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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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