "Ed Balls is doing a really good job and, absolutely, I've said that he's going to be the shadow chancellor going with me into the election". That should put an end to speculation that Alistair Darling could return to his old job after the Scottish independence referendum, or that Chuka Umunna or Rachel Reeves could be rapidly promoted. But some asked why Miliband didn't go further and pledge that Balls would serve as chancellor in a Labour government. Is he planning to replace him after May 2015? Is he holding out the post for the Lib Dems? The speculation goes on.

But as one Labour source pointed out to me this morning, there are two considerations that likely explain why Miliband chose not to give this guarantee. The first is that it would look "presumptive" for him to start announcing what jobs his shadow cabinet ministers will do in government (akin to "measuring up the curtains"). It would give the impression that Labour believes the voters have already made up their minds. The second is that guaranteeing Balls will serve as chancellor would inevitably lead to speculation about other top positions. Will Harriet Harman be deputy prime minister? Will Douglas Alexander be foreign secretary? Miliband can't have one rule for Balls and another for them. For these reasons, much as journalists may wish otherwise, don't expect Miliband to start naming his cabinet in advance of 7 May 2015.

Miliband went on to say of Balls: "People have their critics; the thing I'd say to you about Ed Balls? He's got a clear sense of what this economy needs, he's working with me on tackling the cost-of-living crisis that we face and he's got the toughness to stand up to lots of people who want more spending when actually it's going to be tough for Labour."

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Labour's dismal poll ratings won't harm Jeremy Corbyn's re-election chances

Members didn't vote for him on electoral grounds and believe his opponents would fare no better.

On the day of Theresa May's coronation as Conservative leader, a Labour MP texted me: "Can you imagine how big the Tory lead will be?!" We need imagine no more. An ICM poll yesterday gave the Tories a 16-point lead over Labour, their biggest since October 2009, while YouGov put them 12 ahead. The latter showed that 2.7 million people who voted for the opposition in 2015 believe that Theresa May would make a better prime minister than Jeremy Corbyn (she leads among all voters by 52-18).

One might expect these subterranean ratings to reduce Corbyn's chances of victory in the Labour leadership contest. But any effect is likely to be negligible. Corbyn was not elected last summer because members regarded him as best-placed to win a general election (polling showed Andy Burnham ahead on that front) but because his views aligned with theirs on austerity, immigration and foreign policy. Some explicitly stated that they regarded the next election as lost in advance and thought it better to devote themselves to the long-term task of movement building (a sentiment that current polling will only encourage). Their backing for Corbyn was not conditional on improved performance among the public. The surge in party membership from 200,000 last year to 515,000 is far more worthy of note. 

To the extent to which electoral considerations influence their judgement, Corbyn's supporters do not blame the Labour leader for his party's parlous position. He inherited an outfit that had lost two general elections, neither on a hard-left policy platform. From the start, Corbyn has been opposed by the majority of Labour MPs; the latest polls follow 81 per cent voting no confidence in him. It is this disunity, rather than Corbyn's leadership, that many members regard as the cause of the party's malady. Alongside this, data is cherry picked in order to paint a more rosy picture. It was widely claimed yesterday that Labour was polling level with the Tories until the challenge against Corbyn. In reality, the party has trailed by an average of eight points this year, only matching he Conservatives in a sole Survation survey.

But it is Labour's disunity, rather than Corbyn, that most members hold responsible. MPs contend that division is necessary to ensure the selection of a more electable figure. The problem for them is that members believe they would do little, if any, better. A YouGov poll published on 19 July found that just 8 per cent believed Smith was "likely to lead Labour to victory at the next general election", compared to 24 per cent for Corbyn.

The former shadow work and pensions secretary hopes to eradicate this gap as the campaign progresses. He has made the claim that he combines Corbyn's radicalism with superior electability his defining offer. But as Burnham's fate showed, being seen as a winner is no guarantee of success. Despite his insistence to the contrary, many fear that Smith would too willingly trade principle for power. As YouGov's Marcus Roberts told me: "One of the big reasons candidates like Tessa Jowell and Andy Burnham struggled last summer was that they put too much emphasis on winning. When you say 'winning' to the PLP they think of landslides. But when you say 'winning' to today's membership they often think it implies some kind of moral compromise." When Corbyn supporters hear the words "Labour government" many think first of the Iraq war, top-up fees and privatisation, rather than the minimum wage, tax credits and public sector investment.

It was the overwhelming desire for a break with the politics of New Labour that delivered Corbyn victory. It is the fear of its return that ensures his survival. The hitherto low-profile Smith was swiftly framed by his opponents as a Big Pharma lobbyist (he was formerly Pfizer's head of policy) and an NHS privatiser (he suggested in 2006 that firms could provide “valuable services”). His decision to make Trident renewal and patriotism dividing lines with Corbyn are unlikely to help him overcome this disadvantage (though he belatedly unveiled 20 left-wing policies this morning).

Short of Corbyn dramatically reneging on his life-long stances, it is hard to conceive of circumstances in which the current Labour selectorate would turn against him. For this reason, if you want to predict the outcome, the polls are not the place to look.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.