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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.