Ed Balls speaks at the CBI conference in London last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Balls's pitch to business: Labour can save the UK from EU withdrawal

Shadow chancellor's comments suggest mood in the party is hardening against an in/out referendum.

Ed Balls's interview with Progress, in which he says of the Lib Dems: "I’m not going to let them off the hook", is being presented by some as a retreat from his recent comments on Nick Clegg in my NS interview. But a close reading shows nothing has changed: while remaining fiercely critical of the Lib Dems' record in government (as he was last month), Balls is still no longer making Clegg's head the price of any future coalition agreement. As he says: "He made some remarks over Christmas about personalities. I’m not going to get involved in playing personality politics, I have no personal animosity to Nick Clegg."

Rather than Balls's comments on the Lib Dems, it's his remarks on the EU that are most striking. In the course of rejecting the claim that Labour is "anti-business", he says: 

The most pro-business thing about Labour at the moment is that we are the only pro-European party of government. What the Conservatives have done by putting party interest before national interest is deeply dangerous and actually if you sat around with a group of businesspeople and ask 'what are you most worried about?', they’re worried about a Conservative party allowing us to sleepwalk and drift away from Europe. It’s a massively dangerous proposition. Only Labour can save the country from that Conservative anti-Europeanism.

Balls is certainly right that many businesses are far more worried about the threat of EU withdrawal (as a result of the in/out referendum promised by the Tories in 2017) than they are about Labour's proposed energy price freeze or the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. Martin Sorrell recently revealed that he and others had told Cameron that "if he were to drop the referendum he would be a shoo-in". That's almost certainly not the case (as Sorrell appeared to forget, most voters support a referendum) but it shows how desperate businesses are for Britain to remain in the EU. 

That Balls has chosen to point out as much is significant. The shadow chancellor is one of the senior Labour figures who has come closest to promising a referendum, warning in 2013 that "if we allow ourselves either to be the 'status quo party' on Europe, or the 'anti-referendum party' on Europe, then we’ve got a problem...I think we would be pretty stupid to allow ourselves to get into either of those positions". But his latest remarks suggest that he believes the national interest demands that Labour unambiguously commit to EU membership.

This shift in tone reflects a wider hardening of the mood against an in/out referendum. As I revealed last week, Labour will almost certainly avoid promising a public vote in its general election manifesto, with one senior strategist suggesting that the position would likely be identical to that offered at the European elections in May. 

Separately, one shadow cabinet minister told me that Ed Miliband was "instinctively opposed" to a referendum whenever the issue was discussed. This is not least because he recognises that he has a good chance of being in power after the next election and does not want the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by an unpredictable vote. A public decision to leave the EU in 2017, against Miliband's wishes, would badly damage his authority. 

Far from being a clever ruse to enhance the party's standing, a Labour pledge would shift the debate back onto Tory territory and allow Cameron to claim that a "weak" Miliband is dancing to his tune. As the Labour leader himself said when James Wharton's EU referendum bill was being debated in the Commons: "I think what we see today is the Conservative Party talking to itself about Europe when actually what they should be doing is talking to the country about the most important issue that people are facing, which is the cost of living crisis. That’s what Labour’s talking about; that’s the right priority for the country." 

Balls's comments are further evidence that Labour will hold this line through the general election campaign. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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