Ed Balls received a mixed reaction to his pro-EU speech. Photo: Getty
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Ed Balls: "EU exit is the biggest risk to our economy in the next decade"

The shadow chancellor is forthright in his pro-EU membership stance, but how do British businesses feel about this?

I fear that Britain walking out of the EU is the biggest risk to our economy in the next decade. EU exit risks British jobs, trade and investment and the future prosperity of the UK. That is the message I hear from businesses across the country week in week out.

This was Ed Balls’ message in his speech to the BCC (British Chambers of Commerce) conference today.

His firm stance against an EU referendum came in spite of calls from John Longworth – director general of the organisation that represents 92,000 businesses of all sizes across the country – to bring an EU referendum forward to 2016.

Longworth’s urge for government to call the Tories’ promised 2017 referendum a year early is a blow to Labour during a period when it is being attacked from all sides for being anti-enterprise. Its refusal to promise an EU referendum is its key trump card when appealing to British businesses.

To have high-profile business leaders backing an EU referendum – albeit an early one – undermines its unique selling point as the only main party to stand against a vote on our EU membership.

Yet Balls today stood firm in his stance, insisting “we shouldn’t flirt with an exit”, and warning against “setting an arbitrary timetable for a quick referendum”.

He cautioned that, “businesses are deferring and delaying big decisions because of these uncertainties [caused by the prospect of an EU referendum]”, when questioned about the lack of a drop in inward investment since David Cameron promised a referendum. During the Q+A following his speech, he added, “the threat of leaving the EU is the biggest risk” to jobs and investment in Britain this decade.

His announcements provoked a mixed reaction in the audience of business leaders and representatives.

“There was nothing new,” one medium business employer tells me. “We’ve seen it all before, it’s pretty much the same as everything we’ve heard from him before.”

His colleague adds, “It’s all about uncertainty. Without promising a referendum there is still uncertainty, so it’s still uncertain whether they’ll have one or not.”

A group of businesspeople running a small enterprise in the north of England praise the priority Balls is giving to apprenticeships, but are unsure whether his stance against an EU referendum is constructive:

 “You shouldn’t have a referendum if you’re fearful that we’ll be voted out, but I think the English public will vote to stay in. It will be like Scotland; Joe Public will value being part of the EU, you’ve got to trust the public.”

Yet his colleague adds, “I think we need a longer-term view, I think it’s too quick to say let’s call a vote, stay in, sort it out – it’s far too quick.”

One man who runs a small accountancy practice in London is cautiously optimistic about Balls’ commitment to the EU, though is critical of Labour’s communication of this message:

“The dedication to Europe is important. Our clients all have to have Britain in the EU; it would be suicidal for small businesses for agreeing to leave the EU. It’s the only way people will invest.

“Balls’ comments on Europe were good, but not very concrete. His speech wasn’t particularly inspiration, he trotted out a few mediocre well-worn lines, we’ve heard a few of them before. So the support for Europe is there, but they’re not in power, and it’s early days.”

A couple of policy advisers to a big UK firm tell me, “Balls’ message seemed OK, but it’s exactly what you’d expect to hear from him. We have mixed views in our company in that if you call a referendum there is a risk it might go the wrong way, particularly when the newspapers start picking up all the nonsense. Ultimately it’s probably the best approach to oppose a referendum.”

The overriding atmosphere seems to be respect for the shadow chancellor sticking to his opposition to an EU referendum, but an insistence that he conveys that message in a fresh, passionate way, in order to cut through to the public.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.