Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who's who on Team Balls

The men and women behind the shadow chancellor. 

In tomorrow's New Statesman, I profile Ed Balls, one of the biggest beasts of British politics. But who are the men and women behind the shadow chancellor? Balls's loyal and respected team have never been profiled before; here, they are. 

Gary Follis, Chief of Staff

A former Labour Lambeth councillor and special adviser to Gordon Brown's chief whip Nick Brown, Follis has wide experience having worked as head of policy and public affairs at Nationwide and in the equivalent role at Alliance and Leicester for four years. Earlier in his career, he cut his teeth as European and political officer at Amicus (now Unite). 

Follis, who joined Balls in 2012, is well-known in Westminster, so much so that he was mistakenly canvassed by an aspiring Labour MP during the shadow cabinet elections in 2010. His role includes high-level business liaison with chief executives and chairmen. 

Alex Belardinelli, Head of Communications

Belardinelli has now been at Balls's side for nearly a decade. Well-regarded by the Westminster lobby for his straight manner and work ethic, he is also "liked and respected" by Ed Miliband in the words of one Labour adviser. As well as handling day-to-day relations with the media, Belardinelli works on long-term strategy and all of Balls's major interventions. He attends the daily morning meeting with senior party staff and Miliband's chief aides. "The truth is if you want to get something done by Ed [Balls] you need to get him on board first," a source told me. 

He has been nicknamed "Benelli" by some journalists after losing the "lard" by shedding three stone last year. He recently became engaged to Ellie Gellard (also known as BevaniteEllie), who works as head of communications for the charity 4Children. Belardinelli is distinct among special advisers as a prolific tweeter, using the site to promote policy announcements and favourable stories as well as for rapid rebuttal. 

Before joining Balls during his time as a Treasury minister in 2006, he worked as press and parliamentary officer for the Child Poverty Action Group, press officer for Labour MEP Michael Cashman and national campaigns and membership office for Labour Students. 

Karim Palant, Head of Policy

Palant is the man responsible for ensuring the "iron discipline" pledged by Balls. No policy or spending commitment passes without his approval. The former Labour Students chair, who has worked for Balls since 2010, first came to his attention as Labour's education policy officer during his time as schools secretary.

As well as working closely with the leader's office on policy development and liaising with business, Palant is the author of most of the shadow chancellor's one-liners. When Balls was recently called a "clicky-wristed snidey cunt" by Russell Brand, it was Palant who devised the riposte that Brand was "a pound shop Ben Elton". He has known Belardinelli for 15 years since their time together in Labour Students. 

Stephanie Driver, Head of Events

Driver, who accompanied Balls on the day I spent with him in Cardiff, recently joined the team after the long-serving Balshen Izzet became chief executive of Action for Stammering Children (the charity on behalf of whom the shadow chancellor ran three London marathons). She previously served as Labour's south west regional press officer and has also worked at party HQ and for Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle.

She is responsible for organising Balls's many constituency visits ("his diary is always filled to the nth degree," a shadow cabinet minister told me) and has already visited 40 key seats with him since the start of the year. Well-liked at party HQ and in the regions, Driver will be on the road with Balls every day of the short campaign. 

Jon Newton, Senior Parliamentary Researcher 

Newton ensures Balls is briefed for meetings and is also responsible for IT and managing junior staff and interns. "He fixes everything," one source tells me. Over the years a number of interns - often Leeds University students working in Balls's office as part of their course - have won permanent positions. Newton did several training runs with Balls before last year's London Marathon, finishing an hour and half ahead of him on the day. 

Julie McCandless, Diary Manager

McCandless makes Belardinelli look like a newcomer. She has worked for Balls since he entered the Treasury as chief adviser to Gordon Brown in 1997, first as a civil servant and then as his diary manager after he became schools secretary in 2007. "Without her the whole operation would fall apart," a source told me. 

Balls recently revealed an act of thrift worthy of his zero-based spending review. "On the day I was leaving in 2004 [to stand as an MP], she said to me: 'There's something I've got to tell you. It's difficult, but I'm going to have to tell you this. You know for the last seven years you've had meetings in that office? And you know every day you've had a little tray on it which has got glasses and two bottles of Malvern water? Every morning I'd go down the corridor, fill the bottles up from the tap, screw the caps on and put them on the table. I had to tell you before you went.'" 

"Tap water in a Malvern bottle! If the question is 'is saving money and efficiency core to the being of my office?', the answer is 'it starts with the bottled water'." ]

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In the Commons, Balls is supported by shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie, shadow economic secretary Cathy Jamieson, shadow exchequer secretary Shabana Mahmood,  shadow Treasury minister Catherine McKinnell and his PPS Barbara Keely. 

Another key figure is John Wrathmell, a former Treasury civil servant who advises both Balls and Miliband on economic policy. It was he who crunched the new deficit numbers in last year's Autumn Statement (not published until Balls was on his feet) which were passed into the chamber and allowed the shadow chancellor to reveal that borrowing for the next two years had been revised up by £12.5bn and by £219bn across the parliament compared to Osborne's 2010 programme. 

During our conversation, Balls spoke of the importance of supporting and caring about "the personal and career development of the people you’re working with", something that "neither Tony Blair or Gordon Brown were any good at". Several of those shadow ministers who have worked for him have gone on to bigger jobs. Rachel Reeves was promoted to shadow work and pensions secretary after serving as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and Owen Smith was a junior member of his team before becoming shadow Welsh secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation